In March 2014, National Geographic Channel, in partnership with FOX, debuted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, its sumptuous reboot of Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking 1980 miniseries, Cosmos. Like the original, its successor — hosted by affable astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson — took home multiple Emmys and renewed viewers’ faith that educational, entertaining family television was still entirely possible.
On April 20, the network premieres StarTalk, its newest partnership with Tyson and NGC’s first foray into the late-night talk-show landscape. Based on his long-running podcast of the same name (selected by iTunes as one of the Top 10 podcasts of 2014), the weekly show, says Tyson, is “a mixture of comedy, science and pop culture — fully blended. My guests are hardly ever scientists. Our goal is to hew them from pop culture … entertainment … sports … and then we orchestrate a conversation around them that constantly detours into science and all the ways that science has influenced that person’s livelihood. In this way, we bring science to people who didn’t know they liked science.”
Star Trek cut-up George Takei serves as Tyson’s first celebrity visitor, talking about how he became part of the iconic series, and the lasting impact of creator Gene Roddenberry’s devotion to science, diversity and social progression. Interstellar cowriter/director Christopher Nolan drops by Tyson’s office the following week to dish on the science in science-fiction storytelling.
Tapped for the top name on his guest-star wish list, Tyson doesn’t miss a beat. “President Obama!” he shouts happily. “Start at the top!”
“I would like StarTalk to be a place where candidates for high office know they can come and get an honest conversation about their views of science — because where else would they do that?” Tyson continues. “There are the newscasts, but they’ll fold it into, ‘What’s your stance on immigration?’ Science is so important to our civilization as we go forward that it cannot be an issue we don’t talk about — in any election.”
Also on his list: Hollywood firebrand Charlie Sheen.
“I had Charlie in my office once before,” Tyson explains. “He was visiting the museum with his kid and he spent 20 minutes asking me questions about the early universe, completely lucid questions. So I thought if I get him on StarTalk — ‘Charlie Sheen asks an astrophysicist!’ — it would be a way that people could see that he can actually be a deep thinker.”
Tyson says his own ease before the camera — he’s a popular guest throughout the entire talk-show galaxy — is a byproduct of doing his homework before his first visit to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart in 2007. Tyson studied everything from how far back in the news cycle Stewart reached for his talking points to how long he gave his guests to speak before he interrupted. “I looked at that window of news cycle, saw how it could possibly blend with my expertise, got the timing down pat and then went on and did the interview. I spend time contemplating the cosmos — the least I could do is analyze Jon Stewart! Afterward, people said, ‘Oh, you’re such a natural!” and I was like, ‘No!’”
Tyson, who serves as director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, says StarTalk is also a fine way to use his own rising star power to bring his own fans back to the subject matter that is his life’s work.
“In the old days, 6 out of 10 people who would come up to me would be, like, ‘Aren’t you Neil Tyson?’ and I would say yes and they would say, ‘Tell me more about that black hole!’ Or ‘Is the sun really going to end that way?’” Tyson explains. “I was not the object of their interest, the content was — and I realized that was the ideal state for an educator to be in. They’re not asking me my favorite color; I’m a servant of their curiosity and they wanted more. Now it’s maybe 10 percent.
“The rest,” he chuckles, “just want a selfie to put on social media.”
StarTalk airs Monday nights at 11/10CT beginning April 20 on National Geographic Channel.
Photos: National Geographic Channel/Scott Gries