Science, Comedy, and Pop Culture: A Winning Formula for a Late Night Talk Show?

The NGC 4102 spiral galaxy, spied through the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image: ESA/Hubble, NASA and S. Smartt, Queen's University Belfast)

The NGC 4102 spiral galaxy, spied through the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image: ESA/Hubble, NASA and S. Smartt, Queen’s University Belfast)

The StarTalk podcast is a unique blend of entertainment: part comedy, part science, part pop culture homage. At its center is astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson – host of the re-booted Cosmos – and an eclectic array of guests, who have philosophized and quipped their way to #24 on the iTunes podcast chart.

But one medium isn’t enough to contain StarTalk, and in April, Tyson will make his debut as host of an eponymous late night talk show, broadcast on the National Geographic Channel.

It’s not necessarily an obvious choice: the show has the feel of a front porch discussion amongst friends, with none of the musical numbers or produced segments of traditional late-night shows. But Tyson wouldn’t have it any other way: “I want it to still have the soul of the podcast radio show,” he says. “I don’t want to behave different than I have for the show.”

In some ways, the bar for a viable TV show isn’t particularly high, he admits, citing programs that merely broadcast radio hosts, headphoned and cloistered in a soundproof booth, doing their thing. “And that’s successful television apparently,” notes Tyson. “We can do at least that well! If all you did was park the camera and we didn’t look up, I think we can compete with that.”

False modesty notwithstanding, StarTalk does occupy an intriguing – and growing – niche in the science entertainment landscape, where scientists bring an analytical sensibility and culturally aware panache to the curious masses. Brian Cox, a British physicist, anchors a similar show for the BBC, where comedians and scientists gather to discuss a range of topics. Other podcasts, like the Naked Scientists or Talk Nerdy , mix scientific findings with more meandering discussions of the scientific world view.

But Tyson explains that his inspiration for StarTalk came from a different genre altogether. “We were thinking of shows like Car Talk,” he says, “where there are just some guys hanging out, and you learn something every episode.” And while the show occasionally gets emails from disgruntled scientists wanting more rigorous substance, Tyson is very conscious of the audience he hopes to engage with StarTalk. There are plenty of websites, books, and scientific journals out there for listeners seeking deeper scientific engagement; Tyson is hoping to expand the ranks of people who would track such resources down.

Filmed in the “Hall of the Universe” within the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the late night show will have a live audience, and will incorporate questions via social media. Early bookings include filmmaker Christopher Nolan, actor and author George Takei, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and TV writer and producer Norman Lear.

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