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Neil deGrasse Tyson films an episode of StarTalk.
Neil deGrasse Tyson films an episode of StarTalk.
NG Studios/Katy Andres

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"The universe is a hilarious place": Neil deGrasse Tyson on what he learns from comedians

The beloved scientist tells us about fact-checking movies on Twitter, his new level of fame, and why he likes Jeff Foxworthy.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Neil deGrasse Tyson loves to chat. Sure, he's best known for his work in science, particularly his chosen field of astrophysics, but he'll talk at length about anything he's interested in. When I hop on the phone with him, ostensibly to talk about the new season of his TV show, we end up talking for almost double our allotted time: about everything from how fame has impacted his life to his favorite standup comedians (who include, somewhat surprisingly, Jeff Foxworthy, for reasons I found hugely convincing).

When you interview as many people as I do, you can always tell when they're thinking on their feet, stalling for time, or just deflecting because they either don't have a good answer or don't want to give one. There's little of that with Tyson. There are a few times when he has to think, but he generally fills the pauses with such interesting riffs on the topic at hand that it's easy to chase that tangent down another trail entirely.

Thus, it makes sense that he, himself, would make a good interviewer and a good talk show host. The first season of his National Geographic Channel series StarTalk (dubbed the first science-based talk show in TV history) successfully took the show from radio and podcast form and made it fun, low-key TV.

It focuses on science, but the guests include comedians and celebrities, to keep things light and entertaining. And at the center of it all is Tyson, who's great at alternating between talking about the science and making room for jokes.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On finding fame: "I am not the object of their interest. The universe is."

Todd VanDerWerff

If people are going to have a scientist on their show it's usually either you or Bill Nye. So when people recognize you on the street now, how has that changed your life?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

The sentence, "Now that people recognize you on the street, how is that?" doesn't apply, because it's been a slow growth over the past 20 years. Twenty years ago I was recognized maybe two or three times a month, and then 19 years ago it was one or two times a week, and 15 years ago it was five times a week. Major projects like Cosmos, it took a little uptick, but not as big an uptick as you might think. At the time Cosmos aired, I went from maybe 20 people a day to 40 a day. Okay, it doubled, but it was already 20 a day.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and a microphone
Neil deGrasse Tyson films an episode of StarTalk.
NG Studios/Katy Andres

If I put on sunglasses, that drops it by 20 percent — not nearly enough. I put on a hat, it drops it by 50 percent. I keep my head down, drops it by 80 percent. If I don't talk at all and no one hears me, because apparently people recognize my voice, okay. It's basically every day, many, many times a day.

But I'm responsible for this. It's not like someone forced me into this, so I can't say, "Leave me alone. Leave me in peace." I did this. I'm accountable here. While many will come to want to take a selfie, maybe half will say, "Tell me more about black holes," or, "Is there life in the universe?" I realize that I am not the object of their interest. The universe is, and I'm a conduit for them to reach it. There's no greater compliment to an educator than for a person's curiosity to be stimulated.

It's different, I think, from a pure celebrity moment where you go up to your favorite actor. What is the conversation you're going to have with your favorite actor? Are you going to ask, "What are your thoughts on the election?" You're going to say, "Oh I enjoyed you in that movie, did you enjoy making it?" It's hard to, out of the box, jump-start a deep conversation with a celebrity.

Whereas the people who know me, know me because of science. Science is the target, not me. We can have a conversation about science. As a result, my reaction is not that I'm being hounded by people. It's that there are these millions of students out there who see me in the street as the extended office hours of whatever I began with them when they started watching Cosmos.

Todd VanDerWerff

People also know you for fact-checking sci-fi movies on Twitter. Those tweets make it obvious you greatly enjoy science fiction. What do you think the genre gives to its fans?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Is there any other genre that imagines the future as thoroughly as good science fiction writers do? I don't think so.

Find me a country without science fiction, and that will be the country where no one is talking about a tomorrow. No one is thinking about a new way to live, a new way to improve their lives. I think they go together — imagining a future that you either want to occupy or one that you don't want to occupy. Part of the job of the visionary is to show you what not to have, what we should avoid, as well as what we should strive for. I think science fiction owns that place in our hearts and minds.

By the way, my fact-checking on Twitter, some people get annoyed by it, and I think I'm misunderstood. I fact-check movies because I love the movie. If I didn't like the movie I would not even spend that much brain energy analyzing it. So when I came out with comments about science the movie Gravity got wrong, people assumed that I didn't like the movie.

I'm intrigued by this because I think everyone [has been] trained that when an expert speaks, they're handing you their opinion, and expect you to have their opinion. I hardly ever post my opinions of things, unless it explicitly says, "I think this." If I'm commenting on where science got [portrayed] wrong, it's not opinion; it's information for you to more deeply see how the movie is working or not working.

To people who say, "It's just a movie, relax," I say: Suppose you were watching a Jane Austen period piece, and someone gets out of a horse-drawn carriage and enters a big mansion and they're wearing tie-dyed bell bottoms. You would cry foul. It would take you out of the moment and possibly even ruin the movie for you.

You didn't watch Alexander and see anyone with a digital wristwatch. So why would you allow people to criticize movies in those ways, but not allow a scientist to comment on the science [the film] could have gotten right but didn't? I claim an uneven playing field in that regard. I'm not doing anything different from what anyone else is doing.

On bringing StarTalk to TV: "Personally, I think the universe is a hilarious place"

Larry Wilmore and Neil deGrasse Tyson
Larry Wilmore guests on the Sunday, November 1, episode of StarTalk.
NG Studios/Katy Andres

Todd VanDerWerff

Making a talk show about science sounds like a daunting task. How did you approach that question?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

There's two prongs to that. The first is that this began five years ago as a radio show and continues as one today. Right now it's on SiriusXM. We do 50 of them a year. That's the genetic map of what became the TV show.

Our thinking was, is there a way that science can be made commercially successful? It's not that science didn't make it to the radio; it's that it was in the public radio sector of the dial.

My two fellow executive producers and creators and I thought we could flavor it in a different way, include a standup comedian for example, and not have the guests themselves necessarily be scientists. I'll find out all the ways that science has affected that person's livelihood. If you're a fan of that person and you follow them wherever they go, you will then hear your person talk about science.

We divide people into three categories: the people who know they like science, those who don't know that they like science, and especially those who know they don't like science. StarTalk was designed to serve those second two categories. The celebrity guest as well as the comedian serve that role. Without the comedian, without the celebrity guest, it's a different kind of show.

Todd VanDerWerff

What have you learned in working with standup comedians that you've taken into your own speaking gigs?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

If I didn't draw from the tools and tactics of standup comedians, I don't think I could fill venues. I see how they interact with the public. I see what kinds of content they draw upon, when they choose to say something that's funny versus serious, and I fold that into my delivery.

Personally, I think the universe is a hilarious place, so what I get from comedians are things like timing and how we know that one word is funnier than another word. It could be simple things like, does the word rhyme with some other word you just used, or little things that I see them invoke in their craft.

At a minimum, for example, the host might say, "Would you like a lavalier mic?" [a small microphone usually clipped to one's clothing] and I say, "No, I want a handheld mic." Have you ever offered a lavalier mic to a standup comedian? No, they want the handheld mic. The handheld mic is a prop, it's a tool, it's a device. Your imagination can make it something in the moment.

On his inspirations: "I miss Eddie Murphy onstage. I still sorely miss Mitch Hedberg."

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson addresses the audience during a StarTalk filming session.
NG Studios/Katy Andres

Todd VanDerWerff

Who are some of your favorite comedians?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bill Burr. I've enjoyed some of the stuff he's done lately. He's like your everyman comic. There's a certain camaraderie that he establishes with an audience that not all comedians will successfully convey.

I would never have predicted how successful the Blue Collar Comedy Tour would ever be or become. My first exposure to that was Jeff Foxworthy. How do you make a joke about someone who lives in a trailer park in front of someone who lives in a trailer park? He manages to do it and does it successfully. There's a whole industry now around that kind of humor. To do that humor without it being nasty or racist or anything, that took some work, and that took some thinking and some finessing.

I miss Eddie Murphy onstage. I still sorely miss Mitch Hedberg. I love his style of humor. He died too early. I'm still warming up to Amy Schumer. I still have to figure out where she's coming from and how she's making that work, but I think her show and her sketch comedy has been highly perceptive and insightful on social and cultural mores. And I've always liked Wanda Sykes. I like it when she complains about stuff.

Todd VanDerWerff

When you look at being a great interviewer, who are some radio and TV hosts you've drawn inspiration from?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

It's an amalgam of many. I like comedy. I follow standup comedians, and my co-host is always a professional standup comedian. All the great late-night talk show hosts are, themselves, comedians, Jay Leno and Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon. All these people make you laugh at stuff that might otherwise have made you cry.

If I'm going to have fun with science, I'm going to make sure I have a scientifically literate comedian sitting right next to me. They will provide a level of levity to the conversation, but in addition, depending on what content arises from the main interview, I will have an in-studio guest who's typically an academic expert on that topic.

My guest might be an actor who describes how they loved working in front of a green screen, so maybe my in-studio guest is a computer programmer specializing in scientific visualization or green-screen visualization. Then we look under the hood of this machine and see what's driving it. [The scientist] provides a sort of valve of gravitas, and the comedian is a levity valve. I'm in control of those valves as host, and I dial them up or down, depending on what the moment requires.

Todd VanDerWerff

Were there any of your celebrity guests who surprised you with their interest in science?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

David Crosby. I forgot what city this was in, but I'm there to give a talk. The night before I got there, David Crosby had performed. He saw them changing the marquee out front, saw my name, and left a note in my room saying, "I'm a big fan of your work. Next time we're in the same city again, let's have a drink and talk about the universe."

It's like, holy shit. I'm thinking, Wow! This is David Crosby! I knew that he'd be a prime candidate for StarTalk. I had him as a guest, and that's where I learned his geek underbelly. The geek in him you'd never know was in him. He started life as an avid, enthusiastic fan of science fiction before he ever penned a musical note.

It's those kinds of revelations in people who are iconic in our culture for different reasons. Here's the geek side of them that I don't think would ever have an occasion to show up in anybody else's interview.

StarTalk airs Sundays at 11 pm Eastern on the National Geographic Channel.


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