Neil deGrasse Tyson on the set of StarTalk.
On a recent Wednesday night, Neil deGrasse Tyson — director of the Hayden Planetarium, advocate for the sciences, sci-fi fact-checker, and seemingly the only person with as many hours in the day as Beyoncé and Lin-Manuel Miranda — was hard at work at his other other job: hosting StarTalk, the Emmy-nominated National Geographic chat show that returned for its third season September 19. Fortunately for Tyson, the commute between his workplaces is negligible. StarTalk shoots in the planetarium’s atrium, a short elevator ride from his office, which is also where most of the show’s pretaped interviews take place. When you’re one of America’s last public intellectuals, these are the perks.
The format of StarTalk, which began life as a radio show and is now also a podcast and a book, sees Tyson discussing the week’s topic with a celebrity guest, and then discussing that discussion with two other guests, one comedian and one expert. On this particular night Tyson and his panelists were exploring the science of Game of Thrones, but TV being TV, things weren’t moving as quickly as planned. The hectic nature of television sets can make it hard for an outsider to discern the exact cause of any given holdup, but at one point, Tyson had to redo the show’s intro because the studio audience had clapped too loudly. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had to tell anyone to turn it down,” a crew member cheerfully informed them. (At another point, a camera crane bumped into one of the fake satellite dishes set up in the atrium, but it was only a little bump.)
Onscreen Tyson is a charming, avuncular presence, and he brought the full force of his charisma to bear on the audience in the lengthy gaps between takes. He explained that, because the crew needed consistent lighting, filming couldn’t begin until the sun set, making summer shoots late nights for everyone. He explained how his cameos in Ice Age: Collision Course and Zoolander 2 came to be. He joked about astrology, then explained that the two brightest stars in Libra, Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi, have names derived from Arabic. He explained his tie. “It’s a half-Windsor, which is not a symmetric knot,” he said. “If all of life was symmetric, it would be …” he paused, searching for the right word. Then he found it: “absent the interest that asymmetry brings.”
Those on set listening in on headphones could hear the guests talking quietly between segments. “The worst thing that can happen is that it’s terrible,” the week’s comedian jokingly assured the female science writer sitting to his left before the show began. His teasing wasn’t off base: Near the end of the show, Tyson talked to a historian over Skype, only for the audio to drop out at the most hilariously inopportune moments: The most important thing to remember … and that’s why … so you can see. … Tyson was unfazed, and, miraculously, able to conduct the interview without missing a beat. Afterward, the audience asked if the interview was salvageable. Of course, he said, the production had backup audio running just in case. But how could he do an interview if he couldn’t hear what the other person was saying? Oh, no big deal — he was just reading the guy’s lips. We looked at him like he was a magician.
In Tyson’s office a few days later, he explained that he thinks of the guests on StarTalk as “valves,” one for comedy, one for knowledge. If the pressure is properly maintained, the show will reach an equilibrium, what he calls a “consistent level of entertainment, insights, enlightenment, and learning.” On set that night, Tyson opened the knowledge valve by discussing the potential origin of the world’s dragon myths, the real-life inspiration for wildfire, and the odds of dying in the Middle Ages. He opened the comedy valve by letting the comedian mock him for saying “The Game of Thrones,” and showing the audience the “knowledge is coming” meme. There are times, watching StarTalk, when the show brings to mind one of those graphs from math class where a curve get closer and closer to approaching a line, but never touches it. Just when it seems like we’re getting somewhere really interesting, there’s always a joke, a callback, a meme. Tyson is a hearty laugher, and for all his other skills, he hasn’t mastered the task of steering a discussion back on track after a punch line. (This effect is heightened when, as on that night, the people interrupting with jokes are men, and the person being interrupted is a woman.)
Still, there are sensory pleasures to be found. Like another famous New Yorker, the timbre of Tyson’s voice is as important to the show as the content. He’s got a smooth baritone purr, like a bear that’s just stolen a sip of expensive Scotch, and it makes listeners more readily accepting of the wave of science facts crashing over them. In his office, Tyson disputed the suggestion that his voice is somehow exceptional — “I don’t believe I have a unique voice; to me, Gilbert Gottfried has a unique voice” — but did reveal what might be called its origin story. In the ‘80s, he was forced to shout over a loud air conditioner while leading a literal star talk on a Texas roof, an experience that left him unable to speak for more than 15 minutes at a time. In the mid-’90s, he began voice therapy that taught him how to project from his chest, not his throat. “After I did that, I could then speak for longer periods of time,” he said. “But as a consequence, my voice got a little more resonant. Right now if you put your hand on my chest, you’ll feel it vibrate as I make sounds. Maybe there are some tonalities in my voice that people pick up because of this resonant chest cavity, the same way everyone sings awesomely in the shower.”
The Game of Thrones episode ended with Tyson giving a moving soliloquy about the curse of presentism: If many aspects of medieval life look barbarous to us today, he said, it’s worth thinking about what aspects of today’s world will seem barbarous to future civilizations. After hours of banter, it was an impressive reminder of Tyson’s oratorical gifts; with a different set of interests, he would have made a great Falstaff. “I did it once last season because I had something to say, and the producers said, ‘Oh we love it, can you do one of those every single time?’” he recalled later. “I speak because I feel something. Not because I can summon it on command. But I said, ‘Alright, I’ll try,’ and as the session unfolds, I’m thinking, I’m assembling points I might hit, and then I reflect upon it at the end.” He was eager to dispel a fan’s recent assumption that someone else had written his monologue for him. “I take that as a simultaneous compliment and insult,” he said. “They liked it so much that maybe, in their head, I couldn’t have possibly written it.”