Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Startalk

Posted by Maximum Fun on 4th July 2011

Vital stats:
Format: comedic-scientific interviews within scientific-comedic studio banter
Episode duration: 47m
Frequency: 2-4 per month

I’ve somehow heard Neil deGrasse Tyson’s name pop up for years without directly experiencing any of his media projects. In addition to directing the Hayden Planetarium (a planetarium I have certainly heard of) and doing research at the American Museum of Natural History, he hosts a newsy version of PBS’ NOVA (so that is still running!), turns up on numerous talk shows, does a lot of public speaking, says things about atheism and wine, and helms Startalk [iTunes].

Not until I knew about the wine thing did I start paying attention to Tyson’s doings. Here we have a celebrated astrophysicist, a man who can educate us about the secrets of the cosmos, and only his oenophilia turns my head? Back on the playground, I did find myself the only kid who looked up to the stars and failed to feel raptures of wonder. At all my friends who couldn’t stop yammering about space colonies and terraforming and lunar probes, I looked askance; “But guys,” I kept insisting, “all the video games are down here. (As, later, were the girls.) Needless to say, I never really pursued astronomy in school, let alone astrophysics, so I can benefit from exposure to the enthusiasm of someone who did.

You might expect Startalk to operate under an all-astronomy-all-the-time mandate, but no; its selection of topics swerves all around the scientific map, from pursuits highly related to outer space to pursuits that present… more of a reach. Of course Tyson and his guests talk about what astronauts eat [MP3], the Mars Exploration Rover [MP3, and even the aesthetic design of shows like Star Trek [MP3], but they also get around to human self-destruction [MP3], the heart [MP3] — and, yes, wine [MP3].

And Startalk knows you like talk; that’s why they put talk in their talk, so you can hear talk while you hear talk. On most episodes, Tyson not only interviews an expert about the subject of the day — an architect, an astronaut currently on the International Space Station, John Hodgman — but simultaneously talks about the interview with a comedic co-host or two. So you hear a few minutes of Tyson with Jon Stewart or Joan Rivers or Bill Nye or whomever, then you hear a few minutes of commentary back in the studio from Tyson and a comedic scientist or Tyson and a scientific comedian. As a hybrid of the interview and the two-hosts-bantering format, it works surprisingly well.

Much of the pulling-off of this trick owes to Tyson’s personality, which he must have spent all these years honing into advanced media-versatility. Not to say he’s bland — he isn’t — but he seems able to move smoothly between the worlds of science and comedy without sacrificing one to the other, kind of like Elvis Mitchell of The Treatment can move between film and other types of popular culture (which, in fact, I’d like to hear him do that more often!). The similarities between Tyson and Mitchell’s on-air style don’t end there, actually; they also both sometimes extend the last syllables of their sentences for two or three seconds longer than normal. A controversial vocal technique, perhaps, but I’m a big fan.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]