Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to boldly go where no latenight host has gone before.
When the astrophysicist and “Cosmos” host takes to the National Geographic Channel on Monday night to launch TV’s latest ’round-midnight entry, “StarTalk,” he will do so without a monologue or a set of humorous skits poised to go viral across the digisphere. All he will have at his disposal is his vast store of knowledge about the realm of science, his inner geek, a few guests and a tie festooned with the trappings of distant galaxies.
NBC has Jimmy Fallon. ABC has Jimmy Kimmel. CBS will soon have Stephen Colbert. Starting Monday at 11 p.m., National Geographic will, for 10 episodes, have Tyson, who could bring with him a new wrinkle to TV’s latenight wars.
No one pretends the director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium will draw the numbers of his broadcast-network counterparts with the network’s first latenight effort, but he could be a pioneer in another wave of fragmentation for one of TV’s most idiosyncratic dayparts. Indeed, National Geographic announced this week that it had given the nod to a second season of the weekly program, before a single episode has even aired.
“Our view of latenight will be dictated by who we find has a reception to this,” said Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production for National Geographic Channel, in a recent interview. “We always want to gauge where we can land a flagpole. This is our first expedition, and we are curious to see how it really turns out for us.”
Ever since NBC passed on David Letterman as a successor for Johnny Carson and its “Tonight Show,” TV’s wee-hours playground has slowly splintered — first splitting in two between Letterman on CBS and Jay Leno on NBC, and then into two handfuls of programs that play across cable and multiple timeslots before and after 12 a.m. Rather than being daunted, a bevy of cable networks have continued to launch variations on the theme that range from “after shows” to programs tailored to a particular niche, rather than the world at large. NBCUniversal’s USA recently announced it would launch a latenight program featuring Todd Chrisley from its “Chrisley Knows Best” reality series.
Tyson’s program won’t nod to the gossip of the day or offer tidbits about other programs on Nat Geo. Instead, he suggested in an interview, he will illuminate viewers on esoteric topics: “Maybe, you know, before you go to bed, you learn a few things and your dreams are a little bit different, and you contemplate your relationship to the universe in a fresh way,” he mused.
The format for most episodes emulates the one “StarTalk” has followed for the past five years in podcast and radio-show form. Tyson is joined by a comedian co-host and, well, the universe is theirs. On Nat Geo, the scientist and his assemblage will add context and comment to various taped interviews Tyson conducts.
Among the guests scheduled for the show’s first run are George Takei, who played Sulu on “Star Trek”; “Batman” and “Interstellar” director Christopher Nolan; producer Norman Lear; biologist Richard Dawkins; retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield; and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Bill Nye the Science Guy appears in weekly commentary segments.
“My guest is typically someone from popular culture, and someone the fanbase will follow no matter where they go,” Tyson explained. “They will follow them to a conversation about science and technology and in celebration of being a geek.”
In the debut episode slated to air April 20, Takei talks “Star Trek,” but also about a childhood spent in a U.S. internment camps for Japanese during World War II. The conversation among Tyson and his guests, meanwhile, moved from a recitation of the opening of “Star Trek” (“Space…the final frontier…”) to a discussion of how the U.S.S. Enterprise actually moved through space – and what it might be like to emulate it by using a “wormhole” to move from gate to gate at an airport.
Tyson has experience trying to make the esoteric plain. He recently hosted a revival of the popular PBS series “Cosmos” that aired on both Fox and National Geographic outlets around the world. During that process, Nat Geo executives approached him about doing something else, but Tyson said he was so involved in “Cosmos” that he hesitated for a moment.
“I don’t have TV ambitions. I hosted ‘Cosmos’ almost as a duty and as a service to the public’s appetite of the universe,” he noted. “It’s an important legacy franchise.” When the network offered to explore the idea of expanding the radio program to TV, he came on board.
Tyson vowed to seek the inner nerd in even the most buttoned-down guests. He recalled pressing a physicist on the radio version of the show on how the DC Comics superhero character the Flash might travel. When interviewing President Carter, he said: “I didn’t ask him about most things you would ever ask him about. I wanted to see if he was still a card-carrying geek.”
Don’t tune in to “Star Talk” looking for an opening monologue, but for opening your horizons. “We have fundamental elements you have all come to know in a talk show. We have popular culture. We have comedy. We have irreverent banter. We just don’t have a band,” Tyson said. “The added feature is you’re going to learn something over that hour. If you don’t learn something, I’ve failed.”