Here's a clip from episode one:
Unlike most science-based programming, the viewers won't be presented with an expert who tells them what's what. They'll see a beloved actor (the first episode features George Takei of Star Trek fame) or musicians talking about what aspects of science are important in their lives. In Tyson's reboot of "Cosmos," a show originally helmed by the late, great astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the host presents scientific fact as inherently interesting. In "StarTalk," he sneaks them in by getting popular figures to geek out with him.
But Tyson, who started "StarTalk" with a grant from the National Science Foundation, didn't know that his show would eventually jump species. To hear Tyson describe it, he never wanted to be on TV in the first place, and certainly wasn't looking to add a second show to his schedule.
"I never had TV ambitions, really, despite what it may have looked like," he said. "The radio show was different, I could do that in my pajamas. As an academic, this grooming thing. ... I'm not really about that."
But "Cosmos," which was produced by Fox and then distributed worldwide by National Geographic, was so successful that Nat Geo came back looking for more.
So why not just film his radio show, Tyson asked? It works for Howard Stern. But the channel wanted something with a little more glitz, and Tyson made his final pitch: Film it as a talk show with a live audience in the beautiful Rose Center.
"There's no monologue and no band," he said. "But it's a talk show on at 11 p.m. — the heart of the evening talk show universe — and as far as we've been able to research, it's the first talk show focused on science."
In episode one, George Takei — known for playing Sulu on the original "Star Trek" and much beloved by the Internet for his passionate activism and sense of humor — discusses the show's bright vision for the future with Tyson. It's not quite like anything else on television: It maintains the intimate feel of the original radio show, and it really does feel like you're just watching a fun, casual conversation about science. Future guests include former president Jimmy Carter, who will discuss how his background as an engineer informed policy decisions, and director Christopher Nolan, who'll talk about the science of his films. It's a great hour of TV, and frequently funny (Tyson always features a comedian as his co-host to lighten up the mood), but can a casual science chat really attract late-night viewers in this post-cable world?
After all, science TV for adults was basically nonexistent between Carl Sagan's original "Cosmos" and Tyson's reboot. And "Cosmos" was a different proposition: It's a show for the whole family, and it airs on Sunday evenings when people are bound to be home and channel surfing. The new show is generally safe for younger audiences, but it goes straight for grown-up tastes — and is a bit later than standard channel surfing hours. People will have to seek it out.
If National Geographic is concerned about that, the network isn't showing it. They've already ordered a second season of 10 episodes, and representatives from the network expressed hope that Tyson's massive fan base will flock to the program. Tyson seems confident that they will.
"We had a fascinating phoner with Nat Geo staff where we described things we’ve done over the years," Tyson said. "So one of these points came up, and Nat Geo said, oh, that wouldn't work for our viewing demographic. I said, excuse me, excuse me, we are bringing our demographic to you! That shut them up on the spot."
The show will serve people who already love National Geographic programming for sure, Tyson said, but the interwoven tapestry of science, humor, and pop culture icons will bring in new viewers, too.
"If you tune into National Geographic you like learning, and you're there because it’s a fun place to learn," Tyson said. "But suppose you don’t know you like learning, or think you hate it. 'StarTalk' serves you in a big way."
And the hunger for science programming never went away, Tyson exists. Only the programming disappeared.
Bill Nye, Tyson's close friend and a fellow regular on the show whose pre-recorded comedic bits may just prove to be the highlight of the series, agrees.
"It’s the same hunger that was extant when Sagan did the original 'Cosmos,' " Nye said. "People are interested in our place in space."
Nye also admitted (after a gentle prodding) that his own show — which catered to children from 1993 to 1998 — may be bearing fruit in the form of science-hungry adults, opening the door for new shows.
"Sure, sure, it's all me," he joked. "But it's true that 'The Science Guy' is still huge — bigger than ever, I guess — because these millennials are all grown up, and we have a whole new generation of kids watching the show in school. This of course was my goal, to change the world and so on, but to see it actually happen is a bit spooky," he said.
Nye and Tyson may share a throne as the reigning kings of popular science, but this is where they differ: Nye makes no secret of his mission to use science literacy to change the status quo, and he envisions a world where Americans can band together over issues like climate change the way they once banded together for war efforts. Tyson doesn't feel like he's on a mission. He's just giving people what they want before they know they want it.
"My Twitter stream is rising past 3.5 million followers," Tyson said. "That number has to be bigger than the total number of pure geeks out there. It's attracting people with an inner, unmanifested kind of geekiness."
Once these people have access to science they can appreciate, he thinks good things will follow.
"People have always had an appetite for science," he said. "But the way it's been taught — where facts are poured into students heads and it's called science — where's the joy of discovery there? The science has been eviscerated of the curiosity, the stimulation of your curiosity that we take for granted as children."
"A scientist is someone who simply never grew up," Tyson said. "They've maintained their childlike wonder of the unknown. And we all have that within us."
"StarTalk" premiers April 20 on National Geographic at 11 p.m. Eastern.