Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently wrapped taping on the second season of his Nat Geo talk show Star Talk, and he’s excited about it. He’s got good reason to be: His show was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Information Series or Special, and the second season was picked up before the first episode of the first season aired.
Season 2 of Star Talk boasts some seriously impressive guests, including former President Bill Clinton, Susan Sarandon and David Byrne. PEOPLE sat down to talk with Tyson about the second season and what he’s learned with one season of late-night TV under his belt.
The last time we talked, you were getting ready to record the first episode of the show’s first season. What have you learned about having a televised talk show since then?
I think we’re analyzing every show to see how we can improve, because some of it we’re sort of inventing. What we’re doing has no precedent, but there’s a lot we can learn from other established talk shows. Although I’m still resistant to having a band.
One of the things I noticed at the first recording was how the stop-and-take nature of pre-taped television can put a kink in how you banter with your guests. Was that a difficult transition, moving from a live taping to something that needs to be more tightly edited?
I fully relish live things. I feel an extra level of intensity if it has to be right in that moment. But no, it’s not a problem. I mean, doing Cosmos, you know, we do some scenes five times, six times. Yes, I had to train myself to look perky the sixth time or 12th time. But, professional actors, that’s what they do, doesn’t matter how many takes – make it look like it just came out of your head in that moment.
The guest lineup for this season is amazing. Let’s do a lightning round with each guest: Talk about Bill Clinton.
Not that we’re beer-drinking buddies, but he knows me and my work. And I was delighted to learn how much he reads about science. If he had another kind of life to lead, he might be a scientist. He’s an avid science enthusiast. We took it back into his administration, and he shared with me some of the struggles he had with getting funding for things. It under his watch we lost the super conducting super collider that went to CERN, which discovered the Higgs Boson.
What he said was that they had a bill that was ready to pass and the only sticking point was that super collider. All the other elements of it had bipartisan support. What I wanted to get a little more deeply – and I never got there – was, “At what point do you continue to invest political capital to get something to happen, knowing you might lose it down the line for something else that you might value?” These are the hard decisions that any good politician’s going to have to make.
What a character! He’s the biggest geek in the West. And, he’s also magician. The man is literally a magician. He pulled out a deck of cards, when he was here. I don’t know if it made it into the final edit, but he made something disappear. Then we talked about Star Wars.
She’s quite the political activist. We talked about Let me remember .
Well, I saw that she was at Burning Man recently. Did you guys talk about drugs?
Yes! We talked about drugs! Now how much of that – it still has to get through Nat Geo, but, we are on pretty late, so you’d think they’d let some of that slip in there. She wanted to know whether altered states of consciousness enhance or detract from our appreciation and understanding of the physical universe.
That’s a heavy question. Did you also get into that with David Crosby when he came onto the show?
No, actually, because Susan Sarandon thinks deeply about what roles drugs plays in your consciousness. David Crosby just gets high, I think. I don’t think he’s got a philosophy behind it. [Laughs]
Crosby is a huge science fiction fan, so we talked about that. He read every bit of science fiction he could get his hands on as a kid before he ever wrote a musical note. He also loves Star Trek and the fact that many of these science fiction authors wrote for the show.
We talked about the philosophy of music awareness, the music brain connection, music-brain venue connection.
Right, well, Lansdorp is the guy who is in charge of this massive one-way trip to Mars you’ve heard about. I’m just skeptical of the whole thing, and I told him, “Convince me.”
Well, you’re going to have to watch it to find out. But, three cameras are rolling on him, and he got me halfway. I’m at about 50 percent. I came away thinking, “Well, maybe you actually can pull this off.” Not as fast as he thinks, but maybe.
The second season of Star Talk premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. ET on Nat Geo.