Neil deGrasse Tyson And The Changing Face Of Late Night TV

Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks on stage at the National Geographic Channel 2015 Winter TCA. CREDIT: PHOTO BY RICHARD SHOTWELL/INVISION/AP
Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks on stage at the National Geographic Channel 2015 Winter TCA. CREDIT: PHOTO BY RICHARD SHOTWELL/INVISION/AP

The internet’s favorite astrophysicist is getting a TV show. Neil deGrasse Tyson will be turning his popular podcast, “StarTalk,” into a late night series on the National Geographic Channel. The weekly series will be taped at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York, in front of a live studio audience. Expect a combination of science shop talk and pop culture commentary: your standard-issue late-night features, like interviews with famous types and comedians, will exist side-by-side with scientific inquiry. Bill Nye will have a 60-second rant, in the vein of Andy Rooney’s 60 Minutes sign-off.

Tyson announced the show at the Television Critics Association press tour, calling the move “kind of low-risk for National Geographic” because his podcast is already “thriving.” Tyson’s already proved himself as something of a hitmaker; Cosmos is among the most-watched series in the history of the National Geographic Channel, according to CEO Courteney Monroe.

“This is kind of low-risk, I think, for National Geographic,” Tyson told the audience at the Television Critics Association press tour. “Star Talk exists as a thriving podcast right now.” Given the expense involved in producing a weekly show, it’s rare to consider anything “low-risk,” but Tyson’s project qualifies: the Cosmos presenter has have already demonstrated an ability to build a following and create compelling content.

Tyson isn’t the only star (astrophysics pun!) to follow this model. Grace Helbig, a 29-year-old comedian, YouTube smash, and New York Times-bestselling author who is relatively unknown to people who don’t participate in internet culture, is getting a primetime show on E!. The Grace Helbig Project will premiere in April. E! describes the venture as “a hybrid comedy show that will feature the comedienne’s fresh take on what’s trending in pop culture, as well as exclusive interviews with various celebrity guests.” Helbig’s videos are fantastic and also sort of quiet and strange, with the I-just-threw-this-together feeling that can only be achieved, one assumes, through hours of preparation, careful editing and hard work. She does things like faux-advice segments (“Back To School Make-Up Tutorial!), confessionals (“When was my last kiscooking bits (“TURN DOWNS FOR WHAT”)), advice (“How to deal w/ family during the holidays”), and ends most of her clips with a ¯_(ツ)_/¯ look at the camera and a vocal-fried, “I don’t know.”

Over 2 million people subscribe to Helbig’s YouTube channel. For context, more people subscribe to Helbig’s channel than watched the Mad Men mid-season finale last year and almost three times as many people as watched the third season finale of Girls (but nowhere near the kind of numbers your CBS megahits draw).

Looking at their backgrounds, both seem like obvious candidates for television platforms. Tyson has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report and The Daily Show a bunch of times, demonstrating an ability to make science-speak something a layman can understand and enjoy. He’s charming and at ease on camera, a warm, comforting presence in the ever-expanding and therefore-sometimes-terrifying universe. His podcast, StarTalk Radio, has been running since June 2009; he’s got nearly three million Twitter followers. National Geographic knows what they’re getting with him.

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E! is in a similar spot with Helbig: they can watch hundreds and hundreds of clips Helbig has produced and in which she stars (her background is improv; she says the videos aren’t scripted) and can scroll through endless comments on Helbig’s channel and Tumblr to see how engaged her fans are.

But given the usual TV suspects, they’re both unlikely choices — particularly for late night, where Tyson and Helbig will be setting up shop. The typical channels for entry into the late night pantheon haven’t changed since Johnny Carson’s day: hustle hard, be someone Lorne Michaels likes, wait your turn. And this system has mixed results — mixed in quality, that is, not in ethnicity, gender, or, really, age. It’s a sea of straight, cis, white men in suits, as far as the eye can see.

“Those were limited to the usual rules of succession: late night television from the Letterman-Leno-Conan sort of thing, it reminded me of the English monarchy,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “You know who the princes are.”

Cable is a freer space: With new paths to TV that aren’t contingent upon the old model, usually overlooked candidates — women, people of color — can build their own fanbases and land a show, without waiting for someone to finish a decades-long stint behind a coveted desk.

“When you just had The Tonight Show, you just had one white guy from Nebraska,” said Thompson. “And then we opened it up a little bit, and for a moment, we thought that was going to really go somewhere: Arsenio Hall made inroads, Joan Rivers both made inroads. And sooner than you could blink your eyes, they were both gone! And what looked like Joan Rivers opening up things to late night didn’t opening things up to late night… And we had that long string of Craig Kilbourne and Craig Ferguson and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Conan and Kimmel, all of whom… share a very similar demographic background. And George Lopez comes along, and Conan manages to, not deliberately, but [Lopez] gets knocked off the air. Network TV has really been very, very poor at diversifying late night in any way whatsoever. Diversity is hiring some 35 instead of 65. And these other things allow that to happen. Cable and internet can give shows and voices to people, and the hope is that then they get their portfolios built and can perhaps move to the larger audience venues.”

So even though Tyson and Helbig shouldn’t be such anomalies — even though, someday, women and people of color will be enjoying these kinds of opportunities so often we will not have to keep counting anymore — there’s no denying that they are. Tyson is black and he’s a freaking astrophysicist; not your standard primetime fodder. Helbig is young and female. Her humor is self-deprecating, off-kilter, and about ten thousand times quicker than the “set up, wait a beat, here’s the punchline”-style jokes that fill the average late night monologue.

Helbig and Tyson make sense for TV. But does TV make sense for them? If you’re popular online, where audiences are devoting more and more time and attention anyway, why bother switching to TV? Is the hierarchy that unshakeable: Television trumps the internet, and one graduates from YouTube to cable to, finally, the almighty Tonight Show slot?

It’s hard not to feel that late night, as-is, is inching toward irrelevance, with only Jimmy Fallon’s eager renditions of songs on children’s instruments and awkward dating stories stemming the slow, inevitable demise of the form. Certainly the more exciting and innovative late-night work is happening far from the major networks, mostly on HBO, where John Oliver’s fantastic Last Week Tonight can provide hilarity and insight in equal measure without having to pause for commercials, Comedy Central, where until just last month, The Colbert Report could inspire Colbert Nation to engage in large-scale improv bits with his fake character in the real world, and, assuming Chelsea Handler flourishes there, Netflix.

“I think that [the hierarchy] is actually a lot more fluid now,” said Thompson. “The best example would be a guy like Jon Stewart,” who probably could have landed a network late night show if he’d wanted one five years ago. “There is a sense that he is aware, and I think it’s one of the reasons he hasn’t moved, that he is actually in the perfect slot. Comedy Central is where he belongs… I think he realizes it’s the perfect place for him. I think Colbert is about to learn that lesson the hard way. He’s about to make the big hierarchical step up in an era when the hierarchy doesn’t work that way. He’s going to step up into the old fashioned CBS model and he’s not going to be very good there.”

Dark predictions for beloved public figures aside, the fact that things are shifting doesn’t mean there’s been a complete upheaval. Television is still more prestigious than the internet; it is still better to be known as a “celebrity,” sans modifier, than as a “YouTube celebrity.” Or maybe it isn’t? “I’m not sure if saying YouTube celebrity anymore implies this is a tier. Maybe YouTube celebrity may now mean, much like you’d say ‘NBA celebrity’ or ‘Olympic celebrity.’… I think most of the people on YouTube do not have the idea that NBC is better than YouTube. Most of the people on YouTube probably don’t watch NBC. So ‘YouTube celebrity,’ in some ways, is kind of a hip nomenclature.”

“I suppose it you say ‘YouTube celebrity’ to the average 70-year old, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s why I’ve never heard of this person,’” said Thompson. “But I don’t think that’s true if you say that to my students, many of whom aspire to be a YouTube celebrity.”