Stephen Colbert has a long history of interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, but last night he had the planetarium-director-turned-celebrity on The Late Show for the first time. Freed from the constraints of the caricature he used to play, Colbert focused on the vast topic of space in a way that's never really been done before.
It started with a hilarious send-up of Cosmos, the Carl Sagan show that Tyson rebooted in 2014. Colbert's version — called "Focus on the Universe" and abbreviated to "FU," of course — poked fun at things like the show's green-screened sets. "I'm Stephen deGrasse Colbert," the host said while unbuttoning his jacket, revealing Tyson's signature moon-and-stars vest. "Turns out you can't copyright a middle name." Later, Colbert brought Tyson out for an interview that was reminiscent of this very long (and very good) discussion the pair had at Montclair Kimberley Academy in 2010.
On most late night shows, Tyson usually plays the role of friendly and excitable educator, leading hosts through celestial topics they hardly understand. (This was even the case for many of Tyson's Colbert Report interviews, since Colbert was always playing a more clueless, less science-obsessed character.) But this time around, Colbert was squarely in the driver's seat. For anyone who's seen Tyson run through the same talking points again and again, it was a nice change of pace.
Colbert's always had to play a more clueless role with Tyson
Colbert led Tyson through some of the recent, exciting news about our Solar System. "I'm super excited about water on Mars," he said, referencing last month's confirmation of flowing water on the red planet. Later, he steered the conversation toward Europa and Enceladus, two icy moons that orbit Jupiter and Saturn, respectively. Europa has a subsurface ocean that contains more water than all the oceans on Earth, and is the target of future robotic exploration for NASA. Enceladus was also recently confirmed to have its own global subsurface ocean, and just this week the Cassini spacecraft flew through some of the plumes erupting from the moon to get a better idea of what might be hiding under the surface.
After that, Colbert brought the conversation beyond our Solar System to KC 8462852, a distant star that has garnered a ton of attention in the past few weeks because of frequent, sizable dips in its brightness during telescopic observations. The starlight's irregular behavior has caused many people, some astronomers included, to zealously theorize that alien megastructures could be the cause. It's the kind of topic that Tyson usually has to do some hand-holding around, or one that talk show hosts would skip altogether. Instead, Colbert took it head on, and even went one step further, showing a picture of it and claiming that it could be the "ring world" from Larry Niven's 1970 sci-fi novel The Ring World.
All of this was further confirmation of what's becoming more and more clear as the host settles into his new gig: Nerd Colbert is the true Colbert. Even during the goofy Cosmos parody he spent time actually explaining some of the science behind Mars' newly confirmed water flows. And while Neil deGrasse Tyson can deliver mind-boggling monologues on a whim — especially when he has control of the spotlight — Colbert was smart enough to realize Tyson's power as an excellent communicator of science. So on last night's show, Colbert instead chose to use Tyson as a tool to better explain these bits of space news that the audience may have heard about but not fully understood.
Actually, Colbert said it best before he started the Cosmos bit: "My goal for this show is to curate that mass of information coming at you every day and narrow it down to... only everything in the universe."