Bill Nye, still affectionately titled “The Science Guy” as per his original sketch comedy persona, is one of the most striking examples of a forward-thinking force in modern media. Through a combination of his legacy television influence, his continuing meld of icebreaking comedy and scientific education, and a remarkably popular social media presence, he continues to make knowledge and the desire to learn a positive, enjoyable, and overall uplifting experience. As a piece of glue that can hold the worlds of science and humor together, he’s perfected his craft, and it’s a true treat to watch him work, as well as to pose inquiries to him that get his mind in gear and firing back with equally insightful and thought-provoking questions as a response. Taking a leaf out of the book of colleague scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill has returned to Sketchfest for the second year with a live ensemble for StarTalk Radio — along with StarTalk cohost Eugene Mirman — and, to balance out the vast knowledge base of aeronautics/astronautics professor Scott Hubbard and renowned NASA Ames astrophysicist Dr. Yvonne Pendleton, the pair enlisted H. Jon Benjamin for a side-splitting fusillade of comedic jabs and snarky remarks. The full ensemble made for a delightfully entertaining night at the Nourse Theater, and left the crowd sore from laughing and glowing with renewed faith in the world of science.
The show was split into four segments: three sections of Nye interviewing Pendleton and Hubbard about their respective recent studies, careers, and other explorations (with Mirman and Benjamin providing quips and commentary), and a final Q&A session from members of the audience. Throughout the full evening, Nye served as host, narrator, questioner, tension breaker, and ego deflater all at once — both to himself and to the assorted group around him. As a member of the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), Pendleton spoke at length about the exciting prospect of discovering water (in irregular forms, hence the novelty of the discovery) on the moon and asteroids, as well as other lunar explorations and excursions that had taken place and were still being developed; Hubbard segued from this into discussions about the lives and deaths of asteroids and comets, and was keen to answer Mirman and Benjamin’s joking-but-seriously-curious inquiries about recent (and possible) collisions and near-misses of asteroids on Earth. Both traded discussions about how much there was still to learn about the universe, and that curiosity would be one of the most important things to drive scientific exploration for years to come; Nye meanwhile encouraged his audience to share their curiosity and their passions, leading to cheers and celebratory applause from their onlookers.
Throughout the evening, the conversation would drift into delicate, precise explanations of scientific process and discovery, only to be knocked jarringly back into raucous laughter and roaring shouts by Mirman or Benjamin, who were each crafting and volleying their one-liner responses as fast as humanly possible. While the initial blasts of ammunition seemed to be heavily loaded and aimed at breaking up the serious nature of the scientists’ tales, the comedians would slowly drift into more genuine curiosities, eliciting excited whispers and murmurs from the crowd. This is not to say that the evening got increasingly more serious as it wore on; cracks about the endless array of acronyms that exist within the scientific world, the destructive power of asteroids, and the complexity of equipment needed for a space exploration mission were fired across the stage, with Nye both taking the brunt of the attack and also firing back with his own remarks.
The Q&A session at the end provided some of the best material, as the comedians took the questions first and vetted them with their own answers to the crowd before handing the more scientific inquiries off to the engineers. A touching but sad moment was beheld when Nye mentioned his regret that, because disbelief in the concept of climate change still exists in the world, he has failed in his duties to modern science; at the same time, it was wonderfully uplifting to hear so much opposition to his self-derision on behalf of the audience, so passionate were they to uphold his mission and praise his work. To complement them, Nye kept the energy and spirit of the evening up at all times — whether that meant injecting humor into the scientists’ findings, or cooling down the comedians when they got rolling on too long of a streak — and the two hours of the evening flew past with barely anyone noticing.
As a lover of Nye’s original TV show, which took up a great deal of my childhood, it was a wonderful treat to see him in person, and delightful to see him with just as much gusto, wit and scientific knowledge as he has ever possessed. The Archer and Bob’s Burgers fan in me was overjoyed to see H. Jon Benjamin as he zingered his way through the conversations, appearing both bewildered at his presence onstage and excited about the knowledge he was receiving at a near-breakneck pace. It was, however, the amazingly positive energy and response of the audience that was best about this show. It’s an incredibly uplifting feeling to be around people that seem to be on the same intellectual playing field that you occupy, and are pleased to be associated with you in that way, and to watch several hundred people cheering for advancements in science, technology and knowledge is easily one of the most spirited feelings of camaraderie that one can experience.