Who was the guest on yesterday’s episode of The Colbert Report? It was Ted Daeschler, a paleontologist at The Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. He was part of the team that discovered the fish-tetrapod transitional form Tiktaalik roseae. Not only did he appear with Colbert, but he was there to discuss paleontology and evolution. He even brought a plaster cast of Tiktaalik.
This is no surprise coming from Colbert. Both he and Jon Stewart routinely have scholars on their shows to have at least somewhat serious discussions of important issues. In this they differ from virtually every other interview show on television. The entertainment shows like Leno and Letterman almost never have scholars on the show. And even when they have politicians or journalsists on they usually just run through a scripted, boilerplate interview. The cable news shows are even worse. They pretend to have serious discussions about things, but seem far more interested in creating heat than light.
It hasn’t always been this way. Compare Johnny Carson to any late-night talk-show host today. It was Johnny Carson who made Carl Sagan a star. Carson also had guests like the Amazing Randi to debunk spoon-benders and faith healers. Carson famously had Randi on the show to expose the deceptions employed by evangelist Peter Popoff. And it was Carson, advised by Randi, who humiliated the phony psychic Uri Geller by forcing him to perform his alleged miracles under conditions that precluded trickery. (Video of the segment is available here. And it was Carson who began the tradition of talk show hosts having guests like Joan Embry or Jack Hannah to discuss various exotic animals. A significant imporvement over the endless nattering of celebrities promoting their films, I’d say.
Nowadays you have to look to two comedy news shows for any signs of intelligent conversation on television chat shows. When Colbert had Daeschler on, the intent of the interview was to learn something, even as Colbert played his standard character. By contrast, when Bill O’Reilly had biologists Michael Grant and Paul Gross on his show at various times, to discuss the evolution/ID issue, the intent was for O’Reilly to puff himself up by raving incoherently about issues he knew nothing about.
I find that vexing.