UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In a discussion with preeminent satirist Stephen Colbert on the latest episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, the famed astrophysicist makes an observation about the contemporary era of fake news: “The concept of ‘truthiness’ is now in our vocabulary. It’s in our analysis.”
And who does Tyson turn to for help in breaking down Colbert’s now infamous phrase? Penn State School of International Affairs Professor Sophia McClennen—an expert on political satire, author of author of Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy, and the first Penn State professor to appear on the popular National Geographic talk show.
Professor Sophia McClennen with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Adam Conover on the set of StarTalk.
“On his first show, [Colbert] says ‘I’m going to feel the news at you,’” McClennen told Tyson. “He was playing with what, at that moment, felt like a real assault on the truth.”
McClennen was a guest on Tyson’s show on January 14, where she was invited alongside comedian Adam Conover to discuss truthiness, the role of satire, Colbert’s legacy, and the importance of satire in the Trump administration.
“One of the things we talked about is the impact satire has on brain function,” McClennen said. “It was interesting to Neil how satire requires higher critical thinking functions, to decipher when a satirist is saying something other than what they mean. That’s something I write about a lot—that satire is more about helping people stay smart than it is a political position.”
McClennen, who often writes about political satire in the Trump era in her weekly column at Salon, said it was an exciting honor to be invited to join Tyson on his Emmy-nominated talk show. Episodes often feature Tyson discussing science, pop culture, and current events with two guests, typically a comedian and an expert on the topic at hand.
“That fact that he also had Adam Conover on this episode was a perfect pairing, not only because I’m a big fan and my kids are super psyched, but because, perhaps more than any other comedian, he is a comedian in search of truth,” McClennen said of the Adam Ruins Everything star, who uses comedy to debunk popular myths and misconceptions. “His comedy is about helping people be smarter about how they live.”
McClennen said filming the episode at the Hayden Planetarium in front of a live audience was an unforgettable experience.
“Both Neil and Adam were super easy-going and great to work with,” McClennen said. “It was very friendly, very fun, and I felt we had good dynamic on set.”
Watch the episode here.