In the first episode of Bill Nye Saves The World, which premiered last April on Netflix, host Bill Nye told the audience he was furthering the type of show he started with Bill Nye The Science Guy, which ran from 1993-1998. While the reception was generally positive (two of the episodes were even nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards), there was some backlash, much of it aimed at Nye’s on-screen persona, a mix of his familiar fun-loving guy-in-a-labcoat and an adamantly passionate pro-science stance. It left some to speculate that Nye could alienate some viewers, particularly in an increasingly polarized world.
Nonetheless, the show was renewed for a second season, the first six episodes of which premiered this past December, with six more episodes slated to come later this year. We got the chance to talk to Nye about how he wanted the show to evolve in the second season, what inspired those changes, and why he thinks being funny on TV helps deliver his message.
How did your goals for Saves The World change between the first and second seasons?
Well, the big thing for me as a writer and a guy on camera, we just had more time, so I think the second season shows are a little better. Even better than season one, is that possible!? Yes, I think they’re a little better. You know, we shot two a day in season one and everything was a little pushed. But this time we shot one a day and it was good. The props department had more time, everybody had more time.
It seemed like the topics in season two had a bit more of a narrow focus. Whereas season one tackled things like climate change and overpopulation, season two seems to look at problems that are solvable on a more individual level. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. The big thing [was] season one you’re hoping to do shows that are important enough that you’ll get renewed, and then also the big thing we all agreed on is when you do a narrower topic, it enables you to leave things out. This enables, especially the panel discussions, to be, I think, more interesting. Crisper, more focused, a great deal more focused, and that is more fun. It’s just better.
When you’re making a show for Netflix, and you film all the episodes back-to-back, you don’t get any feedback from an audience until after they’re all up and online. Did any of the feedback you got from season one help inform this second round?
I thought everything about season two was a little better. We didn’t really drop any ideas, except it became clear to executives that although it was a big idea to have Bill Nye be this whole new radical different guy, a lot of the people that watched the science guy show will be watching this. So we changed a little.
The big controversy, the one that made everybody crazy, was the one about sexuality. The reason it made everybody crazy, I think, was because it made some people uncomfortable. That’s good, but it draws attention to the wrong thing. So by that I mean, “Did you listen to any of the science kind of questions?”
The thing about television, the reason it’s so compelling I think, the reason there’s so much television made, is because you can’t be inauthentic. There’s an old saying, “You can pretend to be serious, but you can’t pretend to be funny.” Television cuts through, you can see whether or not the guy there, or anybody on the panel is sincere, and that sincerity is what we all watch for and what we admire in a good actor. You get people, scientific experts, who are very passionate about their work, and it comes across on the television.
I noticed that with the first season, all the episodes hung pretty close to the 25-minute mark. Now, they vary from 30 minutes to 40 or so. Did you just get more comfortable with the idea that you weren’t confined to set runtimes so you could let each installment stretch its legs as needed?
Oh yeah. There were two things that really expanded, the first [was] let the panel discussions expand quite a bit, and by quite a bit I mean three minutes, four minutes, it adds up in the TV biz. The other big thing was “Bill Meets Science Twitter,” which really worked out well. That was cool.
[And] Netflix has their resources. The physicist is from Germany. She flew over to be on television for eight minutes. I mean, she was in a plane, she’s not that strong. We have a guy from Australia. He studies Zebra Finches, he flew in from Australia just to make this cool scientific point. I’m really proud of that. That was a great little deal. But those two things made the show get longer, and as you say Netflix rolled with it. Netflix went “Okay,” so that’s great.
I’d say that it helps expand the show’s perspective, not just with the panel, but having scientific voices come from all over the globe to add to the conversation.
You know, it started organically. The guy who studies corn rootworms said, “Hey man, we’re scientists too,” and so we started “Bill Meets Science Twitter.” When we talk about corn rootworms, we have 7.3 billion people, almost 7.4 billion, by 2050 there are going to be 9 billion people that are all going to want to eat something. Agriculture is a real source of fascination for me. I was really happy that that guy started it.
And you’ve filmed the rest of season two already?
There’s six more in the can. On the transistors, stored on the digital medium, the complementary metal oxide chips, ready to go.
With that in mind, where do you want the show to go moving forward?
Well, personally, I’d like to change the step a little bit and I would like to be given more time to go in the field myself. It’s cool having correspondents to get work done for you and become familiar to the audience, you know variety is the spice and so on. But I’d like to go to Antarctica. I’d like to go to the Indian Ocean Gyre where all this plastic goo is swirling, I’d like to spend time looking for containers that fall off container ships. And I’d like to go to these new farms, that rely on concentrated solar energy to desalinate seawater and grow crops, but these are personal things. Other than that, we just have outstanding writers and I really look forward to working with those people again.
Do you still get this flack because you’re adding humor to what you do? That argument of “Oh, he’s just an entertainer,” so the core message gets dismissed as a result.
All this time, the blurse — the blessing and the curse of Bill Nye — is what you see is what you get. I think being funny is fun and it was a value that was imbued in me as a kid. At the same time, both of my parents are veterans of World War II, they both lived through World War II, and I’m pretty sure what enabled them to do that was having a sense of humor.
If evolution makes you uncomfortable, I don’t think it has to do with anybody’s sense of humor, I think it’s challenging a worldview that, someone, an audience member, was brought up with and it’s just very difficult to unseat that or shake it loose or change it. I just tell everybody it takes about two years.
I met someone the other day that insists she has a ghost living in her house. I mean a grown-up. Somebody who works at NASA says she has a ghost in her house. After you show her that there’s no ghost in her house and that it’s thermal expansion of the plumbing, at certain times a day it makes creaks or whatever it is, she’s not going to accept that right away. She’s lived there ten years believing in this ghost. It will take two years for her to overcome that, that’s alright we’ll put in the two years, we’re here for you. We’ll put in the two years.
The other unrelated but related story… Why isn’t there, just in the big picture, why isn’t there a comedy show analogous to Saturday Night Live, analogous to The Daily Show, produced by the science-deniers. Why isn’t it there? I think the reason is, on the progressive side, on the science side, on the evaluate evidence side, the expression in comedy writing is we punch up, we punch the authority, challenging those who claim there’s no evolution, challenging those who make claims about the origin of the Earth.
On the science denial side, they try to punch down. You the audience member are inferior or not worthy if you’re embracing evidence and being open-minded. It’s something for all of us to consider, start with my premise, why isn’t there an anti-science comedy show? Why aren’t there jokes on the other side?
There’s that old adage about “making learning fun,” and it’s one thing to give an audience thoughtful, informed content, but when mixed with a little showmanship and the occasional Zach Braff cameo, it broadens the overall appeal.
He is fun on the show. I love that guy, he’s really good. Anecdotally, everywhere I go people tell me to “fight the good fight, man. Thanks for what you’re doing. Let me shake your hand. I love you, man” and its very gratifying. I’m pretty sure there are places, especially in the United States, where I could go and they wouldn’t feel that way. I say the tide is turning for science, against anti-science, just based on my interactions with regular people I meet in the grocery store and the subway train and what have you. [But] man, it’s a road of hope.
The first season-and-a-half of Bill Nye Saves The World is currently available to stream on Netflix.