Comedian, podcaster, actor, and self-professed “science geek” Chuck Nice is a busy guy. His most recent ventures have seen him operate at the intersection of pop culture and science. Nice co-hosts StarTalk with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, where he provides humorous commentary to aid the insights of the popular astrophysicist, and Playing with Science alongside Gary O’Reilly. But Nice isn’t just there to provide comic relief to a discussion on topics that can be confusing for the 99% of us who are non-scientists; he has a genuine love for the field.
Being a “closeted science geek” from an early age, Nice, was the perfect candidate to accompany Tyson in his pursuit to explain the wonders of physics and astronomy to the masses. Now a bonafide science communicator in his own right, he is using his many talents to challenge contestants and audiences alike as the host of the latest season of Brain Games, helping viewers to learn scientific concepts in a hands-on way.
Nice is a Philadelphia native and 18-year veteran of stand-up comedy, with a rich history in television and radio. For eight years, he provided comic relief to The Radio Chick show, bringing the funny to New York’s radio airwaves. He is the host of Buy Like A Mega Millionaire on HGTV, The Juice on Veria Living and The Hot Ten on Centric. Nice can be regularly seen on the Today show, has guest-hosted Joy Behar: Say Anything!, and co-hosted The View.
We sat down with Nice to talk about Brain Games, his career, and his innate love of all things science.
Innovation and Tech Today: You’re a man of a variety of talents and projects, I mean, comedian, actor, podcast host, Brain Games host, seems like you’ve got a lot to juggle these days? Is that difficult?
Chuck Nice: It is. But two things help, one, I meditate, and two, I end every day with a big tumbler of scotch.
I&T Today: Because scotch solves everything, right?
CN: Right. And by the way, I also start every day with a big tumbler of scotch. No, there’s a lot going on right now with me, and I feel like this, the way entertainment works, everything I do comes out of comedy, even though, unlike a lot of comedians, I’m in love with science. I shouldn’t say unlike a lot of comedians, a lot of comedians are in love with science. A lot of comedians are very smart people and knowledgeable, it’s just that it’s very difficult to take that and bring it to the stage. I did a Latin joke some time ago, I was on an interview on Yahoo Finance, which should tell you about my comedy, I’m on Yahoo Finance, talking about my comedy, so that should let you know. And the guy said something about a joke that I do, and at the end I’m explaining the Latin of the joke, and he was like, “It’s brilliant.” And I went, “You just told me why I’m not more famous as a comedian.” The only guy who’s doing jokes in Latin, ugh.
I&T Today: Oh my God. Well, you seem to be a real natural for the Brain Games audience, watching those first few episodes I’m seeing you look comfortable, you look at home, how did you land in Brain Games?
CN: Interesting. I think it has to do with the fact that, increasingly I have been moving into the science space, and as a fan, but also as a science communicator, I never really call myself a science communicator, because I think it’s a disservice to people who are science communicators, for me to include myself in that brood. However, it’s just something that has kind of naturally happened to me.
So, Terry Danuser of Nat Geo, who is familiar with me and my comedy through StarTalk on Nat Geo, may have had something to do with it. No one’s ever told me the actual story, but all I know is that he, Jo [Sharon], and Casey at Magical Elves said, “All right, let’s just look at this guy.” And then it was like, “Okay, this makes a lot of sense.” And when I did the audition, and I very rarely do this — after the audition, I say to myself, “Man, I hope I get that.” Of course, you hope you get every job for which you audition. But what you don’t want to do is be hopeful about getting the job, because 90% of the time you’re going to be disappointed.
So the answer is always no, and then every once in a while somebody goes, “Well, wait a minute, maybe.” And so that’s how you get jobs in entertainment. But after I did the audition, I was like, “God, I hope I get this job, man. This is just so much fun, and it’s everything that I love, it’s science, it’s games, it’s talking to people, it’s joking around, and you learn something, you can’t get better than that.”
I&T Today: Yeah, for sure. I know when I watch, I’ve watched “Brain Games” for years, and I know when I watch every episode, there’s a moment where my mind is just blown. Does that still happen to you as a host?
CN: Yeah, but it happens before the show, because they give me a packet, so I get the brain science that’s attached to the game, I get the game, what game we’re going to play. So I know the science behind the game before we do it, but even reading it, I tend to say, “Oh my goodness, that’s pretty amazing.”
There’s something called the rhyme-as-reason effect, which is where if you hear something that rhymes, you’re more prone to think that that’s true. So if you hear two statements and one of them rhymes, you’re more prone to think that the rhyming statement is true, which is why Jesse Jackson had just so much success, and why rap music is so effective. No- Yeah, I’m joking about that. But…
I&T Today: I get you though.
CN: I fell for it, when I was playing the game as I’m reading it, I was like, “Oh no, that’s true.” And then I was like, “I fell for the rhyme-as-reason effect!”
I&T Today: And now you notice it every time you see a rhyme I imagine.
CN: Anytime I see a rhyme the first thing I think is, “Is that really true? Are you trying to trick me? Jay-Z, you liar.”
I&T Today: Oh man. But Chuck, how did your interest in science come to be?
CN: Interesting that you ask, because people think that I started working with Neil, and then I started liking science. It’s just the opposite. I have liked science and loved science since I was in elementary school, and I’ve been kind of closeted about it. Listen, let’s be honest, a kid that goes to school, knows all about culture, and maybe curses so that he seems a little bit more like an adult, and wears all the great fashion – that’s the cool kid. The kid coming to school talking about dark matter, the expansion of the universe, gravity waves – let’s invite him to every party.
“Hey man, get over here. You hear this guy talking about gravity waves from the collision of two black holes? You’ve got to hear this. Get over here.” No, no, that’s not happening. So what ends up happening is, you keep all that stuff inside, and on the outside you present all that other stuff.
And that’s kind of what my whole life was until I had to come out of the closet, because I’m working with this astrophysicist, and I’m talking to all the top scientists in the world, and quite frankly, whenever you do that… So people think that I’m just there, and a lot of people say, “Oh man, you’re so smart.” Like, “I hear you talking to these scientists, the chief scientists of NASA, and you know one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change.” And they’re like, “Damn.” And I’m cheating, I know who’s going to be on the show, I go read their stuff before I sit down with Neil. Because all I want to do is be a part of the conversation, and be able to ask questions of stuff that I want to know, just like the people who are listening, and I can’t do that if I don’t know what I don’t know.
I&T Today: Yeah, it’s the same with these. I do a lot of research because I don’t want to look like an idiot.
CN: There you go. Now, I can’t stop that from happening, not you, but for me, I can’t stop that. Often, I look like an idiot. But that’s another thing too, a lot of people are intimidated by science, because they don’t want to feel stupid, and what they don’t understand about science is that a lot of science throughout history has been wrong, but that is how we advance science and scientific knowledge, not from what we get right, but from what we get wrong.
Sometimes unintended consequences, laser surgery for instance, here’s a little something that just popped into my head for no good reason at all, but at the time they called it radial keratotomy, because they made slits in a circle around your eyes, that’s why it was called radial keratotomy. But the reason it happened was a doctor cut his cornea, it healed because your cornea has a natural vacuum, your cornea and your eye, [a] natural vacuum that sucks it in it. That’s how your eyes… Anyway, he cut it, and he realized that his vision was better, so he says, “Oh, something’s wrong here.” Or, “Something’s right here.” And as a result, the unintended consequence of that discovery led to, boom, laser surgery we call it today.
Infrared, I forget the scientist’s name, but he’s measuring the temperature of visible light, and then all of a sudden it’s still warm in another area where there is no light, “Whoa, something must be there.” Boom.
So it’s what wasn’t supposed to happen. So no one should ever feel stupid when they’re learning about science, because scientists are stupid. That’s a joke, but it’s true.
I&T Today: We were once, as a society, sure that the sun revolved around the earth.
CN: There you go. So yeah, we are not the center of the universe or even the center of our solar system. It’s heliocentric, and guess what? I’m Afrocentric, and the solar system is not.
I&T Today: We’re just peons floating around in the middle of nowhere.
CN: So that’s another thing now that you think about science, for instance, when you say [we’re] peons floating around the universe, and we are. Here we are on this one little arm of this Milky Way galaxy, which is spinning and traveling at the same time, and we’re on the outskirts, the suburbs, and when you look at who we are, and where we are in just that galaxy, just that galaxy, can we really take ourselves seriously? Are we really that important? Are we really fighting over something that means something and all the crap that we’re fighting over?
I mean, let’s be honest, it’s a different perspective that you get when you look at that, and to tie that to “Brain Games,” the true last frontier is the mind. Because the brain, if we understand that, maybe we can understand why we are so stupid, why we are fighting over every little into the stupid rock that we’re on, why we don’t understand each other, why we perceive things the way we perceive them, which causes division, and silos that we live in, and bubbles that we try to exist in. So I’m rambling on, because this is what science does to me. It’s more than facts and data, it is a perspective.
I&T Today: It is.
CN: It’s a perspective.
I&T Today: It is, and I always think of, like you were talking about a second ago, with the grandness of the universe and everything, I think for me the biggest moment where that vision came to mind was Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.
CN: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I&T Today: It just really pointed out that little-
CN: That’s us. Yeah, that’s us. See that thing that the universe brushes off his shoulder, like a piece of dandruff that you poink? That’s who we are.
I&T Today: Right.
CN: So just take it easy, buddy. You’re not so great.
I&T Today: Something else I really wanted to mention, I enjoyed your TED Talk on the unintended consequences of tech, and a lot of time’s passed since then. It’s been what? Five, six years?
CCN: I think so. Yeah, because we lost two years to the pandemic, and that was two years before that. So yeah, four years ago I think.
I&T Today: And any new thoughts on that subject?
CN: Things have gotten a hell of lot worse, that’s my thought. Who would’ve thought it could’ve got worse? The reason why I picked that subject is because I thought it was funny at the time. And honestly, when I was talking about the unintended consequences of tech and human interaction, which believe it or not was my title, you could have called it “The Internet is Stupid.” That would’ve been a better title. But I actually thought that one, people would see how we’re being manipulated by social media, and two, that social media companies would have to adapt in order to continue to grow their audience, and it’s just the opposite.
I&T Today: It is.
CN: People don’t see how they’re being manipulated, they’re not thinking critically about the internet or social media, it is purposely addictive, and we’re falling for it hook, line, and sinker. So here I am making fun of the subject and all I can say is: everything I said back then is still true today and worse. And if you want to know what I said, people, go watch my TED Talk. It’s on YouTube.
I&T Today: It is, it’s a quick watch and it’s interesting, and I like that you gave it your comedic touch.
I&T Today: But there’s a lot to be said from that in today’s world.
CN: Yeah. Listen, these are very complex matters that take a lot of nuance, especially in America. We are not China, where we just say, “All right kids, go do your homework, because we’re shutting down the internet between two and six. And you get an hour after dinner, and that’s it. So when you live in an authoritarian dictatorial society, it’s much easier to say, “We’re not going to have this.”
I&T Today: Yeah.
CN: But when you live in a free society, for however long that’ll last, when you live in a free society that is democratic, and that is based on free speech, and the marketplace of ideas, and the free exchange of information, you can’t tell somebody, “Hey man, you can’t do that. Yeah, you can’t shut that down. You’ve got to shut that down.” You can’t do it, because you don’t want to be in violation of your own principles, which for us, that’s the constitution. So what has to happen is, as a society, we have to come together, and we have to coalesce around what will save our society. And as you can see, we do a great job of that. That’s where we’re Vikings. Guys, let’s all come together.
I&T Today: You and Neil have such a fun dynamic together, and I’ve always felt like your opposite senses of humor play a role in that.
CN: Oh yeah.
I&T Today: Neil’s is more of a… I always think of it as a dry, very sciencey humor that is fun. And you two together though, create this thing.
CN: Yeah, because Neil is funny.
I&T Today: He is.
CN: He’s a funny guy, and he gets the joke when I make a joke. So when we first started, people were a little upset, they were like, “Why is Neil sitting with this dude? And this guy is interrupting the science.” And Neil would say, “Just relax, we’re going to get to the science. Let us just have some fun while we do it.” And once again, that’s what I love about “Brain Games,” is the fact that we’re going to get to the science, and you’re not even going to know that we got to the science, because by the time we get to the science, you will have experienced the science, you will have seen it. It will become experiential, and then when you learn about what you just experienced, it now resonates in a way that it would not have, and the same thing happens [with] StarTalk.
I don’t want to sound self-important, and I don’t want to make people think that I’m bigger than I am, but I really feel like when you watch this show, it’s doing a service. Watch it with your kids, they may say, “Oh man, I never knew that.” And then they may be sparked, their curiosity might be sparked, and they might want to learn more, or they might say, “Chuck is so annoying, we can’t watch this ever again.” But then make them watch it anyway, because they’re going to learn something, damn it. No, but that’s the whole idea, man. I don’t know if you ever saw the Fat Albert show, of course, it’s not on anymore, because, well, there was some unpleasantness with the guy who created the show, but-
I&T Today: Little bit.
CN: Yeah. But anyway, the cool thing about that show is, at the end, he would say, “Hey, this is the Fat Albert show coming at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done. Hey, Hey, Hey.” And it’s the same thing, StarTalk, Brain Games: On The Road — same thing. If you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s over.
I&T Today: Well, nice thing about Brain Games too is that, I have four kids, they’re all 16 and up, they’re not into documentaries and stuff like that, but they love Brain Games.
CN: Yeah. Isn’t it funny? So people say, “Oh my God, you’re the new host of Brain Games, I love that show.” I haven’t heard anybody say, “So you’re the new host of Brain Games, what a piece of crap that is.”
I&T Today: No, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about it.
CN: Yeah. “I can’t believe that, man, why would you do that? Why’d you take that job?” No, people love this franchise. They love it. And I’m really just happy to be the guy who’s running point right now for it.
I&T Today: Totally, man, totally, and that’s great. I guess one last question I wanted to ask, do you have any advice for young people considering STEM careers today?
CN: As a dad with two students, in two separate STEM academies, who are both on AP tracks, and who are both honors students, they are also both adopted, so they did not get any of my stupid gene, I’m joking, I am joking, I’m joking. They are my biological children, just in case they hear this interview, kids, you’re not adopted, you’re not. Let me just say this, STEM is where the future is. We live in a society now, and we’re soon to live in a global society, where, I hate to say this, the lion’s share of physical labor is going to be done by machines.
If we don’t all destroy ourselves first, the lion’s share of physical labor will be done by machines. Two things are going to have to happen. One, there’ll be a little bit of universal income, the other thing that’s going to happen is, we’re going to have to transition into a state where critical thinking and scientific discovery, the scientific method, and evidentiary process is what drives our economy, and our society, and that’s science.
I&T Today: And our politics, the whole thing.
CN: And our politics, and our policy, it’s science. And so if any kid is thinking about STEM, I say, find something in it that really sparks your curiosity. So for my son, it’s chemistry, this kid has already memorized the periodic table.
I&T Today: Wow.
CN: I see him working on molecular bonds, and I’m like, “Wow.” He also loves biology. So these are two things that have sparked his curiosity. He started off in astrophysics, but he found chemistry, so I’m like, “Be an astrochemist bro, not a big deal.” Yeah. This is coming from your father who’s a comedian.
So my message and my advice is, find something in science that sparks curiosity, and if it continues to excite you, go after that, you’ll never be sorry, because the way that it teaches you to think, and what you learn in that subject discipline, you’ll be able to apply in many, many other areas of work and life. So you may start off in the sciences, but because you know how to think, you may end up in government informing policy, because the policy needs to be informed by the science.
I&T Today: Follow Chuck on Twitter, @ChuckNiceComic, and online at ChuckNiceComic.com. Brain Games: On The Road premiers Feb. 25, at 8/7 Central on Nat Geo, with four episodes a night over five consecutive Fridays, and it’s going to be great, so check it out.
CN: And if you miss that Friday, please stream it on Disney+.