Alan Alda Is Still Awesome

Few actors inspire the warm fuzzies like Alan Alda. At eighty-six, he’s still the platonic ideal of “nice dad”: the type of guy you’d find in a cardigan, reading a copy of the Sunday Times in an armchair. But the popular image of Alda doesn’t cover the remarkable breadth of his career. There was, of course, his eleven-year run playing Hawkeye on “M*A*S*H,” the era-defining wartime dramedy. (The series finale, which Alda directed, is still the highest-rated episode of a scripted series ever aired.) He was a genial presence in Woody Allen movies in the eighties and nineties, a voice in Marlo Thomas’s children’s album “Free to Be . . . You and Me,” a Republican Presidential candidate on “The West Wing,” an aging hippie in “Flirting With Disaster,” and a kind but inept divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.” During the “M*A*S*H” years, Alda was an outspoken advocate in the feminist movement. He’s directed four movies, written three books, and, from 1993 to 2005, hosted PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers,” becoming a kind of pop-culture science teacher. In 2009, he helped create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University.

These days, Alda’s primary occupation is podcaster. He recently released the two-hundredth episode of “Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda,” on which he has interviewed authors, artists, scientists, and luminaries, including Yo-Yo Ma, Helen Mirren, Stephen Breyer, and Madeleine Albright. (It has an all-science offshoot, “Science Clear+Vivid.”) His conversational style, as you might expect, is gentle, informed, and unendingly curious. When Alda appeared on my Zoom screen recently, he wore tortoiseshell glasses and occasionally sipped from a blue mug with a sailboat on it. His right hand had a visible tremor, a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. He was at his house on Long Island, where he’s spent the pandemic with his wife of sixty-five years, Arlene Alda. When he’s not preparing for his podcast, he and Arlene play chess during the day (“She’s just beaten me three times in a row, which she’s exultant over”) and ladder ball before dusk, then eat a nice dinner and binge-watch TV shows (lately, Scandinavian family dramas). “It’s not noisy in the country,” Alda said. “I don’t have to show up places. Places come to me.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

What made you want to become a podcaster in your eighties?

It was to help the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Whatever income comes in from the podcast goes directly to the center. We’ve trained about twenty thousand scientists in nine different countries to communicate science better. But the podcast is fun just in itself, so it’s a double whammy for me. It’s about communicating in every way, which includes through acting, music, food. I get to talk to some of the most interesting and smartest people in the world.

Do you have a guiding philosophy for interviewing?

I do, and that is to have a genuine conversation and not ask them questions that I prepared in advance. It should come out of genuine curiosity, because that opens the other person up. I realized, while I was doing “Scientific American Frontiers,” that I was making use of things I’d learned as an improviser and as an actor.

How does improvisation help you communicate with people who are not actors?

Improvising requires relating. I’m not talking about comedy improvising—I’m talking about improvising based on the work of Viola Spolin. You have to observe the other person. You have to be watching their face, their body language, because from that you find out what they’re really saying to you. When I would be talking to the scientists, it took them out of lecture mode and put them in conversational mode.

I’m going to try to keep all this in mind as I ask you questions.

You know, it’s funny. For the book that I wrote about this, called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?,” which is in a nutshell what we’re talking about, I think three people who interviewed me said, “I’m taking the challenge. I’m closing my laptop right now.”

Helping scientists communicate is a real passion of yours. Were you seeing a problem you wanted to help solve?

It didn’t occur to me that there was a problem to be solved. What we were doing on the television show was useful to making science more accessible to the public, and I wondered, If we trained scientists, starting from actually improvising, would they be able to relate to the audience the way they were relating to me? I did a kind of experiment. One day I was at a university in L.A., and I had twenty engineering students come in one at a time to talk to the others about their work. Then we improvised for three hours and they talked again, and everybody in the room was surprised at how much clearer it was, how connected they were to the audience, not just rattling it off at them. Later, we developed a curriculum.

Can you give an example of an improv exercise that you’ve done with scientists?

One of the most basic things is the Mirror Exercise. Let’s you and I do it. You be my mirror. [He holds his palms up.] No matter what I do, you have to instantaneously do the same thing. [I put my hands up to the screen. His hands drift apart and then together, and I follow. Then he jerks his right hand to the side, and my left hand trails behind.] Now, did you see what just happened? Why weren’t you able to keep up with me?

Was I not concentrating?

No, because I went too fast. What you learn when you do this is that it’s your responsibility to help the other person be the mirror. Another primary thing you learn is that if you don’t observe the other person so carefully that you can almost predict what they’re going to do, it’s not going to work, because it has to be instantaneous. And that’s just the beginning. After we do a number of exercises based on improvising, then we help them tailor their message to the audience that’s going to hear it.

This seems so relevant to what we’ve been through in the pandemic, when public-health officials have had to communicate complex and evolving information to everyone on the entire planet, basically. Dr. Fauci is a good communicator, and yet people still have trouble understanding what is happening day to day.

I’ve been sorry to see that a basic message about science has not been communicated better than it has been, which is that science evolves. We had this problem long before COVID, where people would say, “Last year, you told me that red wine was good for me. This year, you’re telling me that it’s not. What are you going to tell me tomorrow? You can’t make up your mind!” Good scientists doubt their own work. It’ll look like they’re contradicting themselves, but they’re learning more about it in different ways. One scientist had a good analogy: If you were in a football game and you kept doing the same play over and over again, even though you were losing, would a fan say, “What are you doing? You’re changing the plan! First, there was passing. Now you’re telling me to run through the middle?”

And yet so many people say, “Why are you telling me to wear a KN95 mask, when six months ago a cloth mask was fine?” The science is evolving, and the virus is evolving, so naturally it’s going to change.

I think there’s a problem when you see a line at the bottom of a science article that says, “More research is required.” That ought to be closer to the top. And the headline shouldn’t say, “New Breakthrough! Everything’s Fixed!”

Why do you think that there’s such a persistent anti-science sentiment in this country? It’s been really pronounced during the pandemic, with the anti-vax movement, but it seems like a feature of American life. Or maybe it’s human life.

I don’t know why people have lost touch with the basic workings of science. When you hear people who don’t believe there’s a problem with climate change, they call themselves skeptics. Scientists are professional skeptics. When the vast majority of them talk about the problems of climate change, they’re working from a set of facts that the person who’s just heard about it has not.

As a science enthusiast, are there any particular scientific concepts that you’re really interested in at the moment?

It all knocks me out. I have only a smattering of knowledge, so I don’t have to pretend to an ignorance I don’t possess. I thought it was really interesting that CRISPR, the gene-editing tool, borrowed machinery from bacteria, which can find a spot in the DNA of viruses that are trying to invade the bacteria and chop up the DNA of the virus. So it can find like a G.P.S. system and snip like a pair of scissors, as far as I understand it. And the lowly bacteria are now helping us revolutionize medicine. Did that make sense, what I said? I’m curious.

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