ST. PAUL, Minn. — Any boring college class would benefit greatly if Alan Alda were plopped in the front row. Of course, recruiting the six-time Emmy winner to enroll in Biology 101 might prove difficult, so just appreciate “The Human Spark,” a new three-part documentary premiering Wednesday on PBS that explores how people have developed their brainpower while Neanderthals and chimpanzees have never shifted out of first gear.
The series could easily have been as lifeless as a stuffed mammoth behind a glass wall, but Alda makes it an easy, breezy science lesson, animating the most eggheaded of scientists with a persistent line of questioning and the eagerness of a child who just learned the word “why.”
“It was sort of like having a very difficult student who is of rather above-average intelligence,” said John Shea, an associate professor of anthropology at New York’s Stony Brook University who is grilled by Alda about Stone Age technology. “It’s usually a one-way street: You lecture, they take notes and you give them an exam. This was instant feedback. One of the real nice benefits of this process is it makes you work harder to make your points clearer and more easily understood.”
Alda has been down this road before. While the post-“M*A*S*H” years have included some of the juiciest roles of his career, including two seasons on “The West Wing,” which added to his 33 Emmy nominations, and an Oscar-nominated turn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” he devoted more than a decade to “Scientific American Frontiers,” a series in which he first played the role of the nagging student.
Alda, 73, said he initially turned down “Frontiers” because they simply wanted him to provide narration.
“I said I’d only be interested in doing it if I could talk to the scientists and learn about what they’re doing, spend the day with them. That sounded like fun to me,” said Alda, who visited the Science Museum of Minnesota last month to help promote the series. “It was really selfish. They took a big chance because they didn’t know how it would turn out, but they said OK.
“We started to discover a whole new way to do a science show, which was to make it a personal experience and not just present the science. Those moments on camera where we’re just mixing together and I’m trying to get it and they’re trying to make me understand are really nice moments.”
That approach works equally well in “Spark,” as Alda crisscrosses the globe, experimenting with gorillas, hurling primitive tools and, most important, cajoling brainiacs to lighten up.
“When you decide to have a conversation, there’s less chance of them going into lecture mode,” he said. “You can actually see their eyes drifting over and their voices changing when they’re going that way.”
Alda’s relatability is a direct result of his actor’s training, particularly his work in improvisation, which forces you to listen and instantly react, a task that may have gotten harder for him in recent years as he’s suffered some hearing loss. It also can’t hurt that he played one of the more likable, beloved characters in TV history. I mean, you don’t need a jug of moonshine to want to open up to Hawkeye Pierce.
In person, Alda is as personable and curious as you’d imagine. He’s extremely well read, a byproduct, he says, of being a stage actor. (“You have more time. You can’t just go back to your hotel room and read your driver’s license.”) In conversation, he’s likely to ask more questions than anyone else in the room. On camera, his need to break it down to the simplest of terms may frustrate nerds, but it’s just the right approach for us C-minus students.
Despite the compelling nature of the series, don’t expect Alda to hang it up as an actor and become a full-time academic (although he certainly looked the part in St. Paul in his gray jacket and knit tie).
He has smoothly transitioned into a character actor with an ability to pump up his few, but precious, scenes in everything from “30 Rock” to “Flash of Genius.” He’s penned two bestselling books in the past decade and he’s currently working on a play, which he says he probably won’t appear in.
“For me to choose something, it first has to sound like fun and, two, it has to sound like it would be really hard to do, because I don’t want to do something I’ve done before,” said Alda, who could easily coast through the decade arranging “M*A*S*H” conventions. “The fun is going out on a plank and walking a high wire between two buildings and seeing if I can keep from falling off. Somehow, that appeals to me.”
THE HUMAN SPARK
8 p.m. EST Wed., Jan. 13 and Jan. 20