Alan Alda needs no introduction. You just don’t need to introduce someone who has been a fixture on television for sixty-four years. He first appeared on The Phil Silvers Show in 1958, then slowly built a career in TV, movies, and TV movies, before landing what, for a lesser actor, would have been the role of a lifetime—playing the sardonic, seen-it-all military doctor Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. He played Hawkeye for eleven years and then just kept going, earning accolades for his roles on 30 Rock and Ray Donovan and as a politician on The West Wing.
Alda is a six-time winner of both the Emmy Award and the Golden Globe Award. He’s directed four movies; written three books, including the evocatively named If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?; and spent over a decade hosting PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers. That last role turned out to be transitional for Alda, moving him into the position of science translator, breaking down complicated theories into easily digestible media for the masses. Building on that experience, in 2009 he helped create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at New York’s Stony Brook University, with a mission to teach scientists, engineers, and medical professionals to communicate clearly and vividly. The phrase “clear and vivid” has become a sort of mantra for Alda’s latest chapter.
At eighty-six years old, Alda is fully engaged in a third (or is that fourth?) act in his career. As a podcaster, he has hosted more than two hundred episodes of Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda, in which he gently presses authors, artists, scientists, and luminaries—including Yo-Yo Ma, Mel Brooks, Stephen Breyer, and Madeleine Albright—about their fields of study. He even has an all-science offshoot podcast called Science Clear+Vivid. Both showcase Alda’s natural curiosity and eagerness to learn through listening.
I. Inbox Ten Thousand
ALAN ALDA: While we talk, I’m going to email my office and let them know I’m on it so they don’t get nervous.
THE BELIEVER: Well, that’s good. Are you a good multitasker?
AA: I have a special way to multitask: I don’t think about anything while I’m doing other things.
BLVR: So… is that multitasking?
AA: Not quite multi, but I get a lot of things done.
BLVR: That’s always useful. It seems like you do have a lot of things you need to be getting done lately.
AA: Yeah, I’m always pretty busy, but I haven’t been this busy in a long time. I have a really long list of things I have to get done, and they’re all—almost all—urgent. I just think about the most urgent one and don’t think about the rest until I get that done.
BLVR: I suppose that’s good as long as you’re able to prioritize. I feel like I’m bad at prioritizing.
AA: Yeah, you kinda get drawn to the one that’s the squeakiest wheel, but that may not be the one that needs priority. Also, it’s good to get a head start on something that’s coming up a long time from now so it doesn’t weigh on your mind. Just get a head start and then put it away for a while.
BLVR: So does that mean you’ve done all your Christmas shopping already?
AA: I— Well, I take care of that by not doing any Christmas shopping.
BLVR: I guess that is one way to just make sure it never pops up on your to-do list.
AA: Yeah, I’m not that good at prioritizing—I’ve got about 120 flagged emails in my inbox right now.
BLVR: How many emails do you have in total?
AA: Oh, tens of thousands that I have to answer.
BLVR: [Gasps] So you’re not an inbox-zero person, then.
AA: Once in a while I get to that point, but people have to wait for a while.
BLVR: I’m a firm believer in it. Every time I get an email, I answer it right away.
AA: The trouble is, I get too many emails that ask me to read something or analyze something, and you can’t just do that while you’re in the back of a taxicab.
BLVR: Well, you could…
AA: Well, you could if you give it no thought whatsoever. Which is also a good strategy. Or you can give one-word answers like “yes,” “no.”
BLVR: You’ve been on a mission recently to enhance global communication and explore the way we communicate with one another. Do you think that taking the time to properly answer an email is part of that?
AA: I think it depends on what you’re answering and who you’re talking to. If somebody is OK with a one-word answer, because they’re in constant touch with you and they appreciate a brief answer, that’s fine. If some head of a university writes you a five-page email and begs you to accept an honorary doctorate, the word no is probably rude.
BLVR: You should just respond with an emoji, right?
AA: Yeah, well, I think emojis are a hopeful sign, because they’re an indication that at that moment in your message, you’re thinking about what the other person might misunderstand. You stick in an emoji to make it clear you’re not being snarky or sarcastic or rude, but that you mean what you said as a lighthearted thing. And that’s an indication that you’re thinking of what the other person’s thinking.
BLVR: Right, because it gives context to the words that you’re saying.
AA: Yeah, you’re aware of the other person’s thought process, and that’s the first step in communicating. Communication is often thought of as crafting the best message—a message that best expresses what you have in mind. But what good is the best message if it doesn’t land on the person you’re aiming at? You gotta know where they are, where their mind is, and craft your message according to that.
BLVR: Because you put this kind of importance on emojis, do you feel like you are an expert-level emoji user?
AA: I wouldn’t say I’m at an expert level. I just have a couple of favorites that are fun—the guy with his tongue sticking out with one eye closed.
BLVR: Yes, that’s an important one.
AA: Sometimes I can’t make out what they’re saying. But that’s OK, because if one emoji expert is talking to another emoji expert, then they probably understand each other fine. It’s important that there’s a place for jargon.
II. Reasonable Talk for Serious Problems
BLVR: You have a podcast and you’re a Twitter user and you have obviously been on TV shows and so many things. Do you find that your personal communication style changes depending on the nature of the platform?
AA: Well, obviously you can be more expansive on the podcast than on Twitter because Twitter limits the number of characters you can use. But the approach remains always the same: to be clear and vivid. It’s important no matter what—in fact, it’s a little harder but more important when you have character limits. I see a lot of tweets that could mean a lot of things because they’re not thoughtfully constructed.
BLVR: Has “clear and vivid” been sort of a mantra for you for a while?
AA: Yeah, it grew out of the work that we did at the Center for Communicating Science, which I started over a decade ago.
BLVR: What are you most proud of that has come out of the center?
AA: I think it’s the impact we’ve had on scientists, doctors, and other medical professionals. Some of the senior scientists say they understand their own science better because they learned how to communicate it better to the public. They get an overview of their own work that they didn’t have before, and it helps them in their own work, which is surprising and very satisfying. Another really surprising thing that led to the book about communication I wrote, and that led to the podcast, was a scientist telling us, “This training is saving my marriage.” Then I began to realize in concrete ways that it’s not just for scientists and doctors: it’s for everybody. That’s the point of view that I wrote the book from. And, of course, that’s the point of view in the podcast, because I have conversations with people in every conceivable field.
BLVR: You’ve interviewed everyone from Itzhak Perlman to Judge Judy. That’s quite the range!
AA: Yeah, Sarah Silverman, Itzhak Perlman, and Judge Judy—you don’t often find them together in the back of a taxi cab.
BLVR: No, but I think it would be a fun taxi to be stuck in! So how have you been choosing the guests for the podcast?
AA: People who I think will have interesting and insightful stories about relating to other people and communicating. So far, everybody has had a really interesting story—stories, I think, are very important. And also people who can have a good conversation: not pontificate or do a little media lecture, but have a real conversation where the ball goes back and forth.
BLVR: I feel like social media has made so many conversations one-sided. Twitter and Facebook posts are just like monologues, without any conversation. Do you feel like that’s true?
AA: Yeah, I do. I think it’s much more engaging for a listener to hear a good conversation than to hear a monologue. And a conversation that sounds like a conventional interview is not a real conversation. I’m really much more interested in a conversation that expresses my own curiosity about the other person. I don’t know what I’m going to ask the other person until I hear them tell me something. I go in with a couple of things I know I’m going to want to ask, but I don’t have a list of questions that I go down point by point, because all that does is make the other person give me their little set pieces—that’s boring. You don’t hear two people having a dance together.
BLVR: As someone who does a lot of interviews, I find that people who just recite what they want to recite and don’t actually engage with you—
AA: Yeah, that’s right! They’ve decided they have the perfect way to express what they are selling or what their ideas are. And regardless of what you say to them, they just want to tell you in that perfect way and they don’t want to really get into your head. They just want you to be a stenographer for them, and that’s not fun! That’s not fun to listen to.
BLVR: It’s funny for me to hear you say that, just because I feel like Aaron Sorkin is kind of responsible for a lot of the monologues you get in pop culture these days. Like he has fed into this monologue culture that we live in now.
AA: Well, it’s true. I don’t know if there’s less listening than before, but I think the problem facing good communication has always been listening. I don’t know if it’s worse now, but the country is split politically and the sides don’t listen to each other. I don’t see how we’re going to get anyplace if they don’t.
BLVR: I was rewatching The West Wing, and while it’s obviously a fictional show, the interaction between Republicans and Democrats seems so civil and reasonable and rational, compared to what we have now.
AA: I don’t know if it ever was a picture of reality so much as a dramatic presentation of what could be. But it was uplifting to see the opponents have a rational talk. But that sure couldn’t happen in real life. There was a time—they all tell me there was a time—when they would argue on the floor heatedly and then go out for a beer together and find out about one another’s families. And when you do that, it’s hard to demonize the other person. But, boy, demonization is rampant now.
BLVR: Well, yeah. I mean, every day I feel like there’s a new walking evil…
AA: “Walking evil”—that’s good.
BLVR: I was really struck while watching a scene in The West Wing with your character [Arnold Vinick] and Jimmy Smits’s character [Matthew Santos], where you’re having this very intense conversation and you’re obviously in rival political parties and you’re going against each other and you’re so civil and nice and reasonable. I know it’s fictional, but it also just made me nostalgic for a day when that seemed possible, because now I feel like that’s a fantasy even more than fiction.
AA: It’s very hard now. Everybody seems to be convinced that everybody else is lying, making up facts, and it’s hard to have a discussion when you can’t agree on basic things. But knowing the other person, knowing who you’re talking to, plays into that again. I’m finding on my podcast that when you bring people together who were fierce enemies, trying to kill each other, and get them to have a view of each other as people, to know about their families, their childhood experiences, things like that, they are able to talk more reasonably with each other and solve serious problems. Like, I had a conversation with George Mitchell, the former senator who negotiated the agreement in Northern Ireland between people who had been killing one another for decades. And I talked with Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who organized groups of women, half of them Israeli and half of them Palestinian, and had them visit places that were important to them and their culture. They had a softened view of one another as a result of that.
BLVR: So do you believe the idea that once you get to know someone else’s story, it’s hard to hate them?
AA: It might not work every time—like the guy who’s in jail in California for all those murders in the ’70s. What’s his name?
AA: Manson. Yeah, I doubt that if I heard his life story, I’d have more sympathy for him. But in the broad range of people, not an extreme outlier like him, it does make it harder to hate someone when you see how similar they are to you.
III. “I’m doing exactly what I ought to do”
BLVR: Who do you wish you could sit down and talk to? Who are your dream guests?
AA: So far, pretty much everybody has said yes.
AA: Yeah, Michelle Obama. It’d be fun to talk to her because so many people respond to her, on all sides. And it’s interesting to see what a person understands about the response to them. I’ve always wanted to talk to this scientist in Switzerland who has done functional MRI studies and discovered that the reward centers in the brain are activated when someone is punishing someone else for what they perceive as a transgression of some kind. The idea that we feel good when we’re punishing somebody is a really interesting discovery, I think.
BLVR: So is this sort of like a Milgram experiment?
AA: I forget. I probably read how he does the experiment, but I doubt it’s a Milgram-type thing, because I don’t think they can do that anymore.
BLVR: Well, if it’s in Switzerland, who knows what the rules are?
AA: Yeah. Maybe in Switzerland it’s different. I don’t know. But I think you can set up a situation where you punish somebody in a mild way, and it’s not like the Milgram thing, where you punish them to extremes. The thing that really interests me is: What does that mean for how we communicate? When someone says something we disagree with and we correct them strongly, was it really important to correct them for the sake of the discussion, or were we just getting off on it?
BLVR: Does that mean we’re all secretly sadists or at least have, like, sadistic tendencies?
AA: I see what you mean. I see that it could sound like that. I don’t know. There’s probably some survival benefits from it, but like all benefits, you have to modulate it so it doesn’t do more harm than good.
BLVR: Have you always been a science nerd?
AA: Since I was a kid, I was always interested in how things worked. I was an amateur inventor when I was a kid.
BLVR: What did you invent?
AA: I invented a five-way can opener. There were five different functions, and I put them together in one device. It wasn’t much of an invention, but—
BLVR: It sounds like you invented a Swiss Army knife but just for opening cans.
AA: Well, one thing that I invented that really was not a bad idea was a lazy Susan in the refrigerator, so you didn’t have to reach to the back to get things: you could just turn the turntable. And about a year or two after I thought of that, a refrigerator company [General Electric] actually came out with one. And then a year after that, they stopped making them. Like, there were bottles of ketchup flying around kitchens all over the country.
BLVR: Too bad you hadn’t patented it, though. You could’ve made a little money.
AA: Well, at the age of ten, I didn’t know about patenting.
BLVR: So you invented a can opener and a refrigerator lazy Susan. Are all your inventions food-related?
AA: That’s funny; I never thought of that! Maybe so. I didn’t invent a malted milk machine, but I did make one out of spare parts.
BLVR: How do you make a malted milk machine?
AA: Well, you get a tube and you solder it to a motor and stick it over a glass.
BLVR: OK, maybe I don’t know what a malted milk is, because I thought it was like a milkshake.
AA: Yeah, it is, it is. But the machine is just a thing to electronically stir. It was really just for the fun of it, making something; it really wasn’t anything.
BLVR: So why did you let acting distract you from your obviously brilliant career in invention?
AA: My brilliant career as an inventor! My father was an actor, and from the time I was about two and a half or even younger, as far as I know, I was standing in the wings watching him perform. So there was no other life I even considered except writing. I wanted to be a writer even before I wanted to be an actor.
BLVR: So you just dabbled in invention?
AA: Yeah, I was an inventor on the side. It was just fun. You know, it’s always been fun. In my twenties I really started reading about science seriously, and I kept at it. Not because I had some urgent need to understand it; I was just curious, and it was extremely entertaining to me to find out what people had figured out about nature.
BLVR: You’ve played a doctor several times in your career. Were you able to use any of the scientific knowledge you’ve gleaned in your roles?
AA: I don’t think so.
BLVR: That is too bad.
AA: I just play what’s in the script.
BLVR: And it sounds like maybe in a different time, you could’ve been the next Elon Musk.
AA: Well, I think we have one of those.
BLVR: Yeah, but you could’ve been a better one. With fewer weird pastimes.
AA: No, I’m doing exactly what I ought to do. And it’s only because I followed my nose and kept looking for what was interesting to me. I wanted to be a really good writer, and I never stopped trying to figure out how I could do that. The same thing with acting. And that curiosity about science led me to do the television series Scientific American Frontiers,which I did for eleven years. I learned an awful lot about science, but I didn’t realize I was learning about communication at the same time.
BLVR: So when did you realize that it was all about communication?
AA: Well, when I got off the show, I realized that the successful interviews were conversations and that they involved improvising, which I had studied as an actor. They were like the experience of two actors on the stage, where they have to listen to each other in a rich way. Otherwise, it doesn’t look like real life. It isn’t real life; it’s just dueling monologues. And I thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could train scientists to have that relationship with whoever they’re talking with? So that’s when I started experimenting, teaching scientists improvisation. That expanded into using improvisation to learn the basics of crafting a message. We found that it doesn’t matter if the person is physically in front of you—they could be distant in time and space, the way they are when you’re writing for an audience—but if you’re thinking about who you’re writing for and their mental process, you can apply those same techniques to writing. It sounds odd. I mean, the techniques are based on recognizing body language and other clues that you get from the voice and the face of the other person. But you can still think of what they’re going through, even if you can’t see them.
IV. Cake Talk
BLVR: It’s interesting that you’ve been so inspired by improv and have kind of extrapolated it into this entire communication methodology, because in my experience, improv is usually the thing somebody invites you to on a second date and you really don’t want to go.
AA: Well, that’s curious, because if it’s the second date, they should already have enough clues from the first date to know you wouldn’t want to go to improv. Sounds like poor communication to me. They’re not paying attention to you.
BLVR: So you’re saying most bad dates come down to poor communication?
AA: I would probably say slightly more than 100 percent of the time. I mean, I haven’t been on many dates in my life. I’ve been married over sixty years! But first dates are usually, I would imagine, so filled with anxiety that you could be picking up on a lot of information, a lot of data on the other person. If you don’t pick up on it and if you don’t feel you can comfortably respond to that, then I would guess there shouldn’t be a second date.
BLVR: I feel like sometimes you don’t realize they’re not picking up on the information until you go on the second date, and then you realize they didn’t listen to anything you said on the first date.
AA: Oh, I see! Yeah, some people are good at the listening pose—the pose that says, I’m really listening with fascination.
BLVR: Maybe that’s what Rodin based his sculpture on. But you’ve mentioned you’ve been married for sixty-one years now, and I’ve heard that you guys met over rum cake. Could you tell me that story?
AA: Well, at the risk of doing a monologue, I will. The first time we met was brief. Arlene was playing chamber music at a friend’s house—Arlene was a clarinetist when we met, professional. The second time we met, we were invited to the same apartment for dinner. The woman who had invited us had made a rum cake for dessert, and she had it up on the top of the refrigerator in the kitchen to cool during dinner. But the refrigerator was an old Philco refrigerator—they don’t even make them anymore, I think—and it had a rounded top and it shook while it worked, and during dinner the rum cake slowly made it way to the edge of the top of the refrigerator, and then it went splat on the floor. And Arlene and I were the only two people who got up with our spoons and ate it off the floor. So when that happens, you know destiny is talking to you.
BLVR: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to find two people who believe in the five-second rule!
AA: I’ve read a scientist who reported on that. They actually studied it, and they said microbes move a lot faster than five seconds. So if it’s on the floor at all, you’re picking up microbes. But we didn’t eat the bottom part; we ate the top part, which didn’t touch the floor. Do you think we were crazy?
BLVR: How many other cakes have you guys shared off the floor in your lives?
AA: None, but we… On our fiftieth anniversary we served everybody rum cake for dessert, and we were really tempted to have the waiters drop it on the floor. Instead of eharmony and all those dating sites, all you have to do is toss a piece of rum cake on the floor and see who goes for it. Especially if someone’s been laughing at your jokes throughout dinner like Arlene was. Oh, I was ready for the rum cake experience.
BLVR: Is rum cake your favorite kind of cake, then?
AA: I love rum cake, and partly for the memories, but I don’t eat it much.
BLVR: No? What do you tend to eat instead?
AA: What do I eat instead? I eat, like, carrot cake.
BLVR: Carrot cake, huh? Honestly, if we just talked about cake for the rest of the time, I would be thrilled.
AA: Well, it doesn’t have much appeal for me, but whatever you want to talk about.
BLVR: So you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, or just the topic of conversation doesn’t appeal to you?
AA: Oh, well, it doesn’t seem fruitful as a topic of conversation.
BLVR: What if we talked about fruitcake: that would fruitful.
AA: Actually, I like fruitcake. It has such a bad reputation because most fruitcakes are passed around. After a few years they become inedible, but a fresh fruitcake isn’t bad. You know what’s really, really good? Panforte. It’s fruitcake-like. Isn’t it good?
BLVR: It is delicious. You know, at Prince Louis’s christening they served seven-year-old fruitcake.
AA: Seven-year-old? You’d have to eat it with a hammer.
BLVR: Apparently it was Kate and Williams’s wedding cake, and they saved a slice to serve at his christening.
AA: So could your teeth make a dent in it?
BLVR: I don’t know; I assume. I don’t know. Maybe they gave everyone, like, tiny hacksaws.
AA: English toffee is good too.
BLVR: Oh, yeah, you can’t go too wrong with that.
V. “I just did it because it was fun”
BLVR: That’s enough sweet talk for someone without a sweet tooth. What led you to start a podcast?
AA: To spread this idea and to bring in some income for the Center for Communicating Science, because all the income that we take in from ad sales goes to support the Center for Communicating Science.
BLVR: So you’ve decided that podcasting is the way to fortune?
AA: Well, no. It’s just one way. I’m busy raising money in conventional ways for the center too. I give talks around the country on the lecture circuit. And all the money from those talks goes to the center. So that helps a lot.
BLVR: Were you inspired by any podcast in particular? Like, do you have favorites?
AA: No, I think I was more inspired by all the work I’ve done over the last twenty-five years. And the producer of the podcast was the producer of Scientific American Frontiers all those years ago. He also worked for a couple of years at the Center for Communicating Science, so we’ve been working together for two and a half decades. And the idea is to get a really interactive conversation going, a true conversation. And hopefully with good stories coming out of it and some fun, you know: some laughter! I listen to other podcasts, but I haven’t heard one quite like that.
BLVR: What’s on your podcast playlist?
AA: I like Freakonomics. And I think Marc Maron does a terrific job. His conversation with Barack Obama was amazing, I thought. I interviewed Marc Maron on the show. He was a good conversationalist. Very honest, very straight. And Sarah Silverman was too. I was so impressed with the story she tells about that guy who insulted her on Twitter and how she turned his life around just by being thoughtful and caring about it.
BLVR: Yeah, and I feel like you don’t hear that story very often when it comes to people we consider trolls.
AA: Well, if you treat them like a troll, they’ll probably act more like a troll. But that doesn’t mean that what she did would work with everybody. When she looked at his profile, I think she probably thought she had a chance to connect with this person. Maybe she wouldn’t have reached out to him if she hadn’t had that feeling.
BLVR: Do you listen to The West Wing Weekly?
AA: Did you say “wrestling”?
BLVR: No, “West Wing.”
AA: Oh! No, but I do catch wrestling as often as I can.
BLVR: Do you really? Are you a wrestling fan?
AA: No! I don’t think there is a podcast for that.
BLVR: There probably is—there are a lot of podcasts.
AA: No, I didn’t know there was a West Wing show. What do they talk about? West Wing is all over.
BLVR: Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway watch the show and talk about it. Well, it’s something to add to the playlist.
AA: Well, I’m kind of busy making them now. I don’t listen to them that much.
BLVR: Yeah, I think that’s actually one of the biggest problems—there’s so much content these days, it’s hard to keep up. Especially if you’re a content creator. You don’t have time to watch everything or read every scientific article, every science book, and listen to all the podcasts. How do you balance?
AA: I skim a lot. But you can’t do that with the podcasts.
BLVR: You can if you listen on one-and-a-half speed.
AA: Oh, yeah, but then it sounds like Porky Pig is talking.
BLVR: What do you have planned for the future? You have a podcast and the center and an incredible acting career. What do you want to do next?
AA: I don’t make plans about the future.
BLVR: Oh, really?
AA: Yeah. I think five-year plans tend not to work. I tend to make a new one every year.
BLVR: How long have you been not making plans?
AA: Probably since I was born? Yeah, I just go—follow what interests me. And that really works. I know there are people, even in my business, show business, who have a planned future: I did this and now I should do that and then I should do this. I think when you make plans in my field, the world is so uncertain, you can’t stick to that plan. You gotta adjust to the uncertainties. So it’s more like an improvisation, and that’s more comfortable for me, and I’m happy dealing with uncertainty. For example, in the town where we have a country place, there’s a wonderful concert festival every summer, and for the last three years I’ve taken part in the opening concert. I write a story based on the correspondence of the composer with people important in his life, and each part of the story is connected to one of pieces they are playing. Last night—and tonight is the second performance—it was Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, brother and sister, and I just did it because it was fun.
BLVR: Well, fun is a good reason to do things.
AA: While I was busy doing the podcast and promoting it and raising money for the center and helping work out management problems and things like that, I was reading hundreds of letters between Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and trying to find a story and then getting up and performing it with the octet, who are brilliant musicians, some of the best in the country. And that—I just did that because it interested me and it opened up a world to me. I did it with Mozart last year and the year before that. No, last year was Schumann and Brahms, and before that it was Mozart. And it’s exciting to accomplish something even when it’s far afield from what you’ve usually done or what you’re known for doing. And I didn’t plan to do that; I didn’t have in my mind for three years that once a year I was going to write and perform a piece about a famous composer.
BLVR: And yet here you are. So, yeah, I guess if you planned too far in advance, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
AA: Yeah, I would be doing something else, which maybe I wouldn’t be enjoying.
BLVR: OK, so your advice is never make plans and always communicate your lack of plans clearly.
AA: My advice is to try to not give too much advice. It works best for me.