INTERVIEW: Tell Stephen J. Dubner something he doesn’t know

Stephen J. Dubner is the host of Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which will play New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of Helene Davis PR.

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio, is ready to send inquiring minds into a frenzy when he brings his live game show and podcast, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, to New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. Audience members can expect entertaining trivia, fascinating facts and deep (and deeply hilarious) thoughts from a panel of industry leaders in the fields of science, politics, sports and comedy.

Even though the game show shares a name with a well-known Selena Gomez song, the singer is not expected to make an appearance. Instead, fans can expect “journalism wrapped in a game-show package,” according to its Stitcher page.

Each night will have its own theme and its own celebrity panel, and there’s an on-site fact-checker ready to separate the facts from the alternative facts.

Dubner is a well-known presence in the book, podcast and radio worlds. He co-wrote Freakonomics, the original book that launched the phenomenon, with Steven D. Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and 2003 John Bates Clark Medal winner. The book, which was followed by SuperFreakonomicsThink Like a Freak and When to Rob a Bank, sold more than 5 million copies and posed many interesting questions of the economy, all in the pursuit of uncovering “the hidden side of everything.”

Dubner’s other books include Turbulent Souls (Choosing My Religion), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper and The Boy With Two Belly Buttons. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Time.

Recently, Dubner exchanged emails with Hollywood Soapbox about the game show, Freakonomics’ continued popularity and the art of podcasting. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

Where did the idea for Tell Me Something I Don’t Know come from?

It grew out of a game I played on airplanes when I started to travel a lot and talk to strangers. I’m quite shy by nature, but also curious, so after learning what the nice stranger next to me did with their time, I’d simply ask them to “tell me something I don’t know” about that, since even the most popular vocations/pursuits are full of wrinkles and insights that only insiders know. I got hooked on how many interesting things I learned, and realized that this was just another form of journalism — but rather than consistently seeking out experts, pundits, and the like, what it would be like to invite the whole world on stage and ask them to tell you something fascinating about their lives and work?

Any clues on the celebrity guests? Do they always remain a secret?

I can’t reveal them quite yet, but if you study our past panels, you see we go for a mix of funny, smart, accomplished, and well-known people who usually have a connection, sometimes a bit indirect/cheeky, to the theme of the evening. I *will* tell you the theme of our two Skirball nights: “Family Matters” (including parenting, dynasties, genetics, etc.) and “Music” (with a very special fact-checker who, as you can imagine, may do most of his talking with musical instruments).

Are you amazed at how popular and influential podcasts have become in the past few years?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I started the Freakonomics Radio podcast in early 2010 because I’d just finished work on SuperFreakonomics, our second book in the series, and I was looking for something more short-term and collaborative to work on. It was never meant to become a ‘thing.’ But once Freakonomics Radio started drawing a large audience, I thought it might be good to devote more time to it to live up to the audience expectations. That engagement has only continued to deepen — and, thankfully, afford me the opportunity for spinoff projects like Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which scratches a number of itches that Freakonomics Radio doesn’t: it’s a live show, inherently a bit on the goofy side, hugely fun on a moment-by-moment basis.

Could you ever imagine that the original Freakonomics would still inspire conversations and further projects this many years later?

No — but I should say that I learned a while ago that writing anything based on how you think it will be received is a fool’s game. I’ve written things that I thought were very compelling — and no one cared. I’ve written things that I thought would capture people’s attention — and totally failed. So I decided to forget trying to predict or worry about the possible response to my work and just pursue the things that I thought were interesting, important, fun, or hopefully a combination of the three.

Looking back, do you believe the original book helped “redefine the way we view the modern world,” as your website states?

Oof, is that what our website says? Must talk to someone about that …

What’s the advantage of watching a podcast taping live versus downloading it at home?

It’s an entirely different experience, in part because you’re identifying much more intensely with the people who are speaking live on stage (the contestants, the panelists, the fact-checker and host). Also: we tape for roughly two hours in order to produce a roughly 50-minute podcast — so you get to hear all the rabbit holes we go down and never come out of!

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know will tape a live podcast at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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