Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future on The David Letterman Show (1980)

In 1980, Newsweek published a cantankerous and sadly on-the-nose diagnosis of the United States’ “cult of ignorance” — written by one Isaac Asimov, “professor of biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine” and “author of 212 books, most of them on various scientific subjects for the general public.” Given this intimidating biography, and the fact that Asimov believed that “hardly anyone can read” in the U.S., we might expect the science fiction legend wanted nothing to do with television. We would be wrong.

Asimov seemed to love TV. In 1987, for example, the four-time Hugo winner wrote a humorously critical takedown of ALF for TV Guide. And he was a consummate TV entertainer, making his first major TV appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1968, appearing four times on The Mike Douglas Show in the next few years, and giving his final television interviews to Dick Cavett in a two-part series in 1989. The same year he wrote about America’s cult of ignorance, he appeared on The David Letterman show to crack wise with the biggest wiseass on TV. Asimov held his own and then some.

“Asimov, sixty in this video, proves himself a natural comedian,” writes the Melville House blog; “Letterman, thirty-three, can barely keep up.” Surely Asimov’s banter had nothing to do with The David Letterman Show’s cancellation three days later. (Letterman was back on the air for eleven seasons two years later.) Their interview ranges widely from pop culture (Asimov confesses his appreciation for both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) to “the future of medicine, space exploration, hope for mankind, and much more,” Vic Sage writes at Pop Culture Retrorama.

Asimov’s dry delivery — honed during his English-and-Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn childhood — is delightful. But the writer, teacher, and scientist hasn’t only come on TV to crack jokes, promote a book, and flaunt his muttonchops. He wants to educate his fellow Americans about the state of the future. (His Newsweek bio was outdated. As Letterman says, his appearance marked the publication of his 221st book.) Like Hari Seldon, the hero of his 1951 novel Foundation, Asimov felt confident in his ability to predict the course of human progress (or regress, as the case may be).

He also felt confident answering questions about what to do with outer space, and where to “put more men,” as Letterman says. His recommendation to build “factories” may strike us as a banal forerunner of Jeff Bezos’ even more banal plans for office parks in space. Asimov boasts of the vision he had of “pocket computers” in 1950 — hardly a reality in 1980. Dave complains about how complicated computers are, and Asimov accurately predicts that as technology catches up, they will get simpler to use. “But these are little things,” he says. “I never tried to predict. I just tried to write stories to pay my way through college.” He must have paid it several times over, and he seemed to get more right than he got wrong. See more of Asimov’s predictions in the links below.

Related Content:

Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Civilization–and Recommends Ways to Ensure That It Survives (1978)

Free: Isaac Asimov’s Epic Foundation Trilogy Dramatized in Classic Audio

Isaac Asimov Predicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today

Isaac Asimov Laments the “Cult of Ignorance” in the United States (1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (18)
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  • D.A. Trappert says:

    Amazing to see how calm and intelligent Letterman was in 1980. As he got more popular, it got to the point where he seemed to be bored with his guests and just out to amuse himself. Asimov also appeared on other TV shows, once I believe along with Harlan Ellison on Tom Snyder’ show. It’s so sad Asimov didn’t live to 100. We could use more like him today, when ignorance and anti-Science seem to have taken over.

  • Arlene Stern says:

    I’m a rabid Isaac Asimovfan. A he was an amazing prophet. His prophetic vision in 1980 on the David Letterman show started to come fruition in 2015 when Donald Trump ran for president. And ignorance and sheer stupidity began to be glorified. Mindless and brainless slugs and other creatures began to crawl and to slither forth from the swamps that Trump kept his promise to clean. We now see that these filthy beasts coming forth from them are spreading across our country. Poisoning everything and everyone that they come into contact with.

  • Adrienne Boswell says:

    When Trump ran I couldn’t help thinking he was The Mule.

  • Jack Babbel says:

    Gotta love with videos from The Donz pop up in unexpected places!

  • Mochael says:

    “started to come fruition in 2015 when Donald Trump ran for president. And ignorance and sheer stupidity began to be glorified. Mindless and brainless slugs and other creatures began to crawl and to slither forth from the swamps”

    Quite true!

    “that Trump kept his promise to clean.”

    Wait, what?

  • Anthony says:

    Was completed with Biden and it is scary as hell!!

  • Orange Man says:

    Orange Man bad

  • Steven Garrison says:

    I recently came to aquire the knowledge of Issac Asimov being a person. In that acquisition I learned he had an idea about a positronic brain. I would like to know what the best course of action to take would be for a person who has discovered a way to make it possible. I has no formal training past basic electronics and yet have produced many of the electronic impulse engines required for the function on minecraft. Caused a full system crash on my Nintendo Switch lite with 2 of my partial thought matrices. I see parts I need to make in systematic flashing mental images that come in waves when new information is presented to me. As they occur I am also presented with a visual mental walkthrough of how to accomplish the task of creation in several different ways, all of which work. I have a lot of information that I would like to translate into what our current math systems provide. Where do I start? I need help with this as I believe my goal of creating a Positronic Brain will be the goal that consumes the rest of my life.
    In the pursuit of more information, I would like to know as much information about all of his written works. Reading a persons words are the same as experiencing, in part, the writers mind. If I can experience the mind of Issac Asimov, even in part, I know I can do his dream proper justice. What are some good links alternative to the already provided web links here? I will also be looking those up shortly.

  • Mike says:

    That was happening well before Trump. The internet always celebrated the stupidity of people and carried their voices far and wide.

  • Edward Murphy says:

    This guy is copying Senator Daniel Patrick Monahan who preached this for years in the seventies.

  • Agnone says:

    It never fails. There will always be a few clowns, often many, who will find a way to use the name of Trump as a reply to literally anything. You people have allowed Trump to purchase prime real estate in your head and he has erected a massive Trump Tower in there and he controls everything you think, say and do. You are owned by Trump. You are a Trumpite.

  • TGP says:

    Right on!

  • Rich says:

    They drank the orange cool aid and it’s

  • OC says:

    Just curious, does anyone know who is sending a lot of visitors to this page at this moment?

    Open Culture

  • Anonymous says:

    Google now news feed

  • Steven Reyes says:

    MJT, Gosar, etc, etc, the cult of stupid. Never mind the racism….wtf. Where are we headed ?
    Personally I think, as far as climate change goes, this civilization is doomed, not to extinction level, just hell on earth. And what is the end game for these trumpists ?
    Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about the biggest meth bust in history, 50 million (? )
    Here’s what 50M meth looks like: picture of Jan. 6 rioters…

  • Michael Sacco says:

    He is the Muke!!! I thought this too!!!

  • Howard White says:

    But Asimov put his thoughts down in writing in his books ! DPM may have spoken to Chris Matthews. about his thoughts but never shared them with us. Love C. Matthews !

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