When Congress passed the Children's Television Act of 1990, pushing stations to put some educational value in their programming, Paul Zaloom was the perfect guy to take on the title character of Beakman's World. The show that tried to make science fun and accessible lasted six seasons, yet never quite got the ratings of nonstop kung fu candy like Power Rangers.
"If you offer cake and brown rice, which are kids going to take?" Zaloom asks. Which is why he is the perfect choice. Even when he's tackling serious subjects, Zaloom's all cake. In Beakman Live!, the theatrical version of the TV show, Zaloom demonstrates five scientific principles with flying toilet paper, bowling balls and a vomiting bucket with Beakman's face on it. "You know that snot in your head? It's not just lunch, it has a real-world function," Zaloom says as an example of his approach.
Zaloom began as a political performance artist who did Punch-and-Judy-style puppet shows in the '80s using found objects. A typical show might tackle the subject of nuclear hazards, Republican conventions, the S&L scandal or use a wooden leg with a black sock and shoe on it to portray Jesse Helms. "It looked like Helms's leg without any trousers on," Zaloom explains. The producers liked Zaloom because he had a wackiness not common among boring method actors.
"I'm unapologetically not a scientist. I'm a performer. My job is to entertain," Zaloom says. And science isn't the only value in this more mainstream show. "Theater is dead. It's finished. It's all movies and TV," he says, and this is about the only chance most kids will have to see a live performance.
With what he calls "the Enron crowd" running the country, Zaloom sees us moving away from progressive education back to rote memorization. Beakman is the kind of innovative approach that gives kids a hands-on experience that will stick with them. "This is accessible, this is available," Zaloom says. "Then it's up to the teachers to do the real work."