Remember 'Beakman's World'? The Wacky Scientist Is Still Big In Latin America

Remember 'Beakman's World'? The Wacky Scientist Is Still Big In Latin America

7:33pm Oct 15, 2015
Beakman, played by performance artist Paul Zaloom, was on TV in the U.S. 20 years ago, but is still beloved in Latin America, where it plays in reruns.
Beakman, played by performance artist Paul Zaloom, was on TV in the U.S. 20 years ago, but is still beloved in Latin America, where it plays in reruns.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television
  • Beakman, played by performance artist Paul Zaloom, was on TV in the U.S. 20 years ago, but is still beloved in Latin America, where it plays in reruns.

    Beakman, played by performance artist Paul Zaloom, was on TV in the U.S. 20 years ago, but is still beloved in Latin America, where it plays in reruns.

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

  • Paul Zaloom is treated as a major celebrity when he tours in Latin America. "It's interesting being fussed over so much when I'm down there and then coming home and leading a relatively quiet life here," he says.

    Paul Zaloom is treated as a major celebrity when he tours in Latin America. "It's interesting being fussed over so much when I'm down there and then coming home and leading a relatively quiet life here," he says.

    John Kalish for NPR

A children's television program that ran for only five seasons in the U.S. 20 years ago has gone on to enthrall kids around the world in reruns. The show was Beakman's World and its star was a wacky pseudo-scientist in a neon green lab coat and a Don King wig. The show is still beloved in Latin America, where the performance artist who played Beakman tours a stage version of the show to audiences of thousands.

Beakman's World mixed elements of MTV and Pee Wee's Playhouse. But the premise was straightforward: The title character answered kids' science questions, such as why does a bump appear on your skin after a mosquito bite.

Beakman began as a comic strip, called Yes You Can with Beakman and Jax, created in 1991 by Jok Church while he was working at Lucasfilm answering letters from children who wrote to the director.

"I just offered it to my local paper, the Marin Independent Journal," Church says. "I gave it to them for free. And I'd mail them to a list of feature editors and if they said, 'Please stop sending me this, we don't want it in our newspaper,' they still got it next week anyway."

It caught the eye of folks at Columbia Pictures Television. The man hired to direct the show happened to know a performance artist named Paul Zaloom, who took a zany approach to current events in his shows.

"They saw me there in the lab coat and they said, 'Well, the guy looks like a scientist,' " Zaloom recalls. "They saw the shtick. ... I take this raw information and make it entertaining and funny in my own work and they said, 'Well, this must be the guy.' "

Beakman's World moved to CBS, where it was popular but short-lived in this country. It was syndicated to 90 countries including India, Italy, Saudi Arabia and China. But nowhere, it seems, did it catch on more than in Latin America — where reruns are currently broadcast in 43 countries and territories. Beakman's World has been particularly popular in Mexico, where Aleida Rueda started watching it after lunch with her mother and sister.

"It happened to a lot of people — that we had this very family moment when you eat and you talk about your day and everything and just after that we used to go to the living room and watch Beakman's show. It was like a ritual," she says.

Today, Rueda is a press officer at the physics institute of the national Autonomous University of Mexico. She invited Zaloom to do his Beakman stage show last year and demand for tickets was so high that they had to move the event to a parking lot that accommodates 6,000. [You can see video of that performance here.]

Zaloom even had a police escort to the show — one officer stopped his car to ask for an autograph. The mayor of Mexico City showed up to watch Beakman — working with a translator — demonstrate how dry ice goes from being a solid to a gas.

Zaloom's other work — he's known for his political satire, often conveyed through puppets — has earned him an Obie Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, but the response he gets for his Beakman shows in Latin America still floors him.

"It's interesting being fussed over so much when I'm down there and then coming home and leading a relatively quiet life here," he says. "You know, Beakman was popular back in the day when it was on the air in the States, but it didn't really reach the level of wild passion and fandom and craziness that it has in Brazil and Mexico."

In April, Zaloom performed for 3,000 students at Prepa Tec, a private high school outside Mexico City. Physics teacher Enrique Hoyos watched Beakman on TV when he was a teenager and credits the show with leading him into his career.

"When I was young I was undecided whether to go into the humanities or science. The passion that Beakman generated and the way he made things so simple and easy to understand helped me to decide to study physics, and I got my degree in physics," he says.

Zaloom says hundreds of people in Latin America have told him that they became scientists because of Beakman's World.

"I think it was pretty overwhelming and a wonderful surprise to hear that people were indeed in the sciences because of the show," says Zaloom. "People apologize and say, 'I know you must have heard this many times before,' but I always tell them, no matter how many times I hear it, I will never, ever, get sick of hearing, 'I'm a scientist today because of you.' "


Manhattan-based radio journalist Jon Kalish has reported for NPR since 1980.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Children's television show that ran for only five seasons in the United States, 20 years ago, has gone on to enthrall youngsters around the world in reruns. That show was "Beakman's World." Its star was a kind of wacky pseudo-scientist in a neon green lab coat and a Don King wig. The show is still beloved in Latin America, where the man who played Beakman performs a stage version to audiences of thousands. Jon Kalish tries to explain the appeal.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: "Beakman's World" mixed elements of MTV and "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEAKMAN'S WORLD")

PAUL ZALOOM: (As Beakman) I'm Beakman, and you've just broken into Beakman's world.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Beakman...

KALISH: But the premise was straightforward. The title character answered kids' science questions, like why a bump appears after a mosquito bite.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEAKMAN'S WORLD")

ZALOOM: (As Beakman) Answer - mosquitoes use their saliva to keep your blood from clotting while they...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLURPING)

ZALOOM: (As Beakman) ...Feast on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BURPING)

ZALOOM: (As Beakman) And most people are allergic to mosquito saliva. The result - an itchy bump.

KALISH: Beakman began as a comic strip called "You Can With Beakman and Jax," created in 1991 by Jok Church, while he was working at Lucasfilm, answering letters from children who wrote to the director.

JOK CHURCH: I just offered it to my local paper, the Marin Independent Journal. I gave it to them for free. And I'd mail them to a list of the newspaper feature editors. And if they said, please stop sending me this, we don't want it in our newspaper, they still got it next week anyway.

KALISH: It caught the eye of folks at Columbia Pictures Television. The man hired to direct the show happened to know a performance artist named Paul Zaloom, who took a zany approach to current events in his shows.

ZALOOM: And they saw me there in the lab coat, and they said, well, the guy looks like scientist. And they saw the shtick, and there I take this raw information and make it entertaining and funny in my own work. And they said, well, this must be the guy.

KALISH: "Beakman's World" moved to CBS, where it was popular but short-lived in this country. It was syndicated to 90 countries, including India, Italy, Saudi Arabia and China. But nowhere, it seems, did it catch on more than in Latin America, where reruns are currently broadcast in 43 countries and territories. "Beakman's World" has been particularly popular in Mexico, where Aleida Rueda started watching it after lunch with her mother and sister.

ALEIDA RUEDA: It happened to me, and it happened to a lot of people, that we had this very family moment when you eat and you talk about your day and everything. And just after that, we used to go to the living room and watch Beakman show. It was like a ritual.

KALISH: Today, Rueda is a press officer at the physics institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She invited Zaloom to do his Beakman stage show last year, and demand for tickets was so high that they had to move the event to a parking lot that accommodates 6,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KALISH: Zaloom even had a police escort after the show. One officer stopped his car to ask for an autograph.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZALOOM: (As Beakman) Thank you. Thank you.

KALISH: The mayor of Mexico City showed up to watch Beakman - working with a translator - demonstrate how dry ice goes from being a solid to a gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZALOOM: (As Beakman) Now I am going to pour some soapy water on top of the dry ice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

ZALOOM: (As Beakman) OK, here we go. Let's see what happens.

(CHEERING)

KALISH: Zaloom's other work - he's known for his political satire, often conveyed through puppets - has earned him an Obie Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, but the response he gets for his Beakman shows in Latin America still floors him.

ZALOOM: It's interesting being fussed over so much when I'm down there and then coming home and leading a relatively quiet life here. You know, "Beakman" was popular back in the day when it was on the air in the States, but it didn't really reach the level of wild passion and fandom and craziness that it has in Brazil and Mexico.

KALISH: In April, Zaloom performed for 3,000 students at Prepa Tec, a private high school outside Mexico City. Physics teacher Enrique Hoyos watched Beakman on TV when he was a teenager and credits the show with leading him into his career.

ENRIQUE HOYOS: (Through interpreter) When I was young, I was undecided whether to go into the humanities or into science. The passion that Beakman generated and the way he made things sound so simple and so easy to understand, that helped me to decide to study physics, and I got my degree.

KALISH: Paul Zaloom says hundreds of people in Latin America have told him that they became scientists because of "Beakman's World."

ZALOOM: It was pretty overwhelming to hear that people were, indeed, in the sciences because of the show. People apologize and say, I know you must have heard this many times before. But I always tell them, no matter how many times I hear it, I will never, ever get sick of hearing, I'm a scientist today because of you.

KALISH: Every now and then, Zaloom will resurrect Beakman for audiences in this country, but he doesn't get a police escort.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Beakman, Beakman. We really love you, Beakman. We really love you.

ZALOOM: Thank you. Thanks. Thanks.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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