Blinded With Science: Paul Zaloom Steps Out from Beakman's World
by Rich Rosell
Beakman's World was one of the bright spots of children's television in the early 1990s, a manic, high-energy show that made science fun and easy to learn, for kids as well as adults. Paul Zaloom had the role of Beakman, the guy with the 3-foot-high 'do and the bright green lab coat.
dOc recently had the opportunity to chat with Zaloom and uncover not just a few tidbits about the show, but of the adventurous and unusual projects he has been involved with since.
dOc: The first question I have to ask, at the request of 13-year-old daughter, is whether or not on Beakman's World that was really your hair or not?
Paul Zaloom: Yes, the most commonly asked question of me. Yes, it is real, and yes it was mine. But it was not my hair, it was my wig.
dOc: What were you doing prior to getting the role of Beakman?
PZ: I'm a political satirist and a puppeteer by trade, that's what I've all my life, since I was a kid. Political satirist, puppeteer and performance artist.
dOc: So how did you end up as part of Beakman's World?
PZ: The director had been hired on Beakman's World, and he was an acquaintance of mine from New York. They looked around in Hollywood for the right guy to do it, and they found it hard to find someone other than a sit-com dad type?they were looking for sort of an unorthodox type, I guess?and they couldn't find him. So he gave me a call, and I went out and did a screen test, which wasn't going all that great, but then I spilled something and ad-libbed on that. They thought that was great, and that sort of sealed the deal.
dOc: And what year was that?
PZ: I think it was 1991.
dOc: The series ran until 1998, correct?
PZ: Yes, I think so.
dOc: I imagine it has to be pretty rewarding and satisfying to have taken part in a series that won so many awards, including an Emmy.
PZ: It was a tremendous experience, really great fun. I had a great time. It was a great crew, a great bunch of people to work with?defintely a hell of a lot of fun.
dOc: Were you a science geek as a kid, or was this kind of new territory for you?
PZ: I was not a science geek. I was more of a art and music geek, but I've always been devoted to the idea of making people laugh, so that part of it really interested me. That's sort of my background as a comedian and performance artist, so that's what I kind of brought to the table.
dOc: Did you have any direct involvements with the experiments, or were just handed them when you came in to shoot?
PZ: We would discuss topics at the top of the season, and I would mention the ones that I was interested in, but I'm interrest in pretty arcane stuff so it didn't always end up in there. We would have script readings every Monday, and we all participated in that, and made suggestions in terms of the script, and what might be a fun gag and a better way to read it. There was a lot of participation that I was allowed on that show, and it was a really great part of it all.
dOc: One of the really memorable things about the show is the number of sound effects that were used. I have to imagine that post-production took forever.
PZ: I think there were about 2500 per show, on average. So they had their hands full in post. We shot film style, stop and go, and our record was 36 pages in a day. That was a lot, for film style, so we really worked fast.
dOc: It's not often that a kid's show features a tattooed rat with what can best be described as a surly attitude.
PZ: Well, the original sketches had been for a costume that had full arms and a full face, and when the costume designer first brought it by it didn't have the sleeves on it yet. We said, "Gosh, that seems so great without the sleeves". I said how about some tattoos, a piece of cheese rolled up like a pack of cigarettes, make him look sort of rough trade. That kind of made it a lot more fun.
dOc: Over the run of the series you had a number of different female secondary characters. Did they leave to move on to other things, or were they squeezed out in order to try and move the show in a certain direction?
PZ: They just each individually had other things to do, and they moved on to do them.
dOc: Were there any memories of any Beakman projects that just went horribly wrong that never aired?
PZ: No. Everything we did ended up on the air. I do remember that an alligator snapped at me once, but a lot of the bloopers ended up as part of the show because they thought it was funny.
dOc: Do you know if they plan to release full season sets of Beakman's World? It seems like it would be a good idea.
PZ: You know, I really don't know. It would be a good idea, but good ideas are not necessarily what triumphs.
dOc: The show has a lot of humor in it, and promotes some quality parent/kid time together, which a lot of shows just don't do.
PZ: It's one of those shows that it wasn't so painful for the parents to watch, and kids learn better when their parents watch the shows. So, the more diligent parents did, in fact, watch with their kids, and I think they benefited from it and enjoyed it. I've had people tell me that 52% of the audience was adults, which is a big audience for the show in the adult world. A lot of adults watched the show for educational reasons because they knew that they didn't understand science, but they would if it was in a kid's show. They knew that it would be pitched in such a way that they would get it. And that was a very big revelation to me. Science education had traditionally, in the past, had not been particularly enlightened and it's been difficult for people to get a grasp on it. A lot of people are scared of it, and we wanted to really turn that around to show that it was accessible and entertaining and interesting. Science is really just another way of looking at things, and I think that's what interested us, trying to get everyone else excited about that idea.
dOc: The show was originally run on Saturday mornings, correct?
PZ: The CBS stations ran it whenever they wanted to run it, so they ran it on Saturday or Sunday, but I think each individual station could run it whenever they wanted. This was back in a time when we had reasonable people running a lot of the parts of the government, and they were interested in enforcing the law, which is no longer the agenda. The law was The Children's Television Act of 1991, and that's why the show came into being. The airwaves belong to the public, so let's see if we can get these people who are using the airwaves to provide some actual public service aside from the usual s*** they grind out constantly. The current leadership of the country was making sure that there is nothing of any kind of redeemable value on television, because for them it was all about dollars and sense, and that's it. The airwaves didn't belong to the public, they belonged to the business interests.
dOc: Speaking as a parent, over the years I've seen what passes for various levels of children's entertainment, and it really makes one wish for more shows like Beakman's World that actually tried to teach and educate in a fun way without trying to sell an action figure of some sort. I wish there were more shows like that now.
PZ: Well, those days are over and they're not coming back. The way children's television works now is that the people that want to be on the air pay to go on the air. At least, that's my understanding of it. The big holy grail in this thing is merchandising, so people are rolling the dice on the merchandising thing.
dOc: Was there any ever Beakman merchandise?
PZ: There were a bunch of things. Science kits, books, and all kinds of great stuff. Jok Church, the guy who created the syndicated column the show is based on, has written a few books that are really wonderful.
dOc: Now you still occasionally do a Beakman tour don't you?
PZ: I've been touring with a live show for a while. I am always amazes me how great a turnout we get. I mean, I have never played to an empty house. I've played in 40 of the 50 states, and people seem to really like the show.
dOc: A couple of years ago you put together a mockumentary about a war between San Francisco and Los Angeles. What the heck was that all about?
PZ: It was called In Smog and Thunder, and it was based on artwork by Sandow Birk, who was the hot artist in Rolling Stone's "hot" issue this summer. We took his paintings and drawings?he did a series of mock historical paintings and drawings about a fictional war between San Francisco and LA?so what we did was take his paintings and drawings and made a film out of them. We got into Slamdance, and we were in about 11 or 12 film festivals. It was like stupidly successful. You find out more about it at www.insmogandthunder.com. It was a great project that really started as a lark, and it just wouldn't die. As much as we tried to kill it, it just kept having a life. We had talked about doing it before 9/11, and then when 9/11 happend we just kind of bagged it and figured we'd never do it. Then the dust settled, and we figured, what the hell, let's do it. I really used the paintings as the basis for the storytelling; in other words, looking at the paintings and drawings and then constructing a very elaborate story. It's a social-political satire, that's what's so great. It satirizes nothern and southern California and their various prejudices, and also just the culture at large.
dOc: You mentioned you were a political satirist, so I imagine this time of year, being an election year, has probably put you knee deep in possible material for satire.
PZ: I don't really focus much on the election, because these figures come and go, and I want the shows to be a little more evergreen. I'm more interested in the bigger picture of what's going on.
dOc: Are you performing this primarily in California?
PZ: No, I'm actually going to be in Atlanta in November, as well as Burlington, Vermont.
dOc: Is it just you, or are you part of a troupe?
PZ: No, it's just me. I do a hand puppet show and a found object show, with different found objects. I do an anti-durg, like a D.A.R.E. program, where I play an LAPD officer. The show's called Mighty Nice. I also do a Punch and Judy show, but it's a gay Punch and Judy show, so it's called Punch and Jimmy. That's a hell of a lot of fun.
dOc: What else is on your horizon these days?
PZ: Doing a Hi-Def, feature-length filmed version of Dante's Inferno with a toy theater.
dOc: When and where will that be?
PZ: On DVD. I'm doing it with Sandow Birk. We're going to do the Inferno, set in LA, and it's a very ambitious project. A guy named Shawn Meredith is going to work as the director, as well as edit the thing. We're the three that worked together on In Smog and Thunder.
dOc: Is this still in the early stages?
PZ: We are pounding through script. Originally Sandow got the idea to do live action, and I said, "Dude, you need permits, you need money, you need time." Who gives a s***? You can't turn LA into anything fantastic, it's all going to look like lox on a plate. You just can't do it. I said, "Let's do toy theater." We make a little theater out of paper, and you lift the lid up and it looks like a little mini opera house. We can put whatever we want in there. We can put jello in there, or fake blood, and have the puppets melt and burn, have earthquakes, all kind of crap.
dOc: I have one final question for you, and it's another that comes from daughter. She wants to know if there was any kind of professional rivalry between you and Bill Nye, The Science Guy?
PZ: I think maybe Bill Nye perceived that there was. I know from what I read in the press he perceived it that way, but I'm a Quaker and I don't look at the world that way. I'll be dead before I know it, so it's just not meaningful to me. The more the merrier.
dOc: Looking back on Beakman, you would consider it a good experience?
PZ: Fantastic. I'll have people come up to me now in their 20s and say, "I'm a scientist today because of Beakman!" I had no idea, because I was just trying to make people laugh. The secondary thing was that you might actually learn a couple of things, which is what I do with my solo puppet shows. It's what interests me: taking information and make it entertaining. We wanted people to feel like science was accessible, and we wanted them to enjoy it. Science is a way to look at the world, and a great way to look at the world. We're not getting this in education today, with the fanatical right wing push toward standards and all this other nonsense, but what really education should be about is teaching people how to perceive things. How to look. How to see. How to make connections. That's the way artists look at the world. If someone buys or rents this DVD, our goal is that they have a really good time, have some laughs and maybe they accidently learn something too, which isn't so bad.