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Beakman Blasts Back Into Action

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Somewhere in Antarctica, near the South Pole, two penguins named Don and Herb are perched by their television set, remote control in hand — er, wing. After a bit of Statler-and-Waldorf-esque banter, usually involving any of a number of bad puns about snow, the South Pole, fish, tuxedos, and other penguin-type jokes, the TV is powered on, and there, in an explosion, is a mad scientist in a green lab coat with a huge shock of black hair pointing straight up. Fingers waggling and sound effects flying, this crazed-looking man says, "I'm Beakman, and you've just broken into… Beakman's World!"

If you were a child of a certain age between 1993 and 1997, it's likely that you remember this scenario, as it was how every episode of the Emmy-winning kids' science series Beakman's World began. Partially a product of the Children's Television Act of 1990, the program solicited questions from viewers and answered them in a fast-paced, colorful format that saw no shortage of sound effects. No subject matter seemed off limits, either. One episode, for instance, saw Beakman don a HazMat suit and crawl inside a gigantic model nostril "in the name of science." In another episode, Beakman's mom, "Beakmom," played by Jean Stapleton — better known as Edith Bunker — demonstrates binaural hearing (that is, determining the source of a sound by using two ears) using a specially modified pair of headphones.

Beakman, who often referred to himself as "your own personal scientist," was joined in every episode by Lester, a disgruntled man in a rat suit (Mark Ritts), along with a younger female assistant — Josie (Alanna Ubach) in the first season, Liza (Eliza Schneider) in the second and third seasons, and Phoebe (Senta Moses) in the final two seasons. (Fast Fact: Did you know Lester was originally a rat puppet in the pilot episode? The puppeteer who was supposed to operate the original Lester puppet got sick, and, instead, Mark Ritts was recruited to play a man in a rat suit.)

The three reigned over a cluttered laboratory set (clearly a throwback to Pee-Wee's Playhouse) filled with 34 globes, 14 lava lamps, 14 fire extinguishers, two beauty salon hair driers, and a veritable wonderland of other random objects. "Ray the Cameraman" was also prominently featured in most episodes (well, his hand was, anyway), and a stable of recurring characters, including Soaperman, Balance Man, and greasy spoon short-order cook Art Burn (all clearly Beakman), as well as a number of "famous dead guys" such as Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Goodyear, all made regular appearances.

Beakman's World is relevant once again, thanks to the FCC's recent update of the aforementioned Children's Television Act. The government agency is now mandating more hours each week of "educational or instructional" (E/I) programming. And because producers in today's market shy away from producing programs that aren't easily tied to merchandise, Beakman's World — or, the syndication rights to the show, anyway — was resurrected by approximately 25 FOX-owned television stations, including FOX 5 WNYW in New York. The ratings for the reruns are already shattering expectations. According to The New York Times, the audience on WNYW for the show's first airing "was twice what it was a year ago in the time period."

So why aren't more programs like Beakman's World produced these days? Part of the answer may lie within the law itself. The FCC allows individual stations to self-monitor their programming to determine whether or not the shows they air could be considered educational or instructional. Critics of the law argue that this allows programs to get by that are connected to education by only the most gossamer of threads; this is part of the reason Beakman was cancelled by CBS in the first place, in favor of a block of cartoons, including one entitled The Dumb Bunnies. Plus, in today's market, the show would be prohibitively expensive. Paul Zaloom, who played Beakman, noted each original episode cost $250,000 to make.

While Beakman isn't going into active production again, the principles covered on the show haven't changed much. As Zaloom said to the New York Times, "Persistence of vision is still about persistence of vision," no matter when you're talking about it. The good news is that a new generation of kids will be learning basic scientific principles from Beakman and Lester, thanks to an ingenious formula that seems to be showing no signs of aging, and we twenty-somethings can relive our youth, one zany episode at a time.

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About Ryan Eanes

  • I just noticed this the other day as I was flipping around the dial and assumed I was on a cable station. A perfect example that teaching doesn’t hav eto be dry and boring.

  • Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States.

  • Glad you approved. It was fun to write! I’m glad it’s doing well again and I often wonder how many of our original audience really got into science as a result.

  • Caleb

    Dear Beakman what is anti-matter
    and how do we know it exists?