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Beakman’s Shadow

I have a confession to make: I’m a puppet geek. A Mupp-a-holic. A marionnaddict. A foam junkie. I think Jim Henson may have been one of the greatest men to ever walk this planet and I mourn his untimely passing to this day.

It’s not often that my passion for puppetry and my passion for skepticism meet. Ok, let’s face it, it never happens. Or almost never.

I am lucky enough to live in Atlanta, Georgia, home to the Center for Puppetry Arts. The center is a combination museum, theater, and educational facility. They do shows weekly for adults and kids and have a variety of workshops on puppetry. I’ve been a center member for years and I can’t say enough good things about it.

A few years ago, I caught a show by Paul Zaloom at the Center. You might remember Zaloom from the kid’s show Beakman’s World back in the 80s. I grew up watching Beakman and it was the first show I’d ever seen that talked about science and the real world. It was also funny as hell.

Zaloom isn’t doing as much kids stuff anymore but he is still doing puppetry. The show I saw a few years ago was a ‘found art’ show. It was rated R and there were huge signs all over the theater warning that it was NOT a kids show. They were right. Zaloom’s work today is a combination of political satire, activism and education, with a touch of the surreal and good old fashioned goofy for good measure. (Plus vagina jokes.) A few months ago, I got to see more of Zaloom’s work, a shadow puppet show called The Mother of All Enemies, which centers around a:

“queer-secular humanist-Quaker-Buddhist-agnostic Arab immigrant artist, who somehow outfoxes a horde of pursuing adversaries made up of Homeland Security, Al Qaeda, the Statue of Liberty, the Christian Ex-Gay Movement, Minutemen vigilantes, and Israeli and Syrian agents”

I had to do that in quotes because there’s no way to paraphrase that description and still do it justice. The show is just as strange and fabulous as you would expect. I also signed up for a workshop with Zaloom, where I got to test my imagination in creating ‘found art’ puppetry. I’m sure none of you will be surprised to hear that I had a hard time letting go as much as you really need to access the creativeness to turn a coat hanger into an anti-abortionist but I did ok. I also got to talk to Zaloom a little and he was cool enough to give me an interview for Skepchick – check it out below the fold:

Your first experience with entertainment was with puppetry and adult theater with a political bent. What made you decide to target a younger audience with Beakman’s World?

Paul Zaloom: I didn’t decide to target anyone. About five years before I got the job, I met a crazy, hyper New Yoika named Jay Dubin through the Quaker summer camp old boy network. We pitched my puppetry to HBO, to no avail. Five years later, he called me and said he was directing a kids’ show and thought I would be perfect for the lead.

So I auditioned for the part because they had a hard time finding a weirdo in Hollywood, a real oddball. They found a lot of what they called, “sit com dads”. I ended up spilling some water during the screen test by mistake, and then I ad-libbed some nonsense, splashing around in it, and that sealed the deal. Besides, they were desperate.

I love playing for children; they laugh at different things, and those things are not obvious. I love trying to figure out what they will find amusing.

How much were you involved in the creative process of Beakman’s World? Did you get to drive a lot of the content or was it mostly done by writers and you were the face of it?

Once I was hired, I volunteered to help conceive the show; I didn’t get paid or credit for this work. I just thought it would be fun to be in on the whole thing from the ground up. So a lot of the creation of the original ideas and the formats were things I participated in; it took a few months, but I was happy to do it. I mean, I’ve worked all my life for little or no money, so there was no reason to stop. And once I started performing, I got paid pretty well. But I don’t get paid for re-runs. Everyone thinks I’m rich because I’m on TV, but I don’t get paid for those second run appearances. Just want to set the record straight.

The writers, who were great, wrote the shows, and once a week, we would read the scripts. We ended up adding lots of visual gags on the stage while we rehearsed and shot. We were always looking for ways to make it funnier and weirder.

What do you think are the key components of making science interesting to kids?

Humor, joy, fun, and respect and love for children. Making a connection between science and the world that children inhabit. Making them laugh, and then making them think.

Do you think there are other shows that have taken up Beakman’s mantle since it ended?  Which ones do you like?

I have no idea. I don’t watch television. It makes me uncomfortable. I loved Ren and Stimpy, though, but that was ages ago.

How did you introduce your daughter (and now, your grandkids) to science?

PZ: Well, she watched the show. And I would take her for walks and teach her stuff about science, mainly the natural sciences, because that’s where my interest lies. She used to call me, “Nature Dad”, when I went off on some rant about impact attenuators on the highway or beaver dams. Once in the subway, I asked her what she thought some guy was doing standing on the stairs looking at the turnstiles. He was barely visible, just his head. I knew what was going on; I lived in New York for years. Just as she said she didn’t know, a couple of kids hopped the turnstiles, and the plainclothes cop ran from the stairs as guys in blue came from every direction. So it helps to pay attention, and I wanted to impart that to her.

Do you have advice for people who want to inspire their kids with science?

Simply engage your children with things that excite you or her or the both of you. If you are excited and interested in something, there’s a good chance she will be, too.

What inspires you?

Tons of things. Paintings, actually: German Expressionist paintings, Kustom Kulture, Dada…shadows I see on the way home from the gym. Patterns I see in the asphalt when I am crossing the street. African art in Kansas City at the Nelson Atkins. The Menil in Houston. Too numerous to mention. Daumier! Kandinsky? Charlie Krafft! Peter Schumann! Art is a huge inspiration.

You continue to bring humor to serious political and social topics with your adult puppetry shows. Have you had any negative responses to your show?

Sure, there’s always someone who thinks you suck. I’ve gotten great reviews and horrible reviews. Most people won’t tell you to your face that you suck. But they have no problem posting some trash about you. I read all kinds of crap about Beakman on line that was total bullshit. But I don’t care. You have to let it all roll off your back.

Tell me about the shows you did in Israel and the response you received there.

I did The Mother of All Enemies in Tel Aviv at a puppet festival. The show went over really well, and I was invited to do a show on a woman’s apartment roof in Jerusalem. I didn’t want to do it, but when my boyfriend Greg and I got to Jerusalem, there was a bulldozer attack right near where we were. It was pretty disturbing, seeing all the troops and cops and Arabs up against the wall. So we decided I would do the show on the roof. It went over really well, which is funny, considering the fact that I am half Arab, and the Israelis clearly do not like Arabs (and vice versa). It’s an amazing country; we met tons of terrific people, Arabs and Jews, but both sides are ultimately totally crazy, and they are all hell-bent on screwing everything up that they touch. Sorry to say. You should see the yarmulkes that I bought with tanks and guns and other weapons on them. Both sides really like their guns.

You are an open atheist and openly gay. Which (if any) do you get more flack for?

I haven’t gotten flack for being gay, except for the odd asshole yelling something at me from a car on Santa Monica Boulevard.

I’m actually an agnostic; atheism is too much like a religion for me. I don’t know much; I’m just a little organism in a very very big realm. I have inklings of what might be going on, and I try to remember to pursue the consciousness that I think is the place I want to be. But I don’t believe in the existence or the non existence of god, and I don’t really care, anyway. There are much more important things to think about, like being good and decent and kind and honest and happy as hell.

Have you had issues where people come to your adult show and think it’s going to be Beakman? (I know it happened in Atlanta to some degree, in spite of all the warning signs!)

Not that I am aware. I don’t remember that I “am” Beakman. It’s such a small part of my life that I usually forget. But I loved doing the part, and it was fun as hell. Many people have expectations of me that I don’t meet that come from the TV show. I hate to disappoint them, but I’m me, and there’s not much I’m gonna do about that at my advanced age ha ha.

Do you think you’ll go back to doing shows for kids?

I just did a live toy theater show for children with puppeteer Lynn Jeffries at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. It was great fun, but I don’t think I can make a living doing such a show for kids.

What’s next?

Touring (see below). Learning ventriloquism. Making some cantastoria (story telling with pictures). Maybe a marionette show. Scotland in February. Bread and Puppet in August. Lots in between.

Where can people see your work now? Are you still touring?

I’m touring a number of things right now:

  • The Abecedarium, a jumbo toy theater show for adults
  • The Mother of All Enemies, a shadow puppet show about an Arab/Quaker/queer/agnostic/secular humanist/artist/ weirdo
  • A Beakman Live! show, featuring a series of live science demos, for family audiences

I make a living touring, so yes, I still tour!

Schedule will be posted on www.zaloom.com soon! And www.beakmanlive.com, too!

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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17 Comments

  1. Ah Beakman’s World. One of the little favors my parents did for me, allowing this to be my favorite show as a young child. I was big on Bill Nye, too.

    Wow. Nostalgia! I’m glad you were aware of this, and thankful that you posted about it. Very cool.

  2. It makes my eye twitch EVERY time I hear the, “I’m agnostic cuz atheists is scary/wrong/overzealous” line.

    But it does not affect that I loved Beakman’s World immensely as a kid. And I’m so happy that Paul’s out there being crazy and interesting and educational still. Thanks for this interview, Maria, it was an awesome read.

    (Also, am stealing, “I don’t watch television. It makes me uncomfortable” for my own use.)

  3. I vaguly remember Beakman World I know I saw it a few times. But Henson. I can’t think of him without a lump in the throat and a few tears. I love the puppet shows. I want to see ave Q as soon as I can. I was a muppet show kid and a sesame street addict. If I see his show with in decent driving distance I will see it. Oh, Masala I am in line to inheriet something like 50,000 puppets, marienets, and dolls. I will give you anytihing you want before I put them up on ebay.

  4. @Gabrielbrawley:

    I’m going to see Avenue Q! Hilariousness.

    And, Maria, I read that you didn’t like clowns? But you do like puppets? Depending on the type (ex, I like Henson-style), I find them to be similar… I guess I am comparing it to how creepy I find Vaudevillian-esque entertainment (not that I can’t enjoy some of it), and the sorts that are designed in the same vein.

  5. Wow. I was wondering about him the other day. It’s cool that he’s still doing stuff. I grew up with Beakman’s World, and I actually preferred it to Bill Nye while it was on. Probably because of the weird stuff.

    Well, also because of the cute assistants. What can I say? I started early.

  6. Beakman is right up there as “One of the people I would have liked to have as a science professor.” Others on my list include Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson.

    Feynman was one of the first (via his recorded lectures) to get some of particle physics thotugh my thick skull. Sagan, via “Cosmos,” of course, set my eyes and mind on the Universe, from which they never completely returned. Just the idea of a Dyson sphere gives me the shivers…Engineering on that scale is almost beyone comprehension…

  7. @Tina: Yes, love puppets, hate clowns. I don’t know what I would do with a puppet clown – explode probably.

    I spent a lot of time some years ago obsessed with making puppets. I learned quickly that there’s a fine line between puppet making (cool and fun) and doll making (creepy as fuck).

    Glad you guys all enjoyed the Zaloom article and that so many of you remember Beakman as fondly as I do!

  8. Ah Beakman’s World. Such an awesome show. Why there aren’t more like that these days boggles my mind. Why don’t more TV execs realize that kids WANT to learn about this stuff. They want to be entertained too, but they are curious about science. Why hasn’t anybody carried the Beakman/Bill Nye torch?

    I especially loved the Beakman episode that was entirely about earwax and snot. Good times.

  9. @FFFearless: Mostly because the TV execs think that all American kids are couch potatoes without a brain that want to play Xbox all day. What saddens me is that even Discovery carries pseudoscientific garbage as if it were the same as real science programming. I’m sorry, but UFOs and ghosts are not on the same sceintific level as physics and chemistry. I think that programs like MasterBlasters that teach science and engineering in a fun and competitive way are the perfect vehicle to get and keep kid’s attention.

    They just have to have the right person doing a scaince-based show on the right topics to attract kids (like Beakman and Bill Nye). Snot and earwax will do it.

  10. Long time reader, first-time poster… But I just had to chime in.

    I hate to jump in and self promote, but I had to chime in when I read this:

    “It’s not often that my passion for puppetry and my passion for skepticism meet. Ok, let’s face it, it never happens.”

    I run a San Francisco-based adult puppetry troupe called the ‘Shadow Circus Creature Theatre,’ and we actually have a lot of puppet shows that are skeptic-based, albeit in a satirical way. Last season, we did a show making fun of ‘Ghost Hunters’ and in our newest production we poke fun of ‘The Secret’.

    We’ve got more info posted at http://www.shadowcircus.com

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