While answering George Lucas’ fan mail at Lucasfilm, Jok Church became enamored with the way children bravely asked anything at all in their letters. He was inspired to write about real questions from real kids and conceived of the comic strip You Can With Beakman (later adding “and Jax” with the introduction of that character).
|U Can With Beakman and Jax comic strip by Jok Church.|
Beakman Place, named for the street in New York City, was a spiky blue-haired man with a tie and a pocket full of tools and a strong desire to learn. He wasn’t a scientist, just an ordinary guy intrigued by the world at large. Later joined by his sister Jax, Beakman strove to prove what he’d read about in books in a text-heavy one panel comic strip demonstrating a simple experiment that could be attempted by readers. This was similar to the methodology in which Church would select which letters to answer when they arrived, by finding ones about subjects he didn’t know and wanted to learn about himself. The original strips were done digitally on a Mac before Church eventually upgraded to the Adobe Illustrator series of programs.
|The first Beakman book.|
The strip first appeared in the Marin Independent Journal on July 14th, 1991, offered to them for free. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, the strip had grown to reach 52 million readers in 13 countries. With its success and being collected and reprinted in book form, Church was approached by Columbia Pictures with the idea of turning the strip into a television show.
Beakman’s World began on The Learning Channel (TLC) and national syndication before moving to CBS Saturday mornings in its second season. It followed eccentric scientist Beakman (Paul Zaloom) as he answered several letters out of the thousands they received weekly from his viewers about various scientific concepts. In his cluttered and zany lab, he would conduct simple experiments that children could perform at home with everyday household items to demonstrate the principles in question. Beakman would also issue a “Beakman Challenge,” whereby he’d challenge his costars to perform a deceptively simple feat using science.
|The lab assistants: Alanna Ubach, Eliza Schneider and Senta Moses.|
Although not utilizing the Jax character in order to simplify the show with a single host, three female assistants who would aid Beakman’s experiments were utilized. In season 1, Josie was played by Alanna Ubach until she left to pursue a movie career. Seasons 2 and 3 had Liza, played by Eliza Schneider. Despite not being as well-liked as Josie by fans, Liza had the longest tenure on the show. Schneider eventually left to perform in the one-woman show USA 911 before beginning a voice over career, notably as Mrs. Cartman on South Park. The final assistant was Phoebe, played by Senta Moses.
|Mark Ritts as Lester the rat.|
Also assisting, albeit begrudgingly, was the lab’s resident rat and frequent guinea pig Lester (Mark Ritts, who also doubled as Herb the penguin’s puppeteer). Lester wasn’t actually a rat, however. Two running gags in the show declared that he was both an actor whose agent landed him a bum gig and that his rat suit was a lifestyle choice. In the pilot episode, Lester was originally a puppet and was supposed to remain that way for the series until it was decided at the last minute to make the character an actor in a suit.
Each episode usually began and ended with two puppet penguins Don (Bert Berdis) and Herb (Alan Barzman), named after the legendary Mr. Wizard (aka Don Herbert), tuning into the show in the South Pole. The TV would explode, leading to Beakman in his lab where would lay down a fast fact before the title sequence. The series’ theme was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, known from the new wave group Devo. The unseen cameraman “Ray,” played by prop-master Ron Jancula’s hands, would often hand Beakman various items from off-camera. A “viewing screen,” known as the Boguscope, would be employed to show crude animations to illustrate something being explained.
|Comin' at ya! Josie and Lester read a viewer question in the series' trademarked tight shots.|
Besides Beakman, Zaloom would typically play multiple characters; from various famous scientists and historical figures to his other frequent characters, fry cook Art Burn and Professor I.M. Boring (seen in segments reminiscent of black and white film reel clips). Ritts also occasionally appeared outside of his rat suit as other minor characters. The show relied heavily on comedy and manic pacing, as well as keeping the cast and experiments in tight shots most of the time to form a kind of intimacy with the viewer. During its run, the series was nominated for and won multiple awards, including Daytime Emmys and Parent’s Choice Awards. Despite the critical acclaim and praise for the series, CBS was not achieving the ratings they desired—played in large part to the timeslot given to Beakman often resulting in the show being pre-empted for sports or special news broadcasts—and sought to overhaul their Saturday morning line-up with a more cartoon-intensive format.
|Zaloom as Beakman in 2014.|
Although the series wrapped in 1997, the comic strip that inspired it continued until 2016 following the death of Church. Zaloom maintains the rights to use the Beakman character to perform at live events for children and continues to do so around the world in a show called Beakman Live! There was also a traveling exhibit called Beakman’s World On Tour started in 1998 that visited science halls across America. In 2016, Zaloom appeared as Beakman in an episode of the web series Captain Disillusion, which was filmed and acted in a style similar to an episode of Beakman’s World.