Jok Church once had a job answering George Lucas’ fan mail at Lucasfilm. While there, he became enamored with the way children bravely asked anything at all in their letters. This inspired him to develop an idea for a comic strip and educational television series called “Here’s How”, starring C-3PO teaching a foreign language and R2-D2 explaining the physical world. He eventually abandoned the idea, but soon returned to it with an original character and in the comic strip You Can with Beakman.
|U Can With Beakman and Jax comic strip by Jok Church.|
The strip featured the character Beakman Place (named after the street in New York City), who had spiky blue hair, a pocket full of tools, and a strong desire to learn. Like Church, he wasn’t a scientist but was intrigued by the world at large and wanted to know more about it. From the multitude of letters he would eventually be sent (mostly from women and not all from children exclusively), Church would select one that dealt with a topic that he himself would want to learn about. From there, he would craft a text-heavy one panel strip on a Mac (and later in Adobe Illustrator, making it the first computer-rendered comic strip) indirectly answering the question through a simple experiment his readers could also perform. Eventually, Beakman would be joined by his sister, Jax, and the strip became You Can with Beakman and Jax for the remainder of its run.
|The first Beakman book.|
Beakman first appeared in the Marin Independent Journal on July 14th, 1991 after he offered them the strip for free. Eventually joining and being distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, the strip had expanded to 250 newspapers reaching 52 million readers in 13 countries. The early strips were collected in three books titled Science Stuff You Can Do, More Science Stuff You Can Do, and a best of collection, as well as two specialty books: Beakman & Jax’s Bubble Book and Beakman & Jax’s Microscope Book. An official website was eventually launched where the strip would be hosted, along with questions and answers and activities. In 1992, Columbia Pictures approached Church about turning the strip into an educational television show.
Beakman’s World was presented like a live-action cartoon; both so that children could have fun learning and to bridge the gap between them and their parents. Unlike the strip, Beakman (Paul Zaloom) was an eccentric scientist with tall hair and a green lab coat that lived in a cluttered, zany lab full of the materials he’d need to conduct the experiments and demonstrations to answer any of the thousands of letters the production would receive from viewers. Left out of the show, much to Church’s regret, was Beakman’s sister Jax in order to simplify the show with a single host; however, one episode did feature his mother, Beakmom (Jean Stapleton), and brother, Meekman (Zaloom).
|The lab assistants: Alanna Ubach, Eliza Schneider and Senta Moses.|
|Mark Ritts as Lester the rat.|
The second, begrudgingly, was Lester (Mark Ritts), a slovenly man in a giant rat suit. His dimwitted nature often made him the perfect target to segue into a demonstration; most often the “Beakman Challenge”, where Beakman would try to get him to perform a deceptively simple feat using science. There were two running jokes about Lester: he was either an actor whose lousy agent got him a bad gig, or being in a rat suit was a lifestyle choice. In the pilot episode, Lester was portrayed by a puppet.
|Beakman behind the Boguscope as an image materializes on it.|
Incidentally, there was technically a third assistant. The unseen cameraman known only as “Ray” would often hand Beakman various items from off-camera. This was played by prop-master Ron Jancula’s hands. Additionally, Ray was said to be operating the camera as well as various other systems around the set, and would also send in a “viewing screen” known as the Boguscope. It would display simple computer-generated animations to help illustrate what was being explained to the audience.
|Words just tend to appear out of thin air.|
Beakman’s World debuted on The Learning Channel on September 18, 1992. The show relied heavily on comedy and manic pacing to keep the attention of its intended audience, as well as keeping the cast and experiments in tight shots most of the time to form a kind of intimacy with the viewer. Unlike Bill Nye the Science Guy, a similar program running at the same time, Beakman’s World would tackle multiple topics in an episode that weren’t necessarily related. The series’ theme was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, with additional music by Denis M. Hannigan, Rusty Andrews and Josh Mancell. The show was written by Church with Richard Albrecht, Casey Keller, Stephanie Phillips, Philip J. Walsh, Barry Friedman, Dan DiStefano, Mark Waxman, Marijane Miller, and Elias Davis. Alfred Guenther served as science consultant. The puppets and animations were provided by Puppet Studio, founded by Sherman and Greg Williams.
Each episode usually began and ended with two puppet penguins Don (Bert Berdis, operated by Steve Sherman) and Herb (Alan Barzman, operated by Ritts), named after the legendary Mr. Wizard (aka Don Herbert), tuning in to 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. For the closing, the penguins would deliver an intentionally bad joke related to the episode before turning the TV off and cutting to the credits. The penguin duo would also sometimes appear during segments or between commercial breaks.
Besides Beakman, Zaloom play multiple characters. His two recurring ones were slovenly fry cook Art Burn and Professor I.M. Boring. Burn’s segments took place in the kitchen area of the set and saw Lester ordering the materials needed for the experiment from a menu, which were then rudely handed to him by the female assistant dressed as a waitress. Boring appeared in black and white segments reminiscent of boring old educational film reels to deliver a definition related to a topic being explained. Other times, Zaloom would appear as a famous scientist or historical figure (treated as a separate individual, but a recurring gag had Lester aware that it was just Beakman). Ritts also occasionally appeared outside of his rat suit as other minor characters, such as a sportscaster.
Although the series wrapped in 1997, the comic strip that inspired it continued until July 17, 2016; ending three days after its 25th anniversary and three months following the death of Church from a heart attack. 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 on an episode of the viral video debunking web series Captain Disillusion, which was filmed and acted in a style similar to an episode of Beakman’s World.
A number of educational toys were released with the Beakman branding, including a Spud Watch where you built a digital watch powered by a potato; a “Build with Beakman” book series that came complete with materials to build various science-related objects; a trivia game by Andrews and McMeel; a boardgame by Pressman Toy Corp; a photon doodler that let you draw glow-in-the-dark pictures, video science activity sets that provided an episode of the show with the materials needed to do the experiments, and a magnet experiment set all by ExploraToy. Church also wrote the book Beakman’s World: A Visit to the Hit TV Show to give a little insight into the show’s production.
|The Best of Beakman's World cover.|
In 1997, Columbia released a VHS collection called The Best of Beakman’s World, which was later re-released onto DVD in 2004 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and again in 2016 by Mill Creek Entertainment. The complete series was made available to stream on Netflix until 2014. In 2016 it became part of MeTV’s Sunday morning line-up preceding Bill Nye for the next few years, and was later made available to stream on Tubi.