How I Went from Comedy Writer to Science Teacher in 65 Easy Lessons
By Casey Keller
Well it's finally happened: responsibility for the education of America's future scientists has been passed on to a couple of guys who used to write for "The Loveboat" and "Who's the Boss?". What's wrong with you people? What can you be thinking?
My partner, Richard Albrecht, and I had spent 15 years writing situation comedies when we interviewed for a job as head writers on a new show called "Beakman's World." We watched a ten-minute presentation tape. On it, we saw a bizarre man with bizarre hair in a bizarre laboratory talking about the most excruciatingly boring subject we had ever considered - and making it fascinating and fun. Best of all, it made us laugh.
We had reservations about taking the job. We're not scientists, we're comedy writers. Mark Waxman, the show's executive producer, assured us that our lack of scientific knowledge would not be a problem. The research people would write the lessons. All we had to do was add jokes.
Mark Waxman isn't a liar, but he was badly mistaken. "Beakman's World" is about teaching science in new and exciting ways. Those new and exciting ways are the jokes. Our research staff did an heroic job, but they could not deliver on Mark's promise. That was really up to us.
It turned out to be great fun. We immersed Beakman in a tank of water to explain displacement. We had Josie and Lester sing "Bee-Barf-A-Loo-La" to remind our viewers that honey is regurgitated from the stomachs of bees. Beakman, Lester and Liza got their hands dirty fixing a clogged drain pipe to explain how doctors treat heart attacks. We call these gags that make you laugh and learn at the same time the "ahas." It's that moment where the light bulb goes off over the heads of our audience.
I had to turn from comedy writer to science teacher overnight. And the weirdest thing happened. All that old stuff I thought I hadn't learned back in Mr. Creen's ninth grade science class jumped up out of my unconscious memory and into my conscious memory. Weirder still, it started making sense. Suddenly, Archimedes' Law became clear as a bell and I finally understood the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy. (Don't laugh. I told you I'm not a scientist.)
Sixty-five episodes later, "Beakman's World" has won three Emmys, the Cable Ace Award for best children's show, and the Ollie Award for Excellence in Children's Programming. More importantly, my children love the show and love to talk about science. On a recent vacation, Zoe, my five-year-old, took the pilot of our plane aside to tell him that the four forces of flight are thrust, drag, lift and weight.
As I said, I'm not a scientist, I'm a comedy writer. But I have learned a few things during my time at "Beakman's World."
Children don't hate learning - they just hate school. And why shouldn't they? As important as it is, school is the process by which we harness up our children so they can be put to work for our society. We impose structure on their unbridled free spirits. For a few hours each day we take away their spontaneity and make them focus their energies on things that often don't interest them. School is where many children get their first tastes of failure and inadequacy. At "Beakman's World," we receive thousands of letters every week from school kids who want answers to their questions. Nobody tells them to write to us. They do it because they want to know. The hunger for knowledge is out there.
Get the kids on your side. "Beakman's World" is the opposite of school. Instead of imposing structure on our audience, we appear to be chaotic. Our irreverent comedy, our underground comix style animation and our sound effects - particularly the sound effect you hear coming from Lester, a guy in a rat suit - tell the audience that we're not their parents or teachers. We're the bad boys (and girls) of science.
Don't talk down to the kids. Kids know when you're patronizing them. By writing a show we enjoy and that makes us laugh, we are assured of never talking down to our audience. Of the thousand letters that arrive at "Beakman's World" every week, some of my favorites are from adults who write to confess that they watch our show even though they don't have kids.
You can eat a whole cow if you do it one hamburger at a time. There is no principle, scientific or otherwise, so complicated that children cannot learn it. The trick is to break it down into bite-sized pieces that little minds can consume. It's also critical that we explain the little things that may seem terribly obvious to us, but are not to our youngest viewers.
All television is educational television when kids are watching. Those powerful little brains are sponges, soaking up everything they see and hear on that small screen. But those little minds don't have the tools to discriminate between things worth learning and things not worth learning. If you doubt me, ask my son, Max, to recite TV commercials for our local Ford dealer.
Since all television is educational whether we intend it to be or not, it's our job as parents to help our children choose the shows they watch. The things our kids learn from "Sesame Street" are extremely valuable, empowering and life affirming. The things they learn from their local news show may not be. More importantly, it's our job as broadcasters to provide shows for children that are worth watching and lessons that are worth learning.
I've picked up a bit of scientific knowledge over 65 Beakman episodes. I've learned that the main purpose of every life form on earth is to pass on its genetic information. But we humans are probably the only species that has something else to pass on besides our genes. We have to pass on our culture and our civilization. Not just because it's a nice thing to do, but because it's essential to our survival.
We must equip our kids with the knowledge they need and the skills to acquire that knowledge if we're going to keep our civilization alive. There were two and half billion people on this planet when I was born. Today, there are close to six billion. Who knows how many people there will be by the time my kids are young adults. We've got to equip these people with the knowledge they'll need to survive. We've got to empower them with the learning skills and thinking skills they'll need to keep civilization civilized - or as close to civilized as it gets.
And it's not just my kids, Max and Zoe, who need this empowerment. The quality of their lives and their survival depend on everybody's kids learning, and more important, learning to learn.
Casey Keller is a television writer-producer with a long list of credits in situation comedy. "Beakman's World" can be seen on CBS affiliates and on cable's The Learning Channel. With his partner, Richard Albrecht, he recently created another educational show, "A.J.'s Timer Travelers," which premiered in syndication this fall.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the APS Forum on Education, Summer 1995.
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