How I Went From Comedy Writer to Science Teacher In Sixty-
Five Easy Lessons
by Casey Keller
Editor's Note: Those tuning into Beakman's World for the
first time may be surprised to find that Mr. Wizard now wears a
lime green lab coat (with Lyle Lovett hair) and has as his sidekicks
a stylishly dressed young woman and a guy in a rat suit. Beakman's
World can be see on CBS affiliates and on cable's `The Learning
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 fifteen 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.
That was the biggest lie since, "we'll make up the teachers' salary
cuts next year."
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, Al Guenther, M.J. Miller, Jok
Church and Frank Hernandez did a 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 aha's. It's
that moment where the light bulb goes off over the heads of our audience.
When our writing staff, Elias Davis, Dan DeStefano, Barry Friedman
and Phil Walsh would pitch ideas to us, Richard and I would always
ask, "Where's the aha?"
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.)
Here it is, 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
(the guy-in-a-rat-suit), tell the audience that we're not their parents
or their 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 sixty-five 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 a 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
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 importantly, learning to learn.
Casey Keller is a television writer-producer with a long list
of credits in situation comedy. With his partner, Richard Albrecht,
Casey has worked on shows like Who's The Boss?, 227 and The Hogan
Family. Casey and Richard's latest educational show, A.J.'s Time
Travelers, will premiere in syndication this Fall.