underrated

The ’90s Kids’ Shows That Informed Adam Conover’s Comedy the Most

Beakman’s World. Photo: CBS

If you came of age during the ’80s and ’90s, you were most likely well-nourished by the bumper crop of children’s educational TV programs that aired during those decades. Sure, the soft infotainment format geared toward developing young minds existed long before then, with Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock! being the most foundational and ubiquitous, but there was something different about the programs that populated Saturday mornings beginning roughly 30 years ago. And their uniqueness — placing as much emphasis on comedy as they did on educating— is why they remain so ingrained in our psyche.

Naturally, your memory might teleport directly to Bill Nye the Science Guy, given the immense popularity and infectiously informative silliness of its five-season, 100-episode run. It also helps that its host remains more culturally relevant than ever, thanks to his unrelenting climate activism and scientific myth-busting Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World. But there exists two far more obscure shows that provided the Ur-text to Science Guy and whose educational comedy took bigger swings toward the absurd and surreal and satirical: Square One TV and Beakman’s World.

Square One TV ran on PBS from 1987–1992 and, in lieu of a single host teaching directly to the camera, adopted the sketch-comedy format of early SNL and French and Saunders to teach rudimentary math lessons. Square One had a knack for detailed parody, putting a mathematical spin on their playful winks at pop-culture monuments like Fawlty Towers and Late Night With David Letterman. Beakman’s World grabbed the baton in ’92, airing during CBS’s Saturday morning lineup until 1998. Beakman’s focus was on science (and farts!), so its tone and structure gravitated toward the experimental and the theatrical. Puppeteer Paul Zaloom played the wacky mad scientist Beakman and his co-host was … a giant rat who wore gold rings and spoke in a broad Brooklyn accent (Mark Ritts, rest in peace). Its humor was much more arch and absurd, using props, slapstick, and newly developed editing software in post to explain the wonders of the cosmos, physics, and human biology (and farts!).

Adam Conover, the host of TruTV’s satirically educational series Adam Ruins Everything, cites the rich but under-sung comedic legacies of Square One and Beakman’s as major influences on both his show’s sensibilities and his personal humor. While his show primarily traffics in anatomizing everyday social and political misconceptions — taxes, weed, STDs — with Conover himself shattering the fourth wall to school the audience and the characters onscreen about the topic at hand, Adam Ruins Everything represents the inevitable next step on the evolutionary chart from children’s educational programs to edifying, fact-based comedy for adults.

With season three of Adam Ruins Everything premiering tonight, Conover hopped on the phone to give a shout-out to his brand of instructional comedy’s foundational forefathers, as well as a very meta explainer about how shows like Beakman’s World and Square One TV came to exist on the airwaves in the first place.

Conceptually speaking, there’s an obvious connective tissue from Square One TV and Beakman’s World to your show Adam Ruins Everything. For those who didn’t grow up with these two children’s edutainment programs, can you give a boilerplate breakdown of what they are?
Square One TV was a PBS show for kids that taught them about math in creative, comedic ways. It was a sketch-comedy show, really. It aired from 1987 to 1992, so it was off the air before I was even 10 years old. But it was a really sophisticated sketch comedy in terms of how it used the format to educate. One of my favorite things about sketch comedy is doing parodies and music videos. And that’s what they did on that show. They had a whole parody of the TV show Dragnet. Just an entire segment that was a running police procedural about math called “Mathnet” where the detective solves crimes using math. They did soap-opera spoofs, too. They even had a section with the magician Harry Blackstone, where he’d teach magic tricks that were easy to do at home while teaching easy-to-remember algorithms. Basically, using math in a way that seemed magical.

The show was just wall-to-wall fun that made math — which is normally thought of as a dry subject — really entertaining. It was the amount of creativeness in it that really appealed to me. Square One ended up being a show that influenced me even before I started doing educational comedy, back when I was doing sketch comedy in my group Olde English or at CollegeHumor. Doing a format parody is one of my favorite things to do in comedy.

And how about Beakman’s World? If Square One TV was informative pop-culture satire for kids, then Beakman’s approach to children’s education was closer to experimental alt-comedy.
I loved Beakman’s World growing up. As much as I loved Bill Nye, I always preferred Beakman’s World because I thought it was funnier. And it came first. The difference between how Bill and Beakman’s used humor in their shows is that the actor who plays Beakman, Paul Zaloom, does not have a science background. He had a theater and puppeteer background, which made him more of a compelling performer. He’s not an engineer like Bill Nye is. Square One did a little bit of this, too, but by the time you get to the ’90s, there was so much inventive stuff being done in television, specifically in kids’ television. If you look at that show, they’re using puppets, they’re using models, they’re using little tiny sets and props, they’re using quick cuts. Beakman would be like, “Today we’re gonna learn about gravity.” Then somebody offscreen screams at you, “Gravity!” They were using all these new tools to make television that didn’t exist before. They just used the hell out of animation, voice-over, and computer graphics. They created this style that was totally sui generis. It was very offbeat and innovative in a way that never really had been done before. I mean, it’s a show with a guy in a giant rat suit. There are jokes about toilets. They’re destroying things. There’s a lot of slapstick. It’s a super-visual set with all of these props in the background. Just an incredible show.

Has an homage to Square One or Beakman’s World made its way into Adam Ruins Everything in a direct or even unintentional way these past two seasons?
I don’t know when I put the pieces together, but I think we had been doing Adam Ruins Everything for over a year before I remembered Beakman’s World and went back and looked up some clips. Now I think about it regularly. But watching the old clips I had that moment of, Oh, wait, this is similar in a lot of ways to what I do! Just little details that provide comedic color, like how Beakman is always zipping in to the frame, which is something I do on the show. I always zip to my mark and we play a little sound of a car screeching or we play a little zoop sound. When I do a little hand gesture — I do air quotes a lot — we play a boink boink sound effect. That’s the same way with Beakman’s World. Every little gesture he does is accentuated to make him a living cartoon character.

Then just the interplay between him and the other two characters where he’s like, “Today we’re gonna learn about pendulums!” “Pendu-what? What are you talking about?” — that Socratic dialogue that we also do on the show, where we play off of the other characters in the room. Having that voice go back and forth is so much fun and lets you express multiple perspectives in the same piece. I’m not gonna say I borrowed that specifically, but it’s another little bit of synchronicity. Then just the very silly sense of humor. On Adam Ruins Everything we do the broadest sketch comedy possible. We do stuff where you can see it immediately and know it’s a joke — characters in big silly costumes; here’s Uncle Sam and he’s twiddling his fingers saying, “Oh, I’m naughty.”

Do you think there was something inherently limiting to the taxonomy of “children’s educational comedy” that might’ve encouraged people to write off the very sharp humor of these shows as they entered adulthood?
It’s frustrating because the comedy still holds up! I used to think of these shows as kids’ shows, but I’m doing the same thing on Adam Ruins Everything, which proves we can do these things for adults. Adults can learn from that kind of stuff just as much as kids do. Beakman’s World wasn’t on PBS, it was on commercial TV and really taught you a lot of solid science and walked you through the principles using really funny bits. One I just watched recently explains how an arch works. They build the blocks up and put the keystone in the middle, and that demonstrates how that force pushes against the sides and the keystone holds the whole thing up. And once that piece is there, you can lie on top of it. Then they do a physical gag with Beakman being on top of the arch so when they pull the keystone out, it all falls down. Because of that segment, I know how an arch works and I have my whole life because they demonstrated it visually right in front of my face in such a funny way. I also think it’s so cool that as a comedian, some of my biggest comedy influences are these educational kids’ shows. They really did teach me how to write a joke and how to construct visual jokes and stuff like that.

There really seemed to be an explosion of these eccentric educational programs in the late ’80s and ’90s with Square One TV, Beakman’s World, and Bill Nye the Science Guy leading the pack.
It was because in the ’90s, the government passed regulations saying that commercials could only be a certain length and that kids’ shows had to have educational content. If you go back and watch some kids’ shows like Gummi Bears or something like that, those shows are about ten minutes long and there’s one commercial break with 20 minutes of commercials in the middle because kids are stupid and don’t watch anything. They’re being exposed to so many commercials. Gummi Bears, there’s no good content there. It’s fine, sure, but it’s a crappy show. The government said, “Hey, we need to have educational material for kids who are watching broadcast TV, and you can’t have that many commercials.” That’s why all of these shows, if you think about Inspector Gadget or Ninja Turtles, would end an episode by saying, “Here’s a very special message, kids: Remember to turn the lights off when you leave the room and recycle,” so they can get a couple of those educational minutes in.

What some other channels did in response to this was to put all of their educational material into one show. All those minutes would comprise one educational show, and that’s what led to the creation of Beakman’s World and Bill Nye, because they had these mandates by the government. So it really goes to show, if you just give them a little nudge, it can create something really awesome and original. It’s a shame there aren’t more shows like that for kids now. I’m very lucky to have grown up in the golden age of kids’ educational television. I feel like this was some of the most creative stuff being done in television anywhere. Like, the performers on Square One were a sketch-comedy ensemble that were as good as SCTV. Beakman’s World was taking more risks with editing and with humor than a lot of actual adult comedies at the time. I’m not a kid, so I don’t watch kids’ TV anymore so I could be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be that same amount of creativity and positive feeling in some of these programs being made today that are geared toward children.

While I was watching old episodes of Beakman’s World, Square One TV, and, thanks to the Almighty Algorithm, Bill Nye the Science Guy to prepare for our chat, I thought a lot about performance and how the respective host of each show embodies varying shades of a character to inform and entertain. Where Beakman was a caricature, Bill was his straight-man self who’d occasionally go broad with the help of the show’s writers. What was your approach to playing “yourself” as host of Adam Ruins Everything?
Doing it as a character version of myself just allowed me to do more jokes about myself. I look at it like “Adam Conover” on the show is like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm — it’s a heightened version of me where all of my worst characteristics are exaggerated and empathized. Just like my character, I crave other people’s approval, and I always felt like I alienate people by telling them this information. It’s sort of a younger version of me in a lot of ways. If I happen to fictionalize it for the sketch comedy–slash–narrative comedy format for the show, it allows me to make jokes like, where does Adam live, who are Adam’s relatives, what are his hobbies, what does he do. In a lot of ways, my character is a mix of me and not me. On the show, we use my real dad and real mom, but I have a fake sister who is played by the very funny comic Rhea Butcher.

When you’re not literally being yourself, you can play with more things because you’re not stuck with your literal reality. We have a whole running gag about how my character loves turtles. I don’t love turtles in real life, but wouldn’t it be funny if I did? Fans are always sad when they find out I don’t really love turtles, especially the younger ones. The reason why it’s also me and doesn’t have a different name is that so much of the best part of comedy is sharing my real opinion, sharing what I really find funny, and sharing what I really find interesting with the audience directly. That’s why it’s a mix of both of those things. As far as how heightened the character is, like the zipping around and all those characteristics, those came out as I did the show more and more. If you watch the first couple episodes, I’m a lot more lower-energy and not so cartoony. Then the more I do it, the bigger I get and the more I expand. I’m quicker. I punch all my sentences harder. My movements get more stylized.

Do you think because Bill Nye was able to play more as “himself” that his persona survived the test of time and allowed him to remain more culturally relevant today compared to Beakman?
Funnily enough, Beakman’s World left the air in the U.S. in the ’90s, but it started being run in Mexico and it became a massive hit there. You know how big Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson are here? In Mexico, Paul Zaloom is bigger than that. This is only a couple years ago — I’m gonna say 2015 or something like that — he actually put the Beakman stuff back on and went to Mexico and did a tour in Mexico and invited on young Mexican scientists — people who have now graduated and are working in science telling him he’s the reason they’re scientists now, which is kind of amazing. If at age 60 I find out in Cambodia that Adam Ruins Everything was a huge hit and I’m a local hero and I had no idea and it was just because I started being syndicated over there, I’d be so happy. It’s a pretty awesome story.

Why should young adults and comedy fans in general go back and revisit Beakman’s and Square One through a modern comedic lens?
First of all, the information is all still true. If you go back and watch these things, you can actually learn how an arch works and learn some stuff about math. [Laughs.] These shows are just so well-written. Here’s the thing: Comedy doesn’t need to be just pure jokes that don’t do anything else. As a comedian, I got good at writing that kind of joke, but at the end of the day, you start to feel that it’s a little bit of a pure sugar, that there’s nothing else to it. But you can use comedy to do other things. You can use comedy to tell the truth. You can use comedy to teach people interesting information or useful information. That’s what comedy’s good at. It’s good at making new ideas go down easily. Beakman’s World and Square One TV were using comedy to do that better than almost anyone else. They had really talented writers and really talented performers. To the same degree that when you go back and watch Mr. Show and say, “Oh, look at how they were trying to push things into new territory,” these shows were doing the same thing. Square One TV, no one else was operating on that level in 1987 on television. It goes to show you that work can be done, and is being done, in unexpected places. It doesn’t have to be on Comedy Central to be great comedy.

The ’90s Kids’ Shows That Informed Adam Conover’s Comedy