04/11/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE SIGHT OF THE DARK, BUBBLY GOO OF L.A.'s La Brea tar pits inspires Paul Zaloom—better known as the modern mad scientist of TV's Beakman's World—to reflection. "Kids are interested in learning why we fart," he says. "That's the most-asked question in letters to the show." He adds, "We haven't been able to convince CBS that it's a subject worth covering. Still, it's just kids' normal curiosity. All this science is going on inside kids, so why not start there?"
Well, flatulence may be one topic Mr. Wizard wouldn't have touched, but if Zaloom's viewing universe keeps expanding, he'll gel around lo it eventually. Telecast Saturday morning on CBS and twice Sunday on the Learning Channel, Beakman's World, in its second season and loosely based on the syndicated comic strip You Can with Beakman & Jax, has already zoomed in on everything from the laws of thermodynamics to the importance of fruit bats. It's all a big hoot—but serious too. Sort of like its host, who, on-camera in his bilious-green lab coat and fright wig, looks like Seinfeld's pal Kramer on a truly vile hair day and punctuates his points with a bracing "Ba-da-bing!" Says Beakman director and Zaloom pal Jay Dubin: "Kids don't walk away from the show knowing what thermodynamics means. They walk away knowing they had fun with thermodynamics." Fun, yes, but Beakman's World has also been lauded by the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education as "a stimulating, scientifically sound, humorous and effective presentation of science."
The magnet in Beakman & MTV-galvanized field is actor-puppeteer Zaloom himself, 42. "Fm the best test case for how well this show works," says Zaloom. "Before I started, I didn't know science at all."
Zaloom grew up in Garden City, N.Y., the second of six children; his father, Albert, was a seafood-and-nut importer, while his mother, Virginia, tended their brood. Paul's brother Chris, 47, remembers him putting on shows: "He'd animate inanimate objects. Paul had an affinity for objects and for thinking they had a life of their own."
As a teenager, Zaloom found boarding-school life at Connecticut's Choate School "severely unpleasant." But he loved the Quaker-run summer camp he attended in Vermont. lie also liked the stale, and he enrolled at Goddard College, where he fell in with a group of "radical, alternative, avant-garde" puppeteers called the Bread and Puppet Theater.
After graduating in 1973 he traveled worldwide with the group, settling in New York City in 1977 to produce a series of stage shows called, variously, Fruit of Zaloom and Creature from the Blue Zaloom. His act was a curious blend of liberal politics (e.g., attacking book banning) and old-fashioned puppetry. "Fm a political satirist, puppeteer, performance artist and new vaudevillian," he says proudly.
He continued touring the world, this time with a wife, Jayne Israel, a substance-abuse counselor he married in 1981. The couple split about 10 years later, but the marriage produced Zaloom's daughter, Amanda, now 11. "She likes to be Beakman Jr.," says Dad of Amanda, who still lives with her mother in Vermont but makes frequent visits to California. "She gets A's in science these days, and her input is pretty valuable."
Zaloom met Dubin in the mid-'80s in New York City. As Zaloom's career was percolating nicely along (he won an Obie for his Off-Broadway show House of Horror), Dubin moved to Hollywood and began working on Beakman. Zaloom headed west to audition—and knocked over a beaker of water during the tryout. "I just ad-libbed off that, and it clinched it for me," he says.
Now he and Dubin are looking to spin off their Beakman success with a program based on Ripley's Believe It or Not!—which would cause Zaloom to spend less time in his New York City loft and more in his rented Hollywood Hills home. The house has a lot of spiders, which provides Zaloom with a kind of Zen reality check. "I evicted the spiders when I first moved in," he explains, "but now I like having them around. They remind me that I'm alive, and they tell me that I'm part of something a little bigger than my stupid career."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles