Considering educational science-themed kids shows of today have names like Dude, What Would Happen?, you have to wonder how far this type of programming is going to backslide. In our day, these shows didn't need cheesy gimmicks to pull in our attention. Except science-themed music video parodies on Bill Nye. Oh, and the penguin puppets on Beakman's World. And the swashbuckling sword fights on Mr. Wizard's World. Okay, so I made that last one up, but the underlying point was that no matter what the decade, you usually need a little more than straight educational segments to sell science to kids.
These shows must have had something special, though, to get us to voluntarily subject ourselves to learning in our precious free time. I'm sure some parental coaxing or even in-class watching sessions may have been in order, but no matter the means, we were watching. These shows found a magical point of compromise between education and entertainment and served it to us in a bubbling beaker of science learning. The producers and writers knew that kids are inherently inattentive, so they were sure to throw a fair amount of explosions in the mix.
The straightforwardness of these show's educational value was remarkable. Unlike some of its edutaining contemporaries (I'm looking at you, Ghostwriter), kid's science shows weren't tricking us into learning while we thought we were simply enjoying some mindless show. With science programs, it was all out in the open. Sure, they took pains to make learning fun and interesting, but they never once tried to hide the fact that we were doing what amounted to extracurricular science homework. Whatever the impetus for our spontaneous bouts of learning, our teachers and parents weren't complaining.
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Catchy theme song, right? It's all I can do to not start chanting Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! alone in the comfort of my living room. The folks behind Bill Nye definitely achieved their goal of making science seem fun and exciting, at least in the opening credits. They take all the vaguely science-y sounding words and use them as mere background noise for the the snappy theme. The things floating across our screens seem vaguely educational, yes, but when they're flashing in a maniacal strobe-light manner, they seem just a tad more exciting than they do in our Earth Science textbooks.
Bill Nye was a fast-paced, engaging show aimed at the learning resistant tween demographic. The show utilized humor and sight gags while constantly cutting from one experiment to the next. It didn't give us time to get bored and change the channel. If we were nearing that boredom threshold, though, Bill knew just what to do to keep us hooked.
Two words: song parodies. Yes, you heard (er, read) right. Nye offered us Weird Al-esque song parody musical videos with scientific themes. The "Soundtrack of Science" segment was truly ridiculous, but it demonstrated the show's good sense to not take itself to seriously. For your enjoyment, I offer my very favorite Bill Nye parody, the truly absurd "Bill's Got Boat" a parody of "Baby Got Back" sung by fictitious musical act (wait for it) Sure-Floats-A-Lot.
Can't you see she just wants to be buoyant?
To read the full post on Bill Nye the Science Guy, click here
The visuals in that intro really make you nostalgic for a simpler time. When I see that bar graph on that black screen computer, I just light up. It's kind of cute and kitschy-looking now, don't you think?
The show also made a version especially for in-class use, further blurring the line between formal and voluntary learning. You may have enjoyed watching it in school, but you were still essentially shackled to your desk by law. It's a fine line, don't you think?
3-2-1 Contact had a variety of segments including features on such exciting scientific topics as volcanoes and robots. My favorite recurring segment was The Bloodhound Gang, which back in the day meant cool scientifically-minded child detectives, but now brings to mind the images of humping music video stars dressed as monkeys. Thanks a lot, musical group Bloodhound Gang. You've tainted the innocence of my intellectually curious youth.
I yearned to answer the phone, "Bloodhound Detective Agency: wherever there's trouble we're there on the double!" I'm thinking of starting to pick up at work that way, just for fun.
This intro is pure mid-to-late 80s, and that song is amazing
Mr. Wizard's World
If that intro just doesn't do it for you, check out this 1990 promo. It just screams excitement. Learn to make clouds! Blow up two balloons at once! Run backwards! Golly, Mr. Wizard, is there anything you can't do?
This 80s and 90s version was a revival of Mr Wizard's (nee Don Herbert) show decades earlier. In the 1950s and 60s, Watch Mr Wizard launched thousand of Mr Wizard science clubs. If you're ever feeling a little nerdy for liking the third version of the show (that's the 80s/90s one), just think to yourself, by 1955 100,000 kids had applied to be club members. Now that's nerdy.
We may not have had local watch-along clubs, but we did get our own healthy dose of fun experiments at which to marvel. Mr Wizard would perform some sort of mysterious trick, we'd ooh and ahh, and then we'd be stuck sitting around for the tedious explanation. The show ran in reruns for several years and often played very early in the morning. I distinctly remember irritating my parents with my wide-awakeness at 6 am and being stuck in front of the TV for some good old fashioned science learning. Oh, the memories.
If you thought TV scientists from the 1950s were interesting, just look at the winners we got to host Newton's Apple. An NPR broadcaster, a museum director, and even future MTV News correspondent SuChin Pak. Now there's a selection! Of course, this was all over the span of several years, but you get the general idea.
I admit my allegiance to this show stems from a similar place to my fervent devotion to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Being from Minneapolis, these shows were something of hometown heroes, produced in my own backyard. Well, not literally in my own backyard. Though I do think our shed would have been a lovely scenic backdrop for bottle rocket launching.
Beakman's World was sort of like a modified Bill Nye. It covered many of the same topics and scientific phenomena, only its eccentric host was fictitious. Beakman was played by Paul Zaloom, a lively pupeteer and actor who brought to life the world of science through amusing experiments. Beakman was quite popular with the lab-assisting ladies; he had three comely female scientific companions throughout the course of the show. He also had a guy in a rat suit. Don't ask, just infer that it was funny.
They also had the aforementioned puppet penguins, which were of course adorable. They were sort of crotchety and judgmental, but then again they lived in a place where it was consistently below zero temperature. I'll cut them some slack.
These TV shows prove that adults needed not be sneaky to try to get us to sit down and watch something educational, they just needed to be kid friendly and have a good sense of humor. Oh, and have lots of explosions. Lots of explosions.