Paul Zaloom is best known for his portrayal of Beakman on the comically educational children’s show Beakman’s World. But Zaloom has also established a career on smaller stages with comical puppet shows that address political fears and social anxieties in insightfully funny ways. The most recent addition to his puppet show list is White Like Me: A Honky-Dory Puppet Show, which recently debuted in Vermont and Washington, D.C. before arriving at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts April 20-22. As he prepares for these shows, Zaloom talks to Wrestling with Pop Culture about using junk as puppets, touring the world as Beakman and finding humor in otherwise serious subjects.
This is a very new puppet production for you. What can you tell me about it now that you are touring with it?
It is, indeed, brand new. Hot spanking fresh out of the comedy puppetry oven, so to speak. It was inspired by the ludicrous idea of having a show about being Anglo-Saxon – being white, that is. It involves two kinds of puppetry. Toy theater is like a miniature theater that’s projected in high definition on the large screen. What’s funny is I use toys, tools, appliances, junk, tchotchkes and different knick-knacks and crap that animate as puppets in this little play about being Caucasian. All this crap actually looks fabulous in HiDef, it looks just amazing. It’s kind of amazing that you can take this shit and make it look fantastic and cinematic. The proscenium is 16:9, which is the HiDef aspect ratio. So the projection fits right within the bounds of the proscenium.
You often use found objects and non-traditional items in your puppetry. Do you have an assortment of objects you bring with you for this show or do you work with what each venue has?
I bring all the crap with me. It’s all rigged in such a way that it can do the necessary gags. Like I have a dude who needs his arm to jiggle and I have a line and handle attached to that. If I just found stuff on the road, it wouldn’t have the same fabulous cheap production values, which is oxymoronic. With an emphasis on the moronic. Oxymoronic probably means “really clean moron.”
The last show of yours I saw was The Mother of All Enemies, which was mostly shadow puppets. How does this show compare to that one?
It’s probably even more fast paced and in a certain sense it’s more surreal, it’s less literal. The jokes come really fast in this particular one. There’s a lot of sight gags and visuals, playing with scale, there’s some improv if something goes wrong. If there’s a slip of the tongue, I like to take advantage of it and improv. I’m also doing a ventriloquist introduction. I have a ventriloquist dummy, a real old-school dummy, and basically what happens is he’s been packed in a box for 50 years and I take him out and hint him to what has changed in the past 50 years since he’s been in the box. It falls into a conversation about race. So the whole thing is kind of a comedy
about something very serious. The motivation is the fact that Caucasian’s are going to be a minority in 2042 in the United States. So that’s kind of the tent pole this whole thing is built on. What kind of anxiety do we have about that? I think it’s hysterical that white people are going to be in the minority. The tables turn and how are we going to respond? Are we going to dig in and flip out or are we going to be copacetic and accept the inevitable? What’s interesting to me is the comedy about Caucasian anxiety. The purpose of the show is to get people to laugh their asses off about something that’s actually kind of serious. But there’s no message or anything like that.
You also still do the Beakman Live! tours. How often do you do that?
As often as I get the gigs. I know that sounds ridiculous. I’m touring with a new show called Beakman on the Brain and it’s about neuroscience for 6-to-12-year-olds. I’m going to Qatar and Brazil with that show, which I’m looking forward to. That’s a comedy about serious stuff, too. Neuroscience is serious and complicated stuff, but it’s kind of a goofy show that introduces kids to those concepts.
And in both cases you’re using comedy to make people think about things in different ways.
Exactly. The possibility of comedy is to be able to look at things in a different way. It’s like having your mind expanded in a fun way.
A lot of your shows, this one included, involve political and social ideas. Even though there are all sorts of puppet shows that deal with different subjects, a lot of people still view puppetry as a children’s art form. How do you think puppetry mixes with these more serious issues?
Puppetry has traditionally been an art form for both adults and children. It’s also traditionally been subversive because with an oppressive government, if an actor says something directly you can get into trouble. But if you mediate it through a gibbling doll, the authorities are stupid enough to think that’s OK because it’s not an actor saying it, it’s a doll. There’s a great tradition of political satire and comedy with puppets. It’s only recently that the dominant cultural application has been that it’s kids’ entertainment. But that’s changing in part because of the Center promoting puppetry as an adult thing.
We’re used to 3-D entertainment and million dollar movies, but puppetry’s kind of a return to basics. Audiences really like seeing a bunch of crap gibbled around because it’s sort of refreshing without all the hyper technology and the glossy, well-buffed [stuff] as opposed to the on-the-spot, in-the-moment, goofy, lo-tech charm of it. My shows are relentlessly lo-tech despite the video projection.
Where does White Like Me go next and what do you have going on after that?
I’m going to New York City to do three weeks at Dixon Place starting May 25. I’m taking Beakman to Brasil in June and August and Qatar in November. I’m working on some art projects. One of the things I do is take thrift shop paintings and alter them to my specifications. I don’t paint, I hire a guy named Gregg Gibbs to paint for me. But I just come up with these gags like I found a picture of a building and he painted a whole bunch of clowns in it killing each other, shooting at each other and all this clown mayhem. That one’s called “Never Rent to Show People.” You can’t rent to show people because we’re freaking crazy. There’s about 25 of those and I’d like to make some more of those. I have one where there’s a couple of mountain lions on a cliff, and it’s kind of a corny Western painting. It’s been changed where you see just the fingertips of some guy over the edge of the cliff and his backpack’s there and the cats have blood on their mouths and it’s called “Cat Chow.” That’s just a hobby, but I also want to branch out into making prints myself and doing sculpture just for the hell of it.
For more information, go to www.zaloom.com.