To be published in the Journal of the IST Spring 2017
The 1970s was an important decade in the history of scientific communication. In 1972 “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” the seminal television series featuring Carl Sagan was released; four years later Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. However, these pivotal moments were eclipsed when Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his technician Beaker burst onto our television screens.
These colossi of television science began their careers on Jim Henson’s infotainment show “The Muppets Show” . The show was designed to satisfy the increasingly sophisticated and knowledge-hungry children of the space age, combining serious theatrical criticism with refined musical and dance performances, classical theatre, culinary discussion, and hard-hitting in-depth interviews with major stars such as Rudolph Nureyev and Elton John.
Within this eclectic intellectual atmosphere, scientific input was vital and the “Muppet Labs: where the Future is Being Made Today” soon became pivotal to the show’s success. The audience hotly anticipated the moment when Kermit the Frog would bring up the curtain on the white-coated Honeydew and his technician Beaker in one of their many impressively high-tech experimental laboratories.
It is often forgotten that Honeydew initially presented the Muppet Labs segments alone. However, Honeydew was criticized for being too cold and intellectually distant for even the sophisticated Muppet Show audience to relate to him; as well as struggling to perform experiments and talk at the same time. It was clear that an assistant was needed and so, a star was born. Beaker added practical knowhow but, more importantly, an empathic humanity to the feature. His nervous manner endeared him to audiences and his characteristic bulging eyes and red hair made him an instantly recognisable personality. He became a great ambassador for science, particularly for the role of experimentation and the scientific method.
Beaker was willing to risk life and nose in his commitment to the scientific method. A classic example of this was his willingness to be used as a target to demonstrate the ground-breaking banana sharpener. The Honeydew-Beaker collaboration also introduced the edible paperclip, magnetic carrots, and the electric nose warmer to an amazed world. While these inventions may fail to impress a jaded millennial audience, they were true wonders in the more innocent age of the 1970s.
Beaker and Bunsen’s on-screen relationship was complex. Many have said that Beaker’s apparently accident prone ways were, in fact, the result of his victimisation by an increasingly jealous and bitter Honeydew, resentful of Beaker’s instant fame. If this was so, Beaker showed the true phlegmatic nature of the technician by keeping his dignity throughout; notwithstanding one episode in which undergoing repeated cloning procedures pushed the fiery red head to the limit. In anger at the treatment, Beaker and his clones chased Honeydew around the lab throwing the whole show into uproar. Despite this, it is clear that their relationship was a close one that led to incredible fame and success for both parties.
Unfortunately, in 1981 “The Muppet Show” was discontinued and Beaker and Honeydew’s careers began to decline. The few cameo roles they took subsequently cast them as parodies of their former selves. Lapses in Beaker’s judgement crept into his career choices: his ill-advised musical career was particular difficult with his covers of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Morris Albert’s “Feelings” meeting with general condemnation. There was also a brief and tragic affair with model Petra Němcová, the details of which are well known and best forgotten .
It is a credit to Beaker that the media and the adoring public are swift to forgive and forget. He and Honeydew are still cult figures, voted Britain’s favourite cinematic scientists in 2004 . The pair hold an important place in the history of science communication and I for one would not be the technician I am today without growing up under Beaker’s influence.
By Andy Connelly
-  J. Henson, The Muppet Show – Season 1-5, Walt Disney Studios HE.
-  Beaker, Meep and other four letter words: my autobiography, Madeuppublisher (19-)
-  “Not Such Muppets Now”, http://www.britishscienceassociation.org, British Science Association (2010).