A lot of people are talking about Zoom these days—it’s the name of the videoconferencing software that, thanks to the coronavirus crisis, has quickly gone from semi-obscure tool for working remotely to household name and basic social utility. But for some of us, there was another Zoom, one we encountered way before anyone ever dialed into a videoconference: the goofy public television show, starring a cast of regular, non-actor kids, that originally aired in the ’70s and got a millennial reboot in the ’90s. It’s why some of your colleagues and friends get a faraway look in their eyes when you ask them to Zoom—that word transports some of us back to childhood and gives us the urge to sing a ZIP code: “Oh-two-one-three-four … ”
And it turns out this isn’t just the case for those of us who watched the show. The people who starred on and made Zoom have also, in the age of the Zoom happy hour, found themselves returning to thoughts of Zmail, Cafe Zoom, and dancing around a soundstage in matching striped shirts. I had daydreamed of a very meta Zoom reunion on Zoom, but the team had a better idea: In the spirit of the late-night shows that are going on even as production has moved from professional sets to cast members’ basements, the Zoomers decided to bring back their show, or at least a lo-fi version of it: This week and next, WGBH, the Boston public television station that produced both iterations of Zoom, will use its social media channels to share video segments where former Zoom cast members guide viewers through the same kind of science experiments and do-it-yourself activities that powered the old series.
Pablo Velez, who spent a season as a mushroom cut–sporting, rapping tween cast member of Zoom ’99 and went on to work for WGBH as an adult, first floated the idea of bringing the show back in some form. “I followed up with some of my former Zoom castmates—we stay in touch still—and threw out this idea, like, ‘Hey, what if we put out some videos?’ ” Velez, now 34, said—naturally, over a Zoom call with Slate. “Literally at the same time, I got a call from some of my colleagues at GBH saying, ‘Hey, have you thought about maybe doing something Zoom-related?’ ” (Asked about that ’99 look, he added, “My haircut was dope, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”)
Project #ZOOMIntoAction was a go. Also on board was Hillary Wells, the station’s executive director of youth media, who had worked on the 1999 show’s pilot. Wells and Velez insisted that the word Zoom being in the air wasn’t their primary inspiration for bringing back the brand, though it was hard to ignore, and yes, they’d seen the jokes on Twitter. “There was one the other day that had my season’s intro. It said something like, ‘I’m starting my Zoom meeting like this,’ and it was all of us singing the theme song,” Velez said. But the bigger reason for the revival was Zoom’s lasting hold over the people who grew up watching it. “Of all of our properties, the most nostalgia really comes from Zoom,” Wells said. “Regardless of who walks in the building, they see an old prop from Zoom and they want to take a picture with it.”
The first order of business was to reach out to the wider cast of the show. “I was really touched and overwhelmed by the response that we got,” Velez said. He’d gotten to know a lot of the ’90s cast over the years, even living with some of them in his Los Angeles days, but he was unsurprisingly less connected to the ’70s Zoomers. For that, he enlisted the help of Bernadette Yao, she of the signature Bernadette gesture—Emily Nussbaum once described it as a “joyous wiggly arm thing”—from the ’70s show’s introduction. Yao “really gathered the troops on that end,” Velez said. All in all, they recruited 22 former cast members, a pretty even mix of ’70s and ’90s kids, for the project.
What’s putting the segments together been like? Sadly, Velez told me, “When we hop on the phone or on a video call, we’re not just talking in Ubbi Dubbi, although that would be funny,” referring to the gibberish-esque language Zoom encouraged audience members to speak. Because no Zoom curriculum would be complete without it, the new videos will include at least one segment schooling kids on that beloved Zoom lingo (call it an intrubbodubbuction). Also on the syllabus: recipes and arts and crafts. Overall, the goal is to produce a series of segments that mix archival footage from the original shows and new material that former Zoomers were able to produce on the fly in their homes. In the first one, released Monday, Velez shows viewers how to make a rainstick, a classic kids’ sound-making contraption, out of a paper towel roll, re-creating a craft he remembers doing on air back in his original Zoom run. This time, he’s standing at the kitchen counter in his grown-up home, and his toddler daughter makes a cameo appearance.
For a series whose mission was to craft a show by kids, for kids, the producers are conscious of the fact that the presence of adult former cast members rather than, well, actual kids will be much more likely to appeal to parents and grandparents than young viewers. But the producers also figure, at a time when those parents and grandparents may be looking for ways to occupy and entertain kids of their own, why not offer them some tried and trusted Zoom suggestions, served in a comfortingly nostalgic package? The station is also planning to host two live chats—on, where else, Zoom, as well as other platforms—where participants will be able to interact with former Zoom cast members, ensuring that you too might live the dream of Zooming with Zoom, and bringing us one step closer to my vision that all Zoom calls from now on include a mandatory group performance of the Zoom theme song. Sing it with me: “C’mon and Zoom, Zoom, Zoom-a, Zoom.”