Genealogy is all the rage, perhaps due in part to the popularity of Henry Louis Gates ongoing PBS series that trace celebrities and notable people’s lineage, as well as African-American lives in his exhaustive research.
Even National Geographic’s 2009 Human Genome project that featured Dr. Spencer Wells had everyone wondering what their Haplogroup was, and where their ancestors trekked to out of Africa, where the original humans were first recorded.
Now NBC has a genealogy show that is a borrowed format from the UK, and features American celebrities who go backward in time to find out what their stock was comprised of.
Genealogy is a personal thing. It fascinates the person searching for the long, laid to rest information, and for their family members too.
Unless you have a blood-related personal interest or a vested stake by marriage, hearing about someone’s 10th great-grandfather is a sure-fire recipe for being tuned out by the listener.
But celebrities apparently are immune from this and are special, and their quirky dead relatives make them even more so.
Enter “Who Do You Think You Are,” a reality show draped in sentimental musical overlays and portentous pauses as a handful of famous share with us their lineage and personal histories.
First up is “Sex and the City” siren Sarah Jessica Parker, who thinks she’s a pile of no account blood. Without spoiling the episode, Parker comes to find out she is a distant relative of an almost burned at the stake Salem witch. It’s interesting to see her wind from one side of the country to the other in her discovery process.
Lisa Kudrow, Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, Emmett Smith and Susan Sarandon are set to discover their roots on the NBC series.
From executive producer Kudrow (“Friends,” “The Comeback”) in conjunction with her production company Is or Isn’t Entertainment and the U.K.’s Wall to Wall productions, the series – an adaptation of the award-winning hit British television documentary series – will lead celebrities on a journey of self-discovery as they unearth their family trees that reveal surprising, inspiring and even tragic stories that are set against chronicled events in American history.
Each episode will take viewers on an emotional, personal quest following one of America’s best-known celebrities into his or her past, sharing the celebrity’s surprise as they uncover stories of heroism and tragedy, love and betrayal, secrets and intrigue that lie at the heart of their family history.
Lisa Kudrow, Executive Producer, and also has her own episode and Dan Bucatinsky, Executive Producer.
“Who Do You Think You Are?” will air its first episode March 5, Friday at 8:00 PM with the Sarah Jessica Parkers Episode.
Monsters and Critics joined a few online journalists and had some questions for Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky.
Lisa, Dan, did you reference Henry Louis Gates PBS efforts for the last several years? And also National Geographic’s Genographic Project for the Human Genome Project, Dr. Spencer Well’s work? Not just the British effort?
Lisa Kudrow: No. I hadn’t known about the Professor Gates show on PBS. I didn’t know about African-American life until after we were already working with Alex. And then to be sure I watched, I got the DVD of the first season of it and so I’ve watched them and I watch…And I’m probably going to meet him this week so I’m very excited. I’m just a fan of this information and this material.
Have you seen the Faces of America where he canvasses stars?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes I have. It’s fantastic, I love it.
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes.
Lisa Kudrow: I love it.
There’s a lot of music layovers in “Who Do You Think You Are” It’s more sentimental than the PBS show. Did you decide to take your particular production in that direction, instead of a more scholarly vein to take it more entertaining?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, it’s definitely paced up even from the British show and that is a function of it landed at NBC.
So it has to be different that way.
Dan Bucatinsky: Also we embrace sort of anybody who’s sort of interested in the areas of genealogy and history and sort of doing a search for history. They’re all worthwhile. All of them are worthwhile ventures and things to watch.
I think his is amazing and educational and academic and it’s like a pursuit that from which you learn an enormous amount. And, again, I got sort of, in a great way, an academic feel to it and I think ours…Just from the beginning and I think from the design even in the BBC. There’s something that feels a little bit more like an emotional journey. It’s a little bit more – at least that was our attempt which is to make it a very personal journey, emotional, and maybe that is why also with music maybe it feels sentimental at times and each stories so completely different.
But the intention I think, felt like it was more of a personal emotional journey than necessarily one that was academic.
One of the things that I did like about your particular series was the interspersed history lessons. Will that continue throughout into the next season?
Lisa Kudrow: Oh boy. It will continue and hopefully there can be more of it because the BBC version has a lot of that. The thing is that it’s not just dry history, it’s back story that’s essential once you’re invested in these characters like Sarah Jessica, (John Hodge) or (Esther Elwell) and you need to know the back story which is history.
Dan Bucatinsky: It’s context.
Lisa Kudrow: And that’s what I mean by because there’s an intimacy to it now that it’s not just dry history that happened to strangers. It has more impact and that’s – we’re supposed to study history. We’re supposed to know what we’ve done before, how did we do things? How did it work? How didn’t it work to learn from it and hopefully this makes it worth knowing.
Lisa, what prompted you to find out about your roots, your past, and how does that lead to being part of a TV show in which you’re also an executive producer?
Lisa Kudrow: Well, it happened a little backwards for me I have to say. I saw the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” when I was working in Ireland. So it’s a British show, it’s been on for six or seven years. And I fell in love with the show. I thought it was fantastic and wanted to know why we don’t get to have that in the US.
So that’s how I got involved with the show and I showed it to Dan and Don Roos and we all loved the show so we got in touch with Alex Graham who created it and decided to partner with them on the US version.
My father has done a lot of genealogy work on my family. He has like a 46 page family tree so that part was always there and so then when we went into production and they decided I did have a good story to tell – they decided because they do the research and there were some things that my father didn’t know about and that I didn’t know about.
That’s kind of the key to the show. Is there anything that the subject can learn in it? So for me that was going to be one of the challenging things because so much work had already been done by my dad.
Anyone who sees the show, I think, they’re impacted in different ways because it works on a lot of levels, I think, the show. It’s inspirational and then it’s interesting some of the details of history you didn’t know about that have a huge impact on a family line and it’s not just one of them.
Almost everyone who’s seen the show has tried to find out more about their family tree. They just log onto Ancestry.com and immediately start looking things up.
Dan Bucatinsky: It’s also exciting, I think, to get inadvertent people who are interested in perhaps maybe be watching because they’re interested in the subject. The particular celebrities, some who’ve they’ve sort of been a fan of or have been following for a long time and inadvertently, at least this is what happened when we watched the BBC version, you get sucked into the story that then makes you feel a part of this sort of fabric of history.
And it very soon becomes about something so much larger than the person you thought you were there to watch. So that’s one of our hopes as well which is that it’s about something so much bigger.
Lisa in what way do you know yourself better now that you’ve been to Belarus and you’ve gone through this journey?
Lisa Kudrow: Well in a few ways and I felt the same way as Spike (Lee) did and he said now I know more.
I also knew that in some ways I was in denial for a long time. I think feeling that and I didn’t even admit it to the other producers that when conversations amongst other Jewish families and friends who talked about their families experience in the Holocaust I felt like, oh well my family wasn’t in a concentration camp.
And I just have this one story from what I thought was an unreliable source, my grandmother. So I decided my family – they got out.
They didn’t go through any of this. And until actually I think I knew that they probably were but I didn’t feel like investigating it, I was afraid that it would be too painful.
Was the original intent to get different actors, different performers, somebody from the sports world?
Dan Bucatinsky: That was definitely our intention. obviously, we were inspired by and following in the footsteps of the BBC version of which we’re very fond but they also sort of drew from news and entertainment and sports and music and we just wanted it to be a very high caliber of performer and people that we have a lot of – have many fans in a lot of different areas.
But, again, because a show is really about you dig, you scratch the surface, of a person whom you believe you know who’s well know and has won awards in whatever their field and you start to go back in time into something that we’re all a part of and personalize a story.
And obviously the more we get to tap in to different disciplines from entertainers to actors and television and film and sports and music and news the better and we certainly hope to continue in that vein.
How refreshing is it to present something new to the American audience?
Lisa Kudrow: Oh, that was one of the big motivations for doing it was that it’s new and it’s just a high quality show and it’s a version of…Well, look, to me it’s a documentary series but I guess in entertainment its called alternative reality.
But, no, that was one of the key factors for me is like how about some good quality TV that’s entertaining and enriching because I do think it’s really enriching, the show.
Dan, what did Lisa bring to the table as a producer?
Dan Bucatinsky: I will say that she introduced the show to me with such an enormous amount of passion. We’ve been partners for eight years. We’ve produced many different things and the ones that are truly, truly personal for Lisa and she was so passionate about it, we all sat down and watched together and we all got very excited about it.
For a producer that is heaven. It is about feeling like you’ve discovered something so special that you all feel the same way about. For Lisa in particular, and then once she took the journey there was something – there was a part of it actually that we were envious of because there was like an experience that had happened to her that was part of this show that she was sharing. I feel very, very fortunate because it’s hard to find stuff to get that excited and personally passionate about and this was one of those things that really was infectious.
How did you select the participants and what kind of due diligence did your staff have to do to get an idea of whose story might be interesting? And did you actually end up with people in mind that kind of nothing came of and you didn’t include?
Lisa Kudrow: No. I mean, Alex Graham and Lucy Carter who Alex created the show for BBC they kept saying well let’s just be aware that, what is it Dan like 30% of the time? These stories are a dead end because there are no records or it’s just 500 years of sheep herders so there’s no story to present.
And the shock and surprise was almost every single person that we did preliminary research on gave a great story.
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes. Make no mistake it’s so complicated to try to do the dance of figuring out somebody if you’d like to ask if they’d be interested in doing the show and then you do preliminary research and then you start to find the nuggets of an interesting story and then will their schedule allow us to shoot them discovering more?
And it really is sort of like a dance and we were very excited and surprised at the number of people who, A, were interested from seeing the BBC version and, B, whose preliminary research lead to the beginnings of stories.
Lisa Kudrow: Especially the African-American stories because yes, there’s that wall of slavery where there’s a first name sometimes but there’s no records. So that was almost a miracle if there were two stories. We initially went to, Don, Dan and I, friends, people that we know, to see if they were interested and a lot of them said sure, yes. I mean, we know you’re not going to do something exploitative and, so…
Dan Bucatinsky: It’s exciting also because we were able to show a couple of the episodes from BBC some of which are celebrities that we don’t know here which is one of the things that we’re extremely excited about the US version.
The UK versions been going on for a long time and many of the people known to the UK audience are known there. They’re not internationally known. We were pretty excited and we set the bar high to at least find a nice blend of seven performers or celebrities that are known throughout.
And we started to ask our friends and then we started to spread it out to publicists and agents and we made lists and we approached and it’s kind of – we started…
Lisa Kudrow: Yes. And there are actually a few stories that are almost finished but then the scheduling interfered. So we’ll see for season 2, we can go back.
What was the oddest or most interesting fact that you stumbled upon when doing these with different celebrities?
Lisa Kudrow: The oddest or most interesting fact? Well, no one was related to an animal so that’s out for outrageous. To me there’s a moment of this kind of wish fulfillment in every one of them that’s…I’m going too far but it’s almost like supernatural to me. You know? Where Brooke Shields who knows there’s an Italian aristocracy but wasn’t ever interested in that. She studies French and French literature.
Oh, by the way, it turns out her origins are French and French royalty. That kind of thing is just crazy to me.
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes, there’s something in every story where you can’t quite believe it. Like when Susan Sarandon holds up the drawing and it was her grandmother.
Lisa Kudrow: And it’s her face.
Dan Bucatinsky: And it’s of her face and – there’s certain discoveries that happened as we were going – even as the research was coming in to us and we were like oh my God. I can’t believe – you couldn’t script something like that.
Lisa Kudrow: And Sarah Jessica Parker talking with her brother saying, well, we certainly aren’t going to have relatives from the Mayflower. No, well, but you know, you will have colonists.
It just never even dawned on them, and even with my own story we were certain (Uri) was dead. I thought I was going to go find out how he died, who killed him, if that. The fact that he was alive and I met him was, I thought, miraculous.
Dan Bucatinsky: Iif you think about America – that’s another reason why I love doing this show in America. It’s like every single person comes from some kind of struggle, somewhere. You dig back a generation or two and whether you are first generation or second generation because your roots are Latin America there’s a lot of Latinos in this country and Asian-Americans. And there’s just so many people that we’d love – I just hope that over time we get to sort of dip into all of them because all of them sort of are uniquely American stories like I think our first seven are.
So, I just keep thinking of tons of people’s who’s backgrounds are so varied. It’s exciting.Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.