The executive producers of the new NBC series talk about what we can expect from the show
Lisa Kudrow is no stranger to NBC after her hit sitcom Friends had its memorable 10-season run from 1994 to 2004. Now Kudrow is teaming up with the network again, but this time as a producer with the new series Who Do You Think You Are?, which debuts on Friday, March 5 at 8 PM ET on NBC. Kudrow is executive producing the show (and also appears in an episode as well) and she recently held a conference call with fellow executive producer Dan Bucatinsky to talk about this new series. Here's what both producers had to say.
Lisa I think it's safe to say that a lot of people wonder about their roots but they don't actually do much to investigate. What prompted you to actually act on the impulse 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 exec 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. And 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.
What do you hope that viewers take away from watching it? Are you hoping that they'll merely be moved and entertained or do you think that they'll be inspired to trace their roots as well?
Lisa Kudrow: Well yes, all of it and more. 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. And also, yes, 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, there was some references to like 2008 in your hour.
Lisa Kudrow: Right.
Did you do your hour first as kind of the pilot for the American version?
Lisa Kudrow: Not as a pilot. I was the first one to shoot and I think that that was a smart move because I was one of the producer's too so if there was anything that needed to be adjusted. But it was also scheduling.
I was wondering, they have seen Friends over there where they - had it ever occurred to you that you might be related to the same Kudrow that he had met all those years ago or had it not occurred to him?
Lisa Kudrow: It seemed like it had not occurred to him because he knew that my grandmothers last name was (Farberman) the last he knew of them. So he didn't know she married a Kudrow. That's not how he found her.
We all think we all know something about slavery and we think we know something about Holocaust. But if you stood there in those fields and got the feeling of it and as Emmitt Smith went to the actual yards where people were sold, what do you find that you knew or felt much more about once you were there?
Lisa Kudrow: It's being there and walking the same path that these people walked to their death that doesn't allow you to keep it at an emotional distance like I was always comfortable with before. You know what I mean? And it just - there's a deeper impact with it and then also knowing that as hard as it was, knowing that the stories going to reach a lot of people that never knew about it before that knew the broad strokes but didn't know the details. And it's the intimate details of these stories made personalized history the impact it's supposed to give. It's a lot easier when you're learning about it and it's something that happened to strangers a while ago. And I think it personalizes it in a way that makes it as important as it should be.
Lisa in the segments I saw all the episodes and Spike Lee was asked at one point does he now know who he is and he responded well I've always known who I am but I think I know myself better. 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 there were - in a few ways and I felt the same way as Spike did and he said now I now more. Not even better. He just said now I know more. But I feel the same way. Oh, I forget what I was going to say. I'm sorry.
That's okay. But you feel more - you feel the same way that he does?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, I always, I mean I knew. 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. So that was - 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.
Were you surprised of the revelations that came out by discovering? I'm just wondering if you are still in touch with (Uri)?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, we are. I'm in touch with (Tomik) his grandson so we text each other a lot and my father emails with him. So, yes, we're still in touch and these are - these stories of survival are what are so inspirational to me and then just how people move through atrocities, come out the other end. And to me if there was some question as to whether they'd be able to actually find (Uri) who's actual name is (unintelligible) to find him and see if he would even appear on the show because he wasn't sure he wanted to. And if that didn't happen then to me the happy ending to the story was a 46-page family tree that went on for two or three more generations.
The group that you've chosen to focus on in these episodes is really a motley group, different in many different ways and I'm just wondering if that was the original intent to get different actors, different performers, somebody from the sports world, or if it just happened like that, evolved like that?
Dan Bucatinsky: That was definitely our intention. I mean our intention was to - obviously, we're 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.
Lisa, to the extent that I'm sure you still get hammered over the head with Phoebe type roles and Friends tape storylines, how refreshing is it to present something new to the American audience? I mean, obviously you said the BBC version exists but to the extent that the American audience is maybe not familiar with this, how refreshing is it to present them with something new?
Lisa Kudrow: Oh, that - I mean, 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 would you say - what did Lisa bring to the table as a producer and as a host?
Lisa Kudrow: Oh, I'm not a host.
Dan Bucatinsky: She's not a host but 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. That's what - 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. And I don't know, I feel very, very fortunate because Lisa - 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.
Just wanted to know how you went about selecting 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?
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes.
Lisa Kudrow: 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, where interested from seeing the BBC version and, B, who's preliminary research lead to the beginnings of stories.
Lisa Kudrow: Especially the African American stories because yes, there's that wall of slavery where they're just - there's a first name sometimes but there's no records.
Dan Bucatinsky: Right.
Lisa Kudrow: So that was almost a miracle if there were two stories
And how did you go about even figuring out who might be interested initially to even start doing the initial...
Lisa Kudrow: Well we initially went to, Don, Dan and I, friends, people that we know.
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes.
Lisa Kudrow: 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.
Lisa, Dan, if you referenced Henry Louis Gates PBS efforts for the last several years. He's been doing pretty much the same type of show on PBS. And also National Geographic work for their Genographic Project where they - the Human Genome Project, Spencer Well's work, I was wondering if you referenced that as well not just the British?
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.
Did you decide to take your particular production instead of a more scholarly (bane) to take it more entertainment? There's a lot of music layovers...
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 by - there are - 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 I think ours, 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. This country, unfortunately, is so woefully ignorant in American history and I loved how you recreated key American history moments and documented that. And I wanted to know if that will 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 (Ester 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 these - 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.
I was wondering what was the oddest or most interesting fact that you guys 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 they're all - 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 she's related to - 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's...
Lisa Kudrow: Oh her grandmother.
Dan Bucatinsky: 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. I don't know that's - 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: Yes.
Do you have any plans to bring on any of your Friends cast mates or their stories?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes. I mean we're definitely interested in doing that if there's a story, sure.
Is there anyone else in particular that you think would be really, that you haven't done already, interesting to look into their past?
Lisa Kudrow: Tons. Everybody.
Dan Bucatinsky: There's so many people. I mean, if you think about America - that's another reason why I love doing this show in America. It's like I wouldn't - 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 Latino's 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.
Was there was anything you were afraid to find out going into it or if there was anything that you learned after.
Lisa Kudrow: I was afraid just to explore the massacre of my great grandmother and her friends and neighbors and other children. I mean, I was afraid to go there. I was afraid of what I would feel and I was curious to see if after hundreds of years of my family in Belarus would I feel a connection to Belarus? And the answer was no.
Would you ever consider doing non-celebrities if you found just an ordinary person with an extraordinary story?
Lisa Kudrow: We've talked about that a lot.
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes.
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, that is something we really want to do.
Could that be for the next season you'd revisit that?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, I think we'll see if it makes sense for the next season but I'm not sure. I'm not sure yet.
Dan Bucatinsky: It depends on how many we get to do and how many people we've already researched and it's an expensive thing. I mean, each story the research for them is pricy and worthwhile but it would be very exciting to do somebody's story who is not as well known.
Lisa, you said you've called upon some of your Friends was Sarah Jessica (Parker) and Matthew (Broderick) some friends that you leaned on for this?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes. Well, Sarah Jessica immediately and of course because we're both moms so that's who I was primarily in touch with. And it was, oh, and by the way if Matthew's interested that would be great too. So, yes.
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes, I was working with Brooke on an NBC series at the time and we had a lot of time to talk about it so we definitely started with personal relationships and then went wider from that point.
Lisa Kudrow: You know it's really brave of these seven people to do this show. They haven't seen it on network television, anything like it before so I think it was a huge amount of trust that they put in all of us.
Was there any trepidation from the subjects about opening their lives up to this degree to millions of viewers?
Lisa Kudrow: Well, I think most of them saw that the show is and you can see that almost immediately the show - it's not about you. It's not about me and my personal life it's more about my ancestors become the main characters of the story. And the show also wasn't looking for dirt on anyone's life, do you know what I mean?
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes. I think the most exposed anybody is really, I think the biggest probably issue, which I didn't really hear much of, is how much you yourself want to be exposed in the discovery of all this stuff. And I know Brooke would communicate with me and, again, we were not result oriented. It wasn't like we were looking for tears or looking for big reactions or looking for a result. It's authenticity. And the BBC versions we had to give all of our celebrities certainly reflected that. So I am - I didn't hear a lot of it in terms of that and, again, I echo what Lisa said. It's like very quickly once the story gets unfolding the story gets removed from the life of the celebrity very quickly.
Lisa Kudrow: Yes and we're not looking to make anyone cry we're just giving them information that they haven't ever known about before and a lot of it's dramatic. And Susan Sarandon she didn't fall apart at all and I thought it was riveting so it doesn't matter.
So, you've already touched on this and you were saying, talking, about the trust that participants had to have in you. So while the process was going on did they have any chance to kind of step in and say if they preferred to share something or leave that part out or was it just kind of all up to you and the producers of what to include in the final product?
Dan Bucatinsky: Certainly in the initial conversations that we have with every single one of them they are very, very collaborative about areas that they're interested in, things they've always wondered about, people they may not want to tap into and then there's always, at the end of... There comes a point in our cutting process, and we got again, Alex set the bar with this in his show in the BBC where a cut of every film goes to the performer or this celebrity and we have an opportunity to hear from them. No, it didn't really happen like that and I think that - or whatever. Or I remember something differently.
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, but we had no notes really. Everyone was pretty pleased with they're episode so that's great, that's the goal also. That's one of the goals aside from having audiences enjoy it.
Are you watching the Olympics and are you happy with the promotional push NBC's giving you?
Lisa Kudrow: I've - I'm stammering. I haven't had a chance to see the Olympics because we've been on vacation and I couldn't get my TiVo to work but I've gotten emails about the promos and that's good. And you know more is better. You know for getting the word out to an audience that there's a show that's going to be on. So I would always love to have more. Because I think this is a big deal that this kind of show...
Lisa Kudrow: Because this - on a lot of levels. This kind of non-scripted show is going to be on network television on NBC specifically with these people who don't need to be on TV. They don't need to and it's just such a high quality show, I think. And I just love that NBC is getting back to basics and putting on quality programming. So, I would want to just shout it from the mountaintop.
Lisa, I'm just curious because you're a mom now and you say this has impacted you, how has it changed your outlook in things from being more observant or being more concerned about passing on tradition to your children. How has that affected you?
Lisa Kudrow: Well, one thing is I used to feel bad about holding on to certain like letters or my day runners from the 80's, you know those things, file a faxes and stuff and I'm not going to feel bad about that anymore because those are all, at some point, potentially important family documents about what I was thinking or feeling at a time because I don't keep journals or an invoice from somewhere. Everything is a clue it turns out when you're doing - when you're trying to piece together a life from a few hundred years ago.
Dan Bucatinsky: I was just thinking that recently. Without becoming a hoarder I have realized that right now is the history of 100 years from now or even a week from now. This show really makes you want to make sure there are records.
Dan I wanted to know aside from British and American celebrities how do the two versions differ?
Dan Bucatinsky: Well there's one very, very obvious one which is that in the BBC version they have 59 minutes, or a full hour, uninterrupted and the pace is a little - they take a little bit more time with it because they have more time, which boy it would be great to have because we have to make some hard choices when we're telling these stories and when we're cutting them. The American format for a show like this involves (act breaks), recaps, coming ups and more driving music and keeping people watching. And I think that we were able to stay as close to the pure documentary sort of feel of it that we could while increasing the pace and increasing - and making hard choices to tell the story in as...In writing scripts also we do the same thing. Sometimes you want to come into a story at the latest possible point and you make it as clean as possible. And I think our American version, because of the necessary - I think we only have about 40 minutes of actual - any hour long is really only between 40 and 43 minutes. We have to make those kind of decisions. But for the most part we've stayed pretty true. We still have the historical context moments, the interviews, the style. We've really been able to borrow from their version which inspired us but fitted into the network format which I'm proud of.
You were saying earlier about - that you've been talking about having non-celebrities on the show. Is one of the factors you're considering whether a show of this caliber would be appealing to a broad audience without celebrities?
Lisa Kudrow: Right, I mean, that's something - look, that's something that we'll I think...I'm not sure Dan, it probably will be up to the network. But, look, having watched the British version of the show and I didn't know who their news readers are or some of those people and it was riveting. All I know it that I think as people come to trust that if we're putting it on the air it's going to be an interesting story and a worthwhile story to tell. So it almost won't matter after a certain point who is featured.
Dan Bucatinsky: Right. And I think there are ways of investing the viewing audience of the regular version of the show in the fact that there's an opportunity for a non-celebrity to maybe be a part of it and then I'm not sure how that would happen but I do believe...
Like a contest?
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes. I do believe the viewing audience would get invested themselves in seeing that episode. It's so competitive in television right now to get the viewers that I think the investment is the most important thing.
Lisa, your dad has the final words of your episodes and he said, you did good, you did good. And it seems like those scenes with your dad, just watching them, where maybe the most fulfilling for you. We all like our parents to be proud of us and in some ways was he more proud of you for doing this or more impressed than you being in Friends or some of the other things that you've done?
Lisa Kudrow: Well, I don't know if he was more proud but I think he felt - I did this for myself but also for him. And I didn't audition for Friends for my father, that was my path. But this is something that's a gift to him. I think that's how he felt about it anyways. It is information that he worked so hard for so many years to get information and now he was getting new information that he couldn't have gotten before. Yes.
Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky's new series Who Do You Think You Are? debuts on Friday, March 5 at 8 PM ET on NBC.
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