The show traces the ancestral roots of celebrities and follows them as they find out, on camera, their family history. The celebrities featured this season are Martin Sheen, Marisa Tomei, Blair Underwood, Helen Hunt, Reba McEntire, Jerome Bettis, Rita Wilson, Edie Falco, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Jason Sudeikis and Paula Deen.
I talked to Lisa on a conference call where she discussed why she championed and brought the show to America, the most challenging aspects of tracing someone’s past and if some of her Friends might one day appear on the show.
Who Do You Think You Are? airs at 8/7c on NBC
If you come across bad news, as I know some celebrities have on the show, how do you approach that situation?
Lisa Kudrow: You know, most people go into it understanding, I mean, there’s, you know, not a formal conversation, but, you know, most of them feel like I just want information whatever it is. Whatever it is. And they already understand that, you know, if they – if somewhere in their ancestry there were some, you know, unsavory people or they did bad things then, you know, that’s not who they are. And, you know, you can just focus on how the family turned itself around.
So, I don’t know, I mean I think people go into it understanding that this about getting information, it’s not about, you know, getting what you want.
What do you think are some of the biggest improvements in the series over last year?
Lisa Kudrow: Oh, I think – well, the first improvement came after the first season when we didn’t have that, like, music video montage. That, to me, was a great improvement because then we could have more time to actually tell a story.
I mean, the drag for us is that it’s, you know, like 40 minutes total. And, you know, we would love to even get into more history for – to get some context for what was going on. And like, you know, I know in Helen Hunt’s episode, I think that helped tremendously and really just helps you get invested in the people that we’re looking at because we can see what was going on at the time and, you know, just how it motivated what they did. You feel like you kind of understand them. More than just a name and a date and oh, she was president of, you know, this league and that, you know.
Now that you’ve done this for a few seasons, have you noticed any common elements as to why each person has become so successful in their own life?
Lisa Kudrow: No. That I haven’t. I haven’t thought about that because I’ve, you know, we’ve been mostly focusing on the people who are not famous that came before them. And then it’s generations later that someone, you know, happened to become famous for whatever it is that they’re doing.
Because, I mean, you know, for every famous person, they’ve got like a hundred other relatives that aren’t famous.
Now that people are familiar with the show, are celebrities more or less apprehensive than Season 1?
Lisa Kudrow: Much less. Much less. We’ve got, you know, we’ve got a waiting list now.
I think they know that, you know, this is not – we’re not trying to catch them at something or make them look bad, you know. That’s not what we’re interested in. We’re really interested in just telling these stories as experienced by their ancestors. And hope that they’re engaged because that always makes for, you know, a more interesting episode.
What influenced your decision to be a part of the show as Executive Producer?
Lisa Kudrow: Oh, because I had seen it and – when I was in Ireland and I thought it was – it was on BBC and I thought it was, you know, the most riveting show I’d ever seen.
And what a great way to talk about history and sort of the human condition.
What do you think is most challenging in your search?
Lisa Kudrow: You know, there are different, you know, different countries have different privacy laws, so that’s about getting documents, getting permission to look at documents or shoot documents, so that’s one roadblock. Obviously slavery is a big roadblock. Eastern European Jewish history is a huge roadblock that you – a lot of the times you can’t even get past World War II. I mean, you can get like a name of a parent of someone who came over, but there are no records over there. Period. At all. They’ve been obliterated. So that one’s pretty tricky. That’s why there haven’t been too many Eastern European Jewish stories. But yes, I mean, there are – and I think, you know, we’ve tried to do like Korean subject or Japanese subjects and it’s very tricky.
You mentioned that there’s a waiting list for the celebrities to be on the show and come forward, but do they approach you now about wanting to be on it?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes. Absolutely. They do. I mean, I saw Blair Underwood at a party and just walking by each other he said, “I want to do your show.” And I said, “All right.” Done. I mean, sure.
It’s easy enough to, you know, to get going because it all has to start with a conversation with a researcher and then they get going. And like I said, it can take two years. Like I, you know, Martin Sheen was saying, “I don’t know, I spoke to them and then six months later, they said all right, so when are you – when can you shoot this?” He didn’t hear anything. Brook Shields said the same thing. They’re like, “I didn’t hear from anybody.” Maybe we should get a little better at communication. But, you know, the – it can take a while sometimes.
Have you reached out to any of your former Friends cast mates, and have any of them expressed interest on finding about their pasts?
Lisa Kudrow: Yes, some have and some haven’t and then it’s a scheduling issue.
Have you always been interested in history and ancestry or was there a point in your life where this became something that you were interested in?
Lisa Kudrow: Well, I was always interested in, you know, parts of history. But like I said, when I saw Who Do You Think You Are? on B- on the BBC when I was in Ireland, I thought that this was such a fascinating show and what a great way to deliver history on such a personal level. You know, you personal- you personalize it and it takes on a whole new meaning. And then what a great thing to offer an audience who wants to see it. And luckily we have a lot of show up to watch it.