"Anyone who sees the show, I think, they're impacted in different ways because it works on a lot of levels. 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," said Lisa Kudrow during a recent press call to discuss her new NBC series "Who Do You Think You Are?" In each episode of the new reality series, well known people from entertainment and sports are giving the opportunity to take a trip through their family tree and, at times, find things they never would have expected in their family's past. Our Jim Halterman was there to hear how Kudrow and partner Dan Bucatinsky went about shaping the original BBC project of the same name for an American audience as well as the surprising facts they found when celebrities opened up their lives to have their genealogy uncovered.
Tonight's premiere episode features "Sex and The City" star Sarah Jessica Parker, who talked down family skepticism when agreeing to be on the show. The actress is seen in the episode, 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," said Kudrow who serves as an executive producer along with Bucatinsky and is also the focus of an upcoming episode.
In the first season of episodes, "Who Do You Think You Are?" delves into the respective pasts of celebrities such as director Spike Lee, actresses Susan Sarandan and Brooke Shields, Parker's husband Matthew Broderick and football legend Emmitt Smith. Was such a diverse group intentional when they were laying out plans for filming? "That was definitely our intention," said Bucatinsky. "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 have many fans in a lot of different areas."
Bucatinsky added that the true heart of the show is in having the audience relate in a different way to a celebrity that they may only know from TV, film or sporting events. An episode, he said, "is really about you dig, you scratch the surface, of a person whom you believe you know who's well known 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."
One thing Kudrow made clear was how the research was done for the series. As opposed to huge amounts of research happening before the cameras rolled, the subjects, she explained, "are learning as they're going along. That's why everyone was nervous. They wouldn't even tell - they would say we need your passport because we need to send it to Washington to get a visa for this country we're taking you too." In fact, when travel was done with the subjects, oftentimes they weren't told where they were going so the experience would be as real and unplanned as possible. "[The producers] would also say, 'Oh, and by the way you'll need warm cloths for winter weather for three days and then it will be warm weather and you'll need clothes for that for two days.' So, they really help you prepare but they don't give you any information."
Kudrow's own story, when she found out a relative she thought was dead was very much alive, also involves her father and that father-daughter bond is a big reason for Kudrow wanting to be a subject on her own show. "I did this for myself but also for [my father]... 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."
As for the show itself, Bucatinsky said that there's an addictive quality to the show that should easily pull in viewers just as it did for he and Kudrow. "We started watching the BBC, the DVDs that were coming in from their [show]. Again, we weren't familiar, necessarily, with every single one of their celebrities and the shows [but] you just wanted to watch another and another and we were hoping that people just, regardless of their level of investment in the subject, but just want to see more because each one is completely different."
There are differences between the British and American versions, which Bucatinsky explained. "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... 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 making hard choices to tell the story."
While most lives have positive as well as negative aspects or experiences in the past, nothing is off limits including a past that might include the Holocaust or slavery. "We confront everybody with whatever it is that might be good, bad and the ugly of what's down there when you dig deep enough," shared Bucatinsky. "I think everyone sort of comes to us with this idea that we are who we are in the present because of, and sometimes in spite of, that which has occurred in the past. And I think most people are fairly open about embracing, 'Wow, that's really hard to deal with but from that we came to this' and I think it's important."
Kudrow was asked about featuring the stories of non-celebrities in the future as the BBC version often does. "It probably will be up to the network," she said. "But, look, having watched the British version of the show and I didn't know who their newsreaders 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."
"Who Do You Think You Are?" premieres tonight with subject Sarah Jessica Parker at 8:00/7:00c on NBC.