Lisa Kudrow, executive producer of the US version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” was the guest for a group phone interview on Friday, January 27.
I was honored to participate in the call which focused on the show’s new season, which begins at 8pm, Friday, February 3, on NBC.
This year"s celebs are Martin Sheen, Marisa Tomei, Blair Underwood, Reba McEntire, Rob Lowe, Helen Hunt, Rita Wilson, Edie Falco, Rashida Jones, Jerome Bettis, Jason Sudeikis and Paula Deen.
Unfortunately, due to a technical glitch, my own questions could not be answered. However, the others asked some great questions, and Lisa responded in kind (see below).
Other geneabloggers on the call were Thomas MacEntee, Lisa Louise Cooke, Angela Walton-Raji, Kathryn Lake Hogan and Diane Haddad, along with newspaper and entertainment industry magazine writers.
Here are some questions and Lisa’s responses.
Q: What advice do you have for people who become frustrated or stuck in their research?
Lisa: There doesn’t have to ever be an end. That's what makes it such a great hobby. I think there's always research you can do on different branches, different cousins and you go back. And then it's not just names and dates. Then you start looking at where they were living, what was happening there at that time, you start looking at historical documents. And you can maybe draw some conclusions or guesses about what was motivating some of their choices in life.
Q: What happens if you come across bad news?
Lisa: Most people go into it understanding that they just want information, whatever it is. They already understand that if somewhere in their ancestry there were some unsavory people or they did bad things then, that's not who they are. And you can just focus on how the family turned itself around.”
Q: In the UK, the show is huge and there will be another WDYTYA family history fair soon, with nearly 20,000 attendees expected. Do you see the US version tying into a US national conference for family history?
Lisa:We're invited all the time, our researchers and as executive producers to different events, pertaining to genealogy and ... historical archives ... so it happens. But that hasn’t come up yet.
Q: The opening episode this Friday is on Martin Sheen. Can you share anything on what he finds?
Lisa: There are two segments in Spain. The first segment is in Ireland. But the first segment in Spain is his finding out more than he ever knew about his uncle - his father's brother - who was the only Estevez sibling in Spain who didn't leave the country. He was actually stuck there, got caught up in Franco's coup and he was involved in trying to put it down very early on. He was imprisoned many times for that. It's also something that Martin really related to because he's an activist, he's been in jail, he's been jailed a couple times, and he could absolutely relate to and be proud of families who sacrificed for their beliefs in social justice.
Q: More people are doing DNA research and medical history. Will we see any on the episode with Paula Deen and her recent diabetes diagnosis?
Lisa: We're still working on the research for Paula Deen and it hasn't come up as something that we'll be looking into. But we do - not with the health aspect of genetic testing, but there have been big improvements on, you know, on - for Blair Underwood's episode, there have been a lot of improvements in what you can find out, so he submitted a DNA sample that would track his father’s Y chromosome. There are a lot of samples gathered in Africa to hone in on the closest matches and provide a better indication of where they're from, something more precise. And it's pretty precise.
Q: Why is genealogy important to the immigrant experience?
Lisa: I think it's important because so much gets lost once a family moves their roots. There's a lot that gets lost. Maybe it's just a human thing that there aren't a lot of stories passed down if there was tragedy and difficulty. To keep moving forward and coping, you'd rather not dwell on those periods of hardship and victimhood. Otherwise it's hard to press on. So I think that's why there's no information that gets passed down. I think it's important to know where you're coming from.
Q: When people want their genealogy or ancestry traced, are they interested in their culture or is it one or two individuals they want to look into, and then find out more information?
Lisa: It's a mixture. Everyone has something different they want to know. Sometimes it's a specific story that got handed down and they want to know if that's true. Sometimes it's very general because they don't know anything. A lot of times it's just “I want to do this for my mom, she's interested.” It's partly what you were talking about. As they're doing this for their mother or their father, they realize they get caught up in it as well and feel a strong connection themselves.
Q: I'm curious about your team and the complexity of research into persons of African-American ancestry. As genealogists, we research our families to 1870, and hit a brick wall. If we get to the point of identifying a slave holder, then we have to research their history. Do you have two teams - in the case of Blair Underwood - did you have two teams of people, some researching the slave holder and then researching the family found in freedom?
Lisa: Our team of researchers are usually history majors and they know how to conduct research. There's usually one person assigned to a subject and then we have another person who's helping on that. But they reach out to experts in different areas of history, especially around those time periods or African-American slave history.
We don't have one person dedicated to this area. For example, this season we have 12 people. There's such a variety of ancestry that we can't possibly have experts on staff in all those fields.
Q: How long does the research process take from the time a person agrees to be a subject?
Lisa: It varies. Marisa Tomei and Rob Lowe, that's been going on since Season 1. We couldn't find information. And then there are people where it's incredibly lucky. I think Blair went really fast.
Q: What are some of the biggest improvements over the three seasons?
Lisa: The first improvement came after the first season when we didn't have that music video montage. That, to me, was a great improvement, because then we could have more time to actually tell a story - the drag for us is that it's only 40 minutes total. We would love to get into more history for context for what was going on. In Helen Hunt's episode, I think that helped tremendously and helps you get invested in the people that we're looking at because we can see what was going on at the time and how it motivated what they did. You feel like you understand them ... more than just a name and a date.
Q: Could give some highlights on this season’s stars, such as Jason Sudeikis, Rob Lowe, and Rashida Jones?
Lisa: We haven't shot any of them yet. I think I know the most about Rob Lowe. That's going to start shooting very soon, if it hasn't already. But that's an unbelievable story. And I can't talk about them at all because none of them have shot. They don't know what's coming. It's always a surprise until they actually shoot it.
Q: Have you noticed any common elements as to why each person has become so successful in their own life?
Lisa: I haven't thought about that because we've been focusing on people who are not famous, that came before [the celebs]. It's generations later that someone happened to become famous for whatever it is that they're doing. For every famous person, they've got 100 other relatives that aren't famous and who came from the same ancestors.
Q: Are celebrities less apprehensive about appearing now than Season 1?
Lisa: Much less. We've got a waiting list now. That’s fantastic. I think they know that we're not trying to catch them at something or make them look bad. 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 a more interesting episode.
Q: What influenced your decision to be the show's executive producer?
Lisa: I had seen it when I was in Ireland - on BBC - and I thought it was the most riveting show I'd ever seen. And what a great way to talk about history and the human condition.
Q: What is most challenging in your search?
Lisa: 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. We've tried to do Korean or Japanese subjects and it's very tricky to get records – access to records.
[NOTE: Lisa added, "Eastern European Jewish history is a huge roadblock. A lot of the time, you can't even get past World War II. You can get the 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." Having done archival research in Eastern Europe, I disagree with this. The records are there, they just need to be really searched out. To say that there are no records because they have all been obiterated is not true, and there are many Eastern European Jewish history researchers who have great success finding records in many places.]
Q: Have you spoken to featured celebrities about their experiences, before or after filming?
Lisa: Usually after, if at all. There's a recurring theme: That it was a lot to process and I'm still processing it. It's something that really lingers. And that's usually what someone says afterward.
Q: How do you feel [your experience] changed you?
Lisa: In certain psychological ways, it's made a difference because I usually like to avoid unpleasant things - especially emotionally unpleasant - and that's not a great way to go through life. But I think having to just stay with it when I did my show because that's difficult information to hear and just be there.
You put yourself in the situation and you're walking the same road they walked before they were all murdered.. At one point I remember they said, “It's right up here.” I actually stopped. My instinct was to stop and not take one more step. So I think what was good is to push on and to understand that the good news is that this is not happening to me and now there's a witness for it and it's bigger than me. It's beyond just me having this experience. It's a story that you're sharing with other people.
Q: Do celebrities approach you now about the show?
Lisa: Yes. I saw Blair Underwood at a party and he said, "I want to do your show." And I said, "All right." Done. It all has to start with a conversation with a researcher and then they get going. It can take two years. Martin Sheen was saying, "I don't know, I spoke to them and then six months later, they said all right, so when can you shoot this?" He didn't hear anything. Brooke Shields said the same thing. Maybe we should get a little better at communication. But it can take awhile sometimes.
Q: Is there any big reveal about Martin Sheen’s episode that you can share?
Lisa: I've seen cuts on the first six, only half. They all have big reveals. Blair Underwood has a huge reveal. Reba McEntire does, too. They all do. And Marisa Tomei is looking at her great-grandfather. The story was that he was killed by a jealous lover and that he was a philanderer - that's just how they always saw him. She goes and investigates and finds out that it's a different story and people didn't have to be even a little ashamed.
Q: Touching on the youth question, would you perhaps focus future episodes on celeb teens or eary-20s and help them avoid decades of false assumptions and teach them that family tree knowledge is a great hobby.
Lisa: That's a great point. Rashida Jones is the youngest person we've had do the show. I think it's trickier to get even younger people because they're not necessarily interested yet. Usually it's once a person has children that they become interested. With boys, it seems even harder because they're young men, they're looking forward, they don't want to look back. It's a big generalization, but it comes up. So it's great that we have Jason Sudeikis, because he's also younger. That's why a lot of people do it, they can't wait to tell their kids. And they want their children to know where they came from and what the real story is.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from the show?
Lisa: That we're pretty strong as human beings. Those of us that are here, it's almost a miracle that we are here. The only reason we're here is because we come from strong stock. So I think that should give us all a feeling of inspiration and strength that we can draw from that, because it's not easy to survive this planet.
Remember to watch the first episode of the new season on Friday, February 3, at 8pm on NBC. The MyHeritage team is now in Salt Lake City for the RootsTech 2012 conference and I will be viewing the opening episode with other conference attendees at the Family History Library.
Do you watch Who Do You Think You Are?, in any version (several countries have their own (UK, US, Australia and others)? Does the show inspire you to check out your own family history? Have you found clues to your own ancestry research during the episodes?
Do let us know via comments below, on Facebook and Twitter. We're looking forward to reading your views.