A new TV series is taking viewers on a ride through the family trees and histories of some high-profile celebrities.
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is an adaptation of the successful United Kingdom TV series of the same name and is produced by actress Lisa Kudrow (“Friends,” “The Comeback”) and openly gay actor and writer Dan Bucatinsky (“Lipstick Jungle,” “Grey’s Anatomy”). Each week, the show follows a different celebrity on a journey into his/her family history, discovering unknown relatives, most of whom overcame huge obstacles.
“It’s not just dry history,” Kudrow said about the series. “It’s back story.”
“It’s context,” Bucatinsky added. “It felt like we were making seven little documentaries.”
Bucatinsky and Kudrow have had considerable success working together over the years. In 2003, they started the production company Is Or Isn’t Entertainment, which won acclaim for its Emmy-nominated HBO series “The Comeback,” starring Kudrow as Valerie Cherish. Bucatinsky was behind the scenes and in front of the camera on the show as an executive producer and as Valerie’s publicist, Billy Stanton. Is Or Isn’t continues to receive attention for its award-winning Web series, “Web Therapy,” starring Kudrow as an incompetent therapist and Bucatinsky as a devoted client/assistant.
Given their success both on and off screen, Kudrow and Bucatinsky agree it is less of a chore to be in the spotlight than it is to run the entire production.
“In a way, it’s easier to be in front of the camera and let everyone else worry about the stuff,” Kudrow said. “To me, a show like this is really rewarding and worth the work.”
“Certainly the discipline of being an actor in front of the camera is a lot less phone calls that we have to make,” Bucatinsky added. “But also, it’s so different: the idea of producing seven small documentary films. Both are extremely rewarding and completely different. I felt it was a totally different animal.”
One of those small documentaries focused on Kudrow herself. Bucatinsky said she believed in the show so much that she decided to be featured in the stateside debut.
“She introduced the show to me with such an enormous amount of passion,” he said. “We’ve been partners for eight years. We’ve produced many different things. She was so passionate about it. We all sat down and we watched together. We all got very excited about it. For a producer, that is heaven. It is about feeling like you discovered something so special that you all feel the same way about it. Once she took the journey, there was a part of it that we were envious of because it was like an experience that had happened to her that was part of this show that she was sharing. It’s hard to find stuff to get that excited and personally passionate about, and this was one of those things that was just infectious.”
Kudrow said the show gave her an opportunity for her to find out about part of her family history that had yet to be discovered.
“My father has done a lot of genealogy work on my family,” she said. “He has a 46-page family tree. So that part was always there. Then when we went into production, they decided I did have a good story to tell. There was something my father and I didn’t know about. That’s kind of the key to the show, that the subject can learn in it. For me, that was going to be one of the challenging things because so much work had been done by my dad.”
Once they decided to bring “Who Do You Think You Are?” to American television, Bucatinsky and Kudrow then set about figuring out what it would take for the series to fly in the U.S.
“The U.K. version has been going on for a long time,” Bucatinsky said. “Many of the people [featured] are known to the U.K. audience. They’re not internationally known. We set the bar high to find a nice blend of seven performers who are known throughout.”
Mission accomplished. Besides Kudrow, the first season features Matthew Broderick, Spike Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields and Emmitt Smith.
“Our intention was to follow in the footsteps of the BBC version, of which we were very fond,” Bucatinsky said about choosing subjects for the show. “But they also 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 a lot of fans in many areas. The show is really about how you scratch the surface of a person you believe you know — who is well known and won awards in whatever their field — and you start to go back in time to something we’re all a part of and personalize a story. Obviously, the more we get to tap into different disciplines, the better, and we certainly hope to continue in that vein.”
Kudrow added that the celebrities involved had no reservations about opening up their family histories to millions of viewers.
“We initially went to friends that we know to see if they were interested and a lot of them said sure, we know you’re not going to do something exploitative,” Kudrow said. “I think most of them saw what the show is and you can see that the show is not about you. It’s not about me and my personal life. It’s more about my ancestors becoming the main character of the story. And also the show isn’t looking for dirt on anyone’s life. We’re not looking to make anyone cry. We’re just giving them information that they haven’t ever known about before.”
“The biggest issue is how much you yourself want to be exposed in the discovery of all this stuff,” Bucatinsky said. “We were not result-oriented. It wasn’t like we were out looking for big reactions. It’s authenticity — in the BBC version — and all of our celebrities reflected that. Very quickly, once the story starts unfolding, the story gets removed from the life of the celebrity. We were very surprised at the number of people that were interested from seeing the BBC version.”
Just because the celebrities on the show were eager to participate doesn’t mean the process of making the show was as easy as turning on the cameras and opening up some history books.
“Make no mistake: It’s so complicated to try to do the dance with someone you’d like to ask if they’d be interested in doing the show,” Bucatinsky said. “Then you do preliminary research and start to find the nuggets of an interesting story. Then, will their schedule allow us to shoot them discovering more?”
Kudrow added that interesting people do not guarantee an interesting family history.
“Thirty percent of the time, these stories are a dead end because there are no records or it’s just 500 years of sheepherders,” she said. “The shock and surprise was that almost every single person that we did preliminary research on gave us a great story. Especially the African-American stories, because there’s that wall of slavery where there’s a first name sometimes but there’s no records. That was almost a miracle that there were stories.”
Kudrow and Bucatinsky agreed the stories are the main focus of the show, not the celebrity names attached.
“One of the key factors for me was like, how about some good-quality TV that’s entertaining and enriching?” Kudrow said. “Anyone who sees the show I think is impacted in different ways because it works on a lot of different levels. It’s inspirational. It’s interesting: Some of the details of history that you didn’t know about have a huge impact on a family line. Almost everyone who’s seen the show has tried to find out more about their family tree.”
“It’s always exciting to get people who watch, because they are interested in the subject or the particular celebrity and inadvertently get sucked into the story, that then makes you feel a part of this fabric of history,” Bucatinsky added. “It very soon becomes about something so much larger than the person you thought you were there to watch.”
“Who Do You Think You Are?” airs 8 p.m. Fridays on NBC.