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Who Do You Think You Are? Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

Lisa Kudrow

This is a transcript of an interview with Lisa Kudrow on January 27, 2012 about the show Who Do You Think You Are?.

Question:
Do you think there's ever an end? What kind of advice do you have for people that kind of get frustrated or stuck?

Lisa Kudrow:
No, there doesn't have to ever be an end. That's what makes it such a great hobby. There doesn't really ever have to be an end. I think there's always research you can do on different branches, different cousins and you go back and, you know. And then also it's not just names and dates. Then when you start looking at where they were living, what was happening there at that time, you start looking at historical documents. And you can draw some conclusions or guesses about what was motivating some of their choices in life.

Question:
If you come across bad news, as I know some celebrities have on the show, how do you kind of approach that situation?

Lisa Kudrow:
Most people go into it understanding they just want information whatever it is. Whatever it is. And 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. I don't know, I mean I think people go into it understanding that this about getting information, it's not about getting what you want.

Question:
You've got 12 celebrities on the docket for Season 3 and I was just wondering, are we starting to see an expansion of the number of episodes, how long your seasons are going to be, and do you ever envision it being a 20 episode season?

Lisa Kudrow:
I think a lot of people would love it to be a 20 episode season. So yes, expansion is good. We always think more is better.

Question:
Do you ever see the US version of your show tying into a national conference here in the UK for family history?

Lisa Kudrow:
We're invited all the time, our researchers and some of us as executive producers and we are invited frequently to different events pertaining to genealogy and other sort of historical archive places, so it happens.

Question:
On Martin Sheen's particular episode in Season 3, is there anything that you can illuminate on what he finds?

Lisa Kudrow:
There are two segments in Spain. The first segment is in Ireland. But the first segment in Spain is he's finding out more than he ever knew about his uncle, his father's brother, who was the only one of the Estevez siblings in Spain who didn't leave the country. And he was actually stuck there, he got caught up in Franco's coup and actually tried to put it down. Like he was involved in trying to put it down very early on. So that was interesting and he was imprisoned many times for that. And 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 for that, and he could absolutely relate to and be proud of families who sacrificed for their beliefs in social justice and that.

Question:
More and more people are doing DNA research and medical history in terms of their family history. Are we going to see any of that on the episodes with Paula Deen and her recent diabetes diagnosis?

Lisa Kudrow:
No. We're still working on the research for Paula Deen and it hasn't come up as something that we'll be looking into. There have been big improvements, 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 the Y chromosome. So his father's line.

The Underwood's line. And there are a lot of samples that have been gathered in Africa so that they could hone in on the closest matches and give them a better indication of where they're from, something more precise. And it's pretty precise.

Question:
We've seen more and more immigrant ancestry being focused on, Marisa Tomei, even Rita Wilson, I'm hoping you do Greek genealogy for her, and this season is different why is genealogy important to the immigrant experience?

Lisa Kudrow:
I think it's important because so much gets lost once a family moves their roots. There's a lot that gets lost. And in a lot of cultures there aren't a lot of stories passed down if there was tragedy and a lot of difficulty and in order 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.

Question:
One thing that I was curious about was when people want their genealogy or their ancestry traced, are they generally interested in the culture that they came from or is it one or two individuals that they're actually wanting to look into and then they find out all the other information?

Lisa Kudrow:
It's a mixture. Everyone has something different that they want to know about. Sometimes it's a specific story that got handed down and they want to know if that's true. And sometimes it's very general because they don't know anything. So it's just very different. A lot of times it's just I want to do this for my mom, she's interested. And I think it's partly what you were talking about and so as they're doing this for their mother or their father, they realize that they get caught up in it as well and feel a strong connection themselves.

Question:
Do you find that more younger people are getting interested in this?

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes. I'm really surprised. But yes, ancestry.com had a sweepstakes and then they would come out and tour the Who Do You Think You Are? offices. And the winner was 26 years old. >So I thought that was really surprising. That was a very nice surprise.

Question:
Do you have two teams, some who were researching the slave holder's ancestry and then researching the family found in freedom?

Lisa Kudrow:
Our team of researchers are usually history majors and they know how to conduct research period. And there's usually mostly one person assigned to a subject and then we have one or usually there's another person who's also helping on that. But they reach out to the experts in different areas of history, especially around those time periods or in African-American slave history.

So we don't have like one person's dedicated to this area. Because, for example, on this season we have 12 people and there's such a variety of ancestry that we can't possibly have just experts in whatever field would come up on staff, you know.

Question:
How long does that research process take?

Lisa Kudrow:
It varies. I mean Marisa Tomei and Rob Lowe, that's been going on since Season 1. We couldn't find information. And and then there are other people where it's incredibly lucky. I think Blair went really fast.

Question:
What do you think are some of the biggest improvements in the series over the three years that it's been on?

Lisa Kudrow:
The first improvement came after the first season when we didn't have music video montage. That, to me, was a great improvement because then we could have more time to actually tell a story.

We would love to even get into more history \to get some context for what was going on. And 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 just how it motivated what they did. You feel like you kind of understand them. More than just a name and a date and she was president of this league and that.

Question:
Are you always there when filming is happening?

Lisa Kudrow:
No, I am not there when filming is happening.

Question:
Tell me something that goes on behind the scenes that viewers might be surprised to hear about?

Lisa Kudrow:
Sometimes a cameraman will catch the other guy or we didn't hear it or that's we can't not have that moment just because of some technical problem.

Question:
Could you give me some highlights on some of the stars you have featured this season. Three in particular we were interested in our Jason Sudeikis, Rob Lowe, and Rashida Jones?

Lisa Kudrow:
We haven't shot any of them yet, so that is still ongoing. I think I know the most about Rob Lowe. That's going to start shooting very soon, if it hasn't already. Let me see. I don't know. I don't have that schedule. 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.

Question:
Oh, okay. So it's going to be all a surprise?

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes, yes. It's always a surprise until they actually shoot it.

Question:
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 we've been mostly focusing on the people who are not famous that came before them. And then it's generations later that someone happened to become famous for whatever it is that they're doing.

Question:
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 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, 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 a more interesting episode.

Question:
What influenced your decision to actually be a part of Who Do You Think You Are?

Lisa Kudrow:
I had seen it when I was in Ireland and I thought it was 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 sort of the human condition.

Question:
Which world leader, dead or alive, would you want to have lunch with the most, if given the chance?

Lisa Kudrow:
I have a lot of questions for George Washington. I'd like to like you have lunch with someone and you can see if they're as wonderful as you've heard.

Question:
How much of the research do the celebrities do themselves? Because we see on the show they're doing a little bit of the research, but just how involved do they get involved with that?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well they can certainly do the like get out their computer and look up stuff on ancestry.com like any of us can. But then when we depend on experts who have gone through archives and have original very rare documents, no, they can't.

Question:
It's such a great show and you've done so much other great stuff on TV. When you have time, is there anything in particular that you enjoy watching on television?

Lisa Kudrow:
I like Parenthood a lot and I think 30 Rock is still the funniest show.

Question:
When you do the research, have you ever come across in anybody's past like people that maybe don't want to help you or don't want to discuss it. How do you deal with that?

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes. It comes up sometimes and so we just have to do the best we can without those sources of information.

Question:
What do you think is most challenging in your search?

Lisa Kudrow:
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 a lot of the times you can't even get past World War II. 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 think we've tried to do like Korean subject or Japanese subjects and it's very tricky.

Question:
As somebody's who's gone through this experience yourself, have you spoken to the other celebrities who have done this about their experience? Do you talk to the celebrities before or after?

Lisa Kudrow:
Usually after, if I do at all.

Question:
What have those conversations been like?

Lisa Kudrow:
There's a recurring theme which is that 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.

Question:
How do you feel like it's changed you since you went through it?

Lisa Kudrow:
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, so I think having to just stay with it when I did my show because that's kind of difficult information to hear.

You put yourself in the situation and you're walking the same road they walked before they were all murdered. And at one point I remember when they said and it's right up here, I actually stopped. My instinct was to stop and not take one more step. And 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 something that it's a story that you're sharing with other people.

Question:
You mentioned that there's a waiting list to get to talk to 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 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 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 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. They're like, "I didn't hear from anybody." Maybe we should get a little better at communication. But it can take a while sometimes.

Question:
Alan Cumming was saying last night on Watch What Happens Live, there was never a discussion about a Romy and Michele 2. Is there a possible reunion in the future in your eyes?

Lisa Kudrow:
It hasn't happened. Robin Schiff who wrote and produced the first one, she has had really good ideas for sequels, but it hasn't happened.

Question:
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.

Question:
Is there any that are currently being worked on or is it kind of just waiting for another season to be ordered before that would start?

Lisa Kudrow:
No, everything's on hold right now. In terms of any of them.

Question:
Is there any big reveal that you can kind of tease us on for the rest of the season or at least the ones that have shot?

Lisa Kudrow:Question:
Of all the subjects so far, knowing that not all of them have kept in touch or maybe some of them have, but what's been the biggest after effect? Has anyone relocated relatives or bought property that they learned once belonged in their family?

Lisa Kudrow:
That's a good question. I'm not sure about that update. I only know about a couple of people where it impacted one you know, in the raising of their kids or one person used these new family names that they discovered to use as middle names for children that have been born afterward and they've just sort of integrated it into their own family history, which it is. They just never knew it was.

Question:
An aspect of your show that I find emotionally moving is how often the subjects have lived their entire lives believing the wrong things about themselves or about their family. I was wondering if you'd perhaps focus future episodes, if you expand, or even have a youth oriented spinoff so that you could catch a famous celeb teens or early 20s and help them avoid decades of false assumptions and also teach them that family tree knowledge is a good hobby,

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes. That's a great point. Rashida Jones is the youngest person we've had do the show. And 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. Usually. And then with boys, it seems even harder because they're young men and they're looking forward and they don't want to look back.

Question:
Just as a producer you've produced sitcoms, film, drama, and reality TV, and I was just wondering on a lighter note if you have any designs on, like, producing a musical either for the stage or TV or a super here sci-fi movie. Like what's next for you production wise?

Lisa Kudrow:
Not a musical and not a super hero sci-fi movie. Unfortunately. Because those things are popular.

Question:
What do you hope viewers take away from watching the show?

Lisa Kudrow:
I hope what they take away from the show is that we're pretty strong as human beings. Those of us that are here, it's like almost a miracle that we are here. And the only reason we're here is because we come from strong stock. You know, 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.

Question:
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:
I was always interested in parts of history. When I saw Who Do You Think You Are? 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 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.

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