On tonight’s all-new episode of TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? beloved actor Kelsey Grammer explores his grandmother’s lineage in a deeply emotional journey that leads him westward across America.
It’s the kind of episode the show’s co-executive producer Dan Bucatinsky says fascinates him most.
“I love the episodes that touch on tent poles in history, stuff we studied in text books in school but didn’t have a personal connection with — like the Salem Witch Trials with Sarah Jessica Parker,” says Bucatinsky, the entertainment-industry multi-hyphenate who brought the addictive genealogy series to America with his longtime business partner Lisa Kudrow and Alex Graham, who developed the series in the U.K. where it first caught Kudrow’s attention.
“We are going to be touching on the Oregon Trail with Kelsey Grammer, and [we’ve done] episodes in the past with the Revolutionary War — Rob Lowe’s episode — and episodes with the Civil War that have given us a more personal context on what it was like to fight that war and what was at stake and how many people died during that time,” he continues. “And by the end, we find out just how close our ancestors were to perishing — the very fact that we are even here is thanks to a lot of luck and heroism on the shoulders of our ancestors.”
Who Do You Think You Are?, which garnered its second Emmy nomination for Outstanding Structured Reality Program, is just one success story for Bucatinsky and Is Or Isn’t Entertainment, the television, film and new media development company he and Kudrow formed in 2003. Bucatinsky — who won a 2013 Emmy of his own for his portrayal of Cyrus Beene’s doomed husband James Novak on ABC’s hit Scandal — will next appear in NBC’s new sitcom Marry Me and with Kudrow in both a new season of Showtime’s Web Therapy and HBO’s long-awaited return of The Comeback. The latter two series — which Kudrow, Bucatinsky and his husband, Marley & Me screenwriter Don Roos, also write and executive produce — are past Emmy nominees, as well.
“Lisa and I like to do things that we think are quality,” Bucatinsky says. “Whether people watch it or whether the networks keep it on the air, well that is both the thing we have no control over — and also the thing we are chasing. The only things you can focus on are the stuff that you love and what you think has never been done before and keeps you interested. … The chance to keep Who Do You Think You Are? on the air at TLC is a just a dream.
We talked with the busy father of two while he took a familial journey of his own — to the airport to pick up his mom.
Channel Guide Magazine: You are the very definition of a multi-hyphenate in the entertainment industry, with shows in the works on four different networks. Flow chart on your bedroom wall to keep it all straight?
Dan Bucatinsky: Yes, I feel very fortunate the last couple of years. A lot of the things you plan for many, many years and then they just happen to be coming to the train station at the same time — all the different tracks and all the different trains. Marry Me premieres Oct. 14 and I will be in front of the cameras on that. Then The Comeback on Nov. 2, as of now — I am working as a producer and an actor on that and on Web Therapy which returns Oct. 22. We have the biggest cast this season on Web Therapy that I think we have ever had. It is going to be really exciting. And Who Do You Think You Are? is currently on the air for two more weeks and then we are back on again at the top of the new year for another eight more.
It is a busy time for us, but we are very lucky. These are all projects that we love. It’s a juggling act. Yesterday I was at a table read for Marry Me, then I was watching a cut of Web Therapy and then this morning I was on a call for Who Do You Think You Are? for a future episode we are researching right now.
CGM: While the appeal of Who Do You Think You Are? is entirely evident, what was the draw of bringing the show to a U.S. audience for you and Lisa in particular?
DB: Lisa was shooting P.S. I Love You in the U.K. and Ireland and was watching the U.K. version of it. Many of the U.K. celebrities she wasn’t even familiar with and yet it was so riveting to her that she did a marathon in her hotel room. She watched, like, six of them in a row — and then she called me and was like, ‘You have to see this show!’
But I also have to credit Alex Graham who created this series in the U.K. It has been a very successful show for the BBC for many, many years and with the format that he created, he intended the star of each episode not to be the celebrity but someone in that person’s lineage. In almost every case, we are getting to look at the celebrity in a way that we have never seen them before. They truly become our tour guide into the life of someone who lived long before them, so you get the best of both. You get to see the celebrity in a light that you would not normally see them in. They are not promoting their show. They are not plugging anything. It is not them on a talk show. It is quite literally them encountering, discovering and inquiring about their own lineage and about people who existed way before them.
So the thrill for us to be able to work with Alex, who had produced so many of our favorite shows and series like Manor House, and to do a show like this and bring it to the U.S. was really exciting.
CGM: Sometimes there’s tough stuff that is revealed on the show — I’m thinking Chelsea Handler’s episode in particular. How much legwork is done in advance to make sure that the celebrities can handle what they find out?
DB: Sometimes we really had to debate it — how much is this person going to get? — because it was never, never intended to exploit. Our intention is never to embarrass, humiliate or drive a person is the point of being so caught off guard that they don’t know how to react. That is not this show.
There have been instances almost every season that Lisa and I have had to get on the phone with somebody and, without revealing too much, ask them, ‘What’s your appetite for what we might find and are there areas for your family you don’t want to explore? You are the master of this story and this journey. We don’t want you to feel like you can’t stop or if you don’t want to go further.’ But so far no one has done that. Everybody has been so generous not just with their time, but their emotional generosity and sharing with the viewer these documents and what these documents mean on camera, in an exposed way that I think that really is unique.
CGM: How do you choose the celebrities who appear on the show? Do you reach out to them? Do they reach out to you? Both?
DB: I think it is a combo platter. In year one, it was a lot of our outreach and talking to people who were linked to episodes that existed in the U.K. and getting people on board with the format. But it is such a universal interest now; there are more and more people now all the time who come after us, who reach out to us and want us to take their journey and ask if we would research them.
And you brought up a really good point — producing this show is really challenging and not for reasons you would think. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of not just finding the talent, but seeing if the research will pan out in a timely manner and will create a narrative that is interesting and emotional. No one want to go on a journey for 10 days just to find out there are a couple of potato farmers in their lineage. Not to say that is not interesting, but we have to make sure that if we are going to put someone through this, they are going to have a real payoff.
So there’s timing of research and outreach, then waiting for the research to pan out into a story and having the story jive with the schedule of the celebrity — because these are all working professionals who have very little time on their hands. That is among the biggest challenges — waiting for the story to break in a satisfactory way and then praying to God that the celebrity will have the time to shoot that journey is what makes it so different from other shows.
CGM: Do the celebrities themselves have any input along the way? Are they part of the process even when the cameras aren’t rolling?
DB: We do an initial interview with everybody to find out what do you know? What are you curious about? What do you want us to focus on when we can? What do you want us to skip, if you hate a particular branch of your family? Because it is all real. This is a documentary. We don’t rehearse it. None of it is staged. We, of course, talk to our historians and our genealogists because they need to be prepped. But we have no idea how a particular person is going to react to something, or how inquisitive they will be or how emotional they will be.
It is a lot of information to take in one moment. And sometimes people react or process it very differently. We have had the gamut — we have had people who are extremely vibrant and other people who I find just as fascinating but are much more internal and are taking it all in and trying to process it …
CGM: … because you really are changing their lives and how they perceive themselves and how they perceive their family. Which is a pretty daunting responsibility.
DB: I like to think of it as they are not just changed — they are expanded. If you think one thing about yourself and it completely changes, but a lot of what you felt before is still valid, now you have a different context for it.
Even as early as Brooke Shields’ episode, she had a very prickly relationship with her grandmother. When she was a little girl, her grandmother wasn’t someone she had a lot of enjoyable moments with. But now she had a context for why her grandmother was the way she was and she had all this forgiveness and openness about who she was, because she had actually spent time understanding — through documents — what the circumstances of her grandmother’s upbringing were. Sometimes that context brings you an enormous amount of insight to why we are who we are or why our parents are who they are.
We just had an amazing episode with Valerie Bertinelli who goes on two different journeys — one on her mother’s side, one on her father’s side. I always love when we can do that. She is very connected to the Italian side, which only deepened her connection to her Italian side. And her mother’s side, she knew virtually nothing, except for a rumor she may be a little English. She got to find an incredible linage in that side of the family.
And Kelsey Grammer and then Minnie Driver, who is our season finale, are amazing stories that give both of them insight into their own parents. Sometimes you go back 10 generations and sometimes you are just blown away by the insight into your own parents.
CGM: And how troublesome false perceptions and lack of accurate information can be?
DB: That’s exactly right. I also hope that everyone takes away from each episode the idea that oral history is so important — but only to a point. There’s what gets passed down and what we tell our kids, what’s real and what isn’t, and what is documented and what isn’t. We live in a time now where so much of what is documented or what will be researched 100 years from now is digital. One hundred years from now — when Who Do You Think You Are? is in Season 150 — we are going to be reading over Tweets and Facebook posts. That is how we are going to be researching this stuff.
So I keep trying to remind people that what we are living right now is history for the next generation — so be mindful of that. I have always liked using the #makinghistory hashtag when I tweet about Who Do You Think You Are?. Because inadvertently we’re making the same kind of history that we are researching right now on the show. We are making it every day.
CGM: So the part where we’re loading up Twitter and Facebook with how bad we want a donut or how much we like kitty videos is a little scary…
DB: It shouldn’t scare us … but it should try to inspire us to live today in a way that would be worthy of history.
New episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? air Wednesday nights at 9/8CT on TLC.
Photos: danbucatinsky.com/TLC Video: TLC