Lisa Kudrow on "Who Do You Think You Are" Season Three

By Jamie Ruby

Lisa KudrowLisa Kudrow is probably best known for her role as Phoebe Green on Friends, but she is so much more. Kudrow has not only starred in a variety of roles, both in film and on television, but she is also one of the executive producers on NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?

The show follows celebrities as they trace their family trees and find out about their ancestors. Each week a new celebrity learns about their family history. The celebrities this season include Martin Sheen, Marisa Tomei, Blair Underwood, Helen Hunt, Reba McEntire, Jerome Bettis, Rita Wilson, Edie Falco, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Jason Sudeikis and Paula Deen.

Recently Kudrow talked to the digital media about the series, which will be returning for its third season on Friday.

NBC UNIVERSAL Conference Call
Who Do You Think You Are
Lisa Kudrow

January 27, 2012
1:00 pm CT

Lisa KudrowQUESTION: ...I went to Ellis Island and the whole process, it can kind of consume your life if you don't find answers right away. Do you think there's ever an end? What kind of advice do you have for people that get frustrated or stuck?

LISA KUDROW: I, you know, because - no, there doesn't have to ever be an end. That's what makes it such a great hobby. You know. I - 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 Then when you start looking at where they were living, what was happening there at that time, you start looking at historical documents.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, you know, maybe 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 approach that situation? I know obviously when you're digging into the holocaust, when you come across bad news how do you overcome that?

LISA KUDROW: You mean how does the subject? Or what, you know, what do we do to try to help with that?

QUESTION: Oh no, just the subject in general.

LISA KUDROW: You know, most people go into it understanding, I mean, there's, you know, not a formal conversation, but, you know, most of them feel like I just want information whatever it is. Whatever it is. And they already understand that, you know, if they - if somewhere in their ancestry there were some, you know, unsavory people or they did bad things then, you know, that's not who they are. And, you know, you can just focus on how the family turned itself around.

So, I don't know, I mean I think people go into it understanding that this about getting information, it's not about, you know, getting what you want.

QUESTION: You've got 12 celebrities on the docket for Season 3, 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: Well, I think a lot of people would love it to be a 20 episode season. So yes, expansion is good, you know. We always think more is better.

QUESTION: In the UK the show continues to be huge and they're just about to have another one of their annual conferences with like 17,000 people showing up. Do you ever see maybe the US version of your show tying into a national conference here in the US for family history?

LISA KUDROW: That the - I mean, we're invited all the time, our researchers and some of us as executive producers and we are invited frequently to different events, you know, pertaining to genealogy and other sort of historical archive places, so, you know, it happens.

QUESTION: Yes, so maybe participating, but not necessarily having a whole show - a whole conference devoted to Who Do You Think You Are? like they do in the UK.

LISA KUDROW: Right. Yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

LISA KUDROW: I don't know, I mean, that hasn't come up yet.

QUESTION: On Martin Sheen's particular episode in Season 3, is there anything that you can illuminate on what he finds? He has an interesting background. I know his people are from Galicia, that northern part of Spain, and I was wondering if you could share any tidbits from that particular segment.

LISA KUDROW: Sure. 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, you know, Franco's coup and actually tried to put it down. Like, you know, he was involved in trying to put it down very early on. So that was interesting and, you know, he was imprisoned many times for that.

And it's also something that Martin really related to because, you know, he's an activist, he's been in jail, he's been jailed a couple times for that, and, you know, he could absolutely relate to and be proud of families who sacrificed for, you know, their beliefs in social justice and that.

QUESTION: I have a question in terms of 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, you know, with Paula Deen and her recent diabetes diagnosis? Some people track depression and substance abuse through generations. Is there any focus on that in episodes?

LISA KUDROW: No. That's not what, I mean, we're - the - 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, you know, a DNA sample that would track his, you know, the Y chromosome.

QUESTION: Right.

LISA KUDROW: 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, you know, 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: Why is genealogy important to the - oh, well, I think it's important because so much gets lost, you know, once a family, you know, moves their roots, you know. There's a lot that gets lost. And in a lot of cultures - or, you know, maybe it's just a human thing that 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, you know. Otherwise it's hard to press on. So I think that's why there's a lot of just no inform- there's no information that gets passed down.

So I think it's important to know where you're coming from. Yes.

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. You know, 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, you know, 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, there was just - ancestry.com had a sweepstakes and, you know, and then they would come out and, you know, tour the Who Do You Think You Are? offices. And the winners - the winner was - they were 26 years old.

So I thought that was really surprising. That was, like, a very nice surprise.

QUESTION: I'm curious about the complexity of the research that goes into the persons of African-American ancestry. As genealogists, we research our families to 1870, we hit sort of a brick wall, and if we get to the point of identifying a slave holder, then we have to research their history. Do you have sort of two teams, let's say in the case of Blair Underwood, did you have two teams of people, some who were researching the slave holder's ancestry and then researching the family found in freedom? I'm curious in terms of what your team really consists of. It must have been kind of fascinating.

LISA KUDROW: Well, our team of researchers, you know, they 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, you know, one or, you know, usually there's another person who's also helping on that. But they reach out to, you know, the experts in different areas of history, especially around, you know, those time periods or in African-American slave history and that kind of thing.

So, you know, it's not...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, you know, ancestry that we don't have - we can't possibly have, you know, just experts in whatever field would come up on staff, you know.

QUESTION: ...How long from the time a person agrees to be a subject to the time you actually - I don't mean necessarily shooting it because you have things to show them, but how long does that research process take? Because of course it's ongoing for those of us...

LISA KUDROW: Right.

QUESTION: ...that do it all the time.

LISA KUDROW: Right. It varies. I mean, you know, Marisa Tomei and Rob Lowe, that's been going on since Season 1.

We couldn't - we didn't - we couldn't find information. And, you know, 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 [two] years that it's been on.

LISA KUDROW: Oh, I think - well, the first improvement came after the first season when we didn't have that, like, music video montage.

That, to me, was a great improvement because then we could have more time to actually tell a story or...maybe get, I mean, the drag for us is that it's, you know, like 40 minutes total. And, you know, we would love to even get into more history for - to get some context for what was going on. And like, you know, 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, you know, just how it motivated what they did. You feel like you kind of understand them.

More than just a name and a date and oh, she was president of, you know, this league and that, you know.

QUESTION: Are you always there when filming is happening?

LISA KUDROW: No, I am not there when filming is happening.

QUESTION: What is something is that goes on behind the scenes that our readers, viewers might be surprised to hear about. Do you have any stories like that?

LISA KUDROW: Well, let's see. You mean what's happening during filming?

QUESTION: Right. That people might not realize happens. For example, I've - some of the subjects have said, you know, we repeated this scene, you know, so you have to do the surprised thing again. So something like that. That's something that I wouldn't realize.

LISA KUDROW: Yes, we try not to have that happen.

But sometimes a cameraman will like catch the other guy or, you know, we didn't hear it or that's, you know, we can't not have that moment just because of some technical problem. So...

QUESTION: We were wondering if you could give us some highlights on some of the stars you have featured this season. Three in particular we were interested in are Jason Sudeikis, Rob Lowe, and Rashida Jones.

LISA KUDROW: Yes. Well, we're still - we haven't shot any of them yet.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

LISA KUDROW: And yes, so that is still ongoing. I know - 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, you know, 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: Oh, as to why these people have become successful. No. That I haven't. I haven't thought about that because I've, you know, we've been mostly focusing on the people who are not famous that came before them. And then it's generations later that someone, you know, happened to become famous for whatever it is that they're doing.

QUESTION: Well, now that (unintelligible)...

LISA KUDROW: Why, have you noticed something?

QUESTION: Not really, that's why I'm asking you.

LISA KUDROW: Because, I mean, you know, for every famous person, they've got like a hundred other relatives that aren't famous. Who came from the same ancestors. So...

QUESTION: Well, 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, you know, we've got a waiting list now.

That's fantastic.

QUESTION: Okay, great.

LISA KUDROW: Yes. Well, I think they know that, you know, this is not - 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, you know, a more interesting episode.

QUESTION: For you personally, which celebrity would you want to have featured on the show that hasn't already been on it?

LISA KUDROW: Oh. No, I don't do that.

QUESTION: Okay. What influenced your decision to actually be a part of Who Do You Think You Are?...as Executive Producer?

LISA KUDROW: Oh, because I had seen it and - when I was in Ireland and I thought it was - it was on BBC and I thought it was, you know, 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: Well, I don't, I mean, I have a lot of questions for George Washington. I'd like to, you know, 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, I mean, they can certainly do the, you know, like get out their computer and look up stuff on ancestry.com...

QUESTION: Right.

LISA KUDROW: ...like any of us can. You know, because - but then when we depend on experts who have gone through archives and have, you know, original very rare documents, no, they can't.

They wouldn't have access. Sorry.

QUESTION: When you have time, is there anything in particular that you enjoy watching on television?

LISA KUDROW: Yes. Yes, I like, you know, Parenthood a lot and I think 30 Rock is still the funniest show.

SCIFI VISION: When you guys do the research, have you ever come across in anybody's past, people that maybe don't want to help you or don't want to discuss it. How do you deal with that? Because I think there has to be some kind of roadblocks as you work on that.

LISA KUDROW: Yes. I mean, it comes up sometimes and so we just have to do the best we can without those sources of information.

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

LISA KUDROW: You know, there are different, you know, 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 you - a lot of the times you can't even get past World War II. I mean, 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 mean, there are - and I think, you know, we've tried to do like Korean subject or Japanese subjects and it's very tricky to get records. Yes, to have access to records.

QUESTION: I would love to know, as somebody's who's gone through this experience yourself because you were on the show, have you spoken to the other celebrities who have done this about their experience? I know you talked a little bit with Rosie about it on The Rosie Show, but do you talk to the celebrities before or after?

LISA KUDROW: Usually after, if I do at all. You know.

QUESTION: And what have those conversations been like? What have the reactions been?

LISA KUDROW: There's a recurring theme which is that was a lot to process and I'm still processing it.

You know it's something that really lingers. And that's usually what someone says afterward.

QUESTION: How do you feel like it's changed you, yourself, since you went through it?

LISA KUDROW: I think it made me, you know, maybe on psycholo- in certain psychological ways, it's made a difference because I usually like to unvoid - avoid unpleasant things that - especially emotionally unpleasant and that's not a great way to go through life, but - so I think having to just stay with it, you know, when I did my show because that's kind of difficult information to hear and be - and just be there. You know, you put yourself in the situation and you're walking the same road they walked before they were all murdered, you know. 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, you know, it's a story that you're sharing with other people.

QUESTION: You mentioned that there's a waiting list for 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 mean, 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.

QUESTION: Why not, right? And...

LISA KUDROW: Yes, absolutely. It's easy enough to, you know, 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, you know, Martin Sheen was saying, "I don't know, I spoke to them and then six months later, they said all right, so when are you - when can you shoot this?" He didn't hear anything. Brook Shields said the same thing. They're like, "I didn't hear from anybody." Maybe we should get a little better at communication. But, you know, the - it can take a while sometimes.

QUESTION: There's a big Glee movement to have you on as one of the character's mother, Heather Morris. She plays Brittany. I'm not sure if you watch the show or not or would be interested in possibly playing Brittany's mom.

LISA KUDROW: No, I've seen the show. Yes. I get why people say - suggest that.

QUESTION: And would it interest you?

LISA KUDROW: Well, I'm not - I don't sing.

QUESTION: Well, they're not all singing parts.

LISA KUDROW: Okay.

QUESTION: So that changes your mind? You might per- well, the show (unintelligible)...

LISA KUDROW: No, no one's asked, so...

QUESTION: Okay. Well, 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: Well, it hasn't happened. I mean, Robin Schiff who wrote and produced the first one, she, you know, has had really good ideas for sequels, but, you know, it hasn't happened.

QUESTION: A couple people have mentioned that you said you have a long list of celebs that are kind of waiting, 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 [been] shot?

LISA KUDROW: Let's see. I'm looking at my list and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, I've seen cuts on the first six, so only half of them. Any big reveals. I mean, they all have big reveals. Blair Underwood has a huge reveal, I think. Reba McEntire does too. I mean, they all do. And Marisa Tomei, you know, she's looking at a - her grand- her great grandfather, the story was that he was killed by a jealous lover and that he was, like, a philanderer, so that's just how they always saw him. And she goes and investigates and finds out that it's a different story and, you know, people didn't have to be even a little ashamed.

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, you know, it impacted, you know, one, you know, you know, in the raising of their kids or, you know, s- one person used these new family names that they discovered to, you know, use as middle names for children that have been born afterward and, you know, they've just sort of integrated it into their own family history, which it is. They just never knew it was.

But it's a great question about buying property or, you know, that used to belong to the family. That's great.

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.

LISA KUDROW: Right.

QUESTION: And so touching on the youth question again, 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 someone - famous, you know, 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. The, you know, 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, you know, they're young men and they're looking forward and they don't want to look back. Yet. So that's sort of one of the - it's a big generalization, but it comes up. It seem to come up, you know. So it's great that we have Jason Sudeikis too. Because he's also younger and, you know, yes.

QUESTION: That would be a challenge to overcome is to help teach that they need to know this instead of believing false things...

LISA KUDROW: Right, but 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.

QUESTION: The truth. Right.

LISA KUDROW: So...

QUESTION: Whatever it is.

LISA KUDROW: Yes.

QUESTION: Good or bad.

LISA KUDROW: Right.

Who Do You Think You AreQUESTION: 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, producing a musical either for the stage or TV, or a super hero 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: Maybe another sitcom or two?

LISA KUDROW: Yes, possibly. Yes.

QUESTION: We were wondering what you hope viewers take away from watching the show.

LISA KUDROW: I hope what they take away from the show is that, you know, 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. Huh?

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: Well, I was always interested in, you know, parts of history. But like I said, when I saw Who Do You Think You Are? on B- 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 know, you personal- 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, so...

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