It's hard to get genealogists riled up, but Ricky Gervais has succeeded. Not that he intended to. Asked in a recent interview whether he would ever appear on the celebrity-roots series Who Do You Think You Are?, he replied in standard Gervais fashion, "No. Who cares who the f*** you are? Oh God, I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? I mean, really, do you care? It's all come flooding back now, hasn't it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago."
As a researcher for the U.S. version of this series, as well as author of the companion book, I have a slightly different perspective. And it turns out there are lots of folks who care about others' frisky, fearless and felonious forebears as NBC just renewed the series for another season.
I enjoy Gervais's cringe-inducing brand of humor as much as anyone. The Office is on my must-view list, and my channel-surfing comes to an abrupt halt if I happen to spot him on TV. I like that he keeps me off-kilter and wondering what might come out of his mouth next.
But there's another part of me that's grateful for what I see as a move toward redeeming reality programming on the major networks. NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, ABC's Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, and CBS's Undercover Boss all leave me feeling gently uplifted without having been blatantly manipulated. Perhaps it's not a huge surprise, then, that Gervais is pessimistic about the prospects for Jamie Oliver's show, saying, "He's over here (in the U.S.) trying to educate fat people on how to eat. His heart's in the right place, but he's got no chance. No way."
Maybe he's right, but maybe there's also a contingent out there that's growing a touch weary of a constant diet of cynicism. I suspect that one of the main reasons Who Do You Think You Are? resonates with so many is because we see our own families in the stories of the ancestors of Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith and other celebrities.* Just as many of us love The Office because we can relate, many of us are drawn to Who Do You Think You Are? because we're all related.
And just maybe that's what really concerns Gervais. With his father's French-Canadian ancestry, the odds are dangerously high that he's cousins of some sort with his recent Marriage Ref panel-mate, Madonna - not to mention Celine, Ellen DeGeneres, Alanis Morissette and Hillary Clinton. All of which leaves me wondering: What is it about French-Canadian heritage that spawns take-charge women . . . and Ricky Gervais?
The fortunate reality for Gervais is that genealogists are not, in general, a group to be feared. The worst we'll do is uncover some of those unexpected connections (I'll cop to the Obama-Brad Pitt one) or determine that your great-great-grandmother was indeed a prostitute.
Along those lines, should any of my fellow genealogists be curious about Ricky Gervais's past, here's a snippet (from Ancestry.com) showing his young parents, married just three years earlier, returning to England from Singapore in 1947.
As 30 seconds of googling will tell you, Lawrence Raymond Gervais and Eva Sophia M. House met during a blackout. Sure sounds like the makings of terrific episode to me!
* Here's an example of a lucky viewer who solved a long-standing mystery because she watched Matthew Broderick's episode.