When you look at the map of the United States, it's easy to surmise that our country is merely a bunch of crooked lines and angles that dont seem to have any clear logic. Why are some states like Texas huge? Why is Maine so small? And, from a historical perspective, how did the Civil War play a role in Las Vegas ending up in Nevada as opposed to Arizona? What industry was Wisconsin first known for? (Surprisingly, it's not cheese.) The answers to these questions and so many more are the foundation of "How The States Got Their Shapes," a new 10-episode series on History that not only explores America but gets to the bottom of why things are the way they are while dispelling some myths and inaccuracies along the way.
In each episode, broadcast journalist-actor-comedian Brian Unger, an Ohio native, ventures from state to state to ask the important questions and also take the time to chat with U.S. citizens along the way. Last week, our Jim Halterman talked with Unger about the surprising three things every city in America has, how much the show is reeducating the public and how his own Midwest upbringing gave him his curiosity and perspective on America.
Jim Halterman: How did you get involved with the show?
Brian Unger: As you well know, Jim, everything in TV that turns out good is an accident and this was this one-time-only special undertaken about a year and a half ago based on the book [of the same title, by Mark Stein]. It quietly developed into a two-hour special and I was asked by some people I had worked with before to host it. [The special] rated very well and it repeated well and I think it became one of Historys top specials of the year. I think they looked back and said Lets develop this into a series. The challenge we had was to come up with an organizing principle for the show because on the face of it, it only seems like there are 50 stories to tell but when we started looking at it from the opposite perspective, which is how are we shaped by the states and how do they define us, we found the stories were limitless. We approached it as a cultural geography show even though it begins in the map and it ends in the map in every show.
JH: Is it safe to assume that you learned a lot more about the country that you didnt know before?
BU: Here is what I learned and I dont know why anyone would ever complain but every city big and small has three things - Chinese buffet, tanning booths and tattoo parlors. I dont care how small or big or tiny the town is, they all have those three things. And when Americans have opportunities like that, how can they not be satisfied?
JH: When you have those three things, you really dont need much else!
BU: You really dont and I dont know what is says about America but I did see them in every single city we went to. Jim, you know there are no jobs in TV anymore that are like what Charles Kuralt had. Who hires people to drive around in an RV, to travel the country and tell stories? There arent any jobs like that in TV so I kind of looked at it as that kind of job. I can go out and satisfy my own curiosity that Ive had about America politically so after traveling the country for seven months and going to towns big and small, I was able to answer that question for myself. It was basically like a Masters program in American authenticity and for that Im really lucky.
JH: In the beginning of each episode, ordinary people try to draw the shape of our states and I have to admit I dont know how many I could draw accurately but it made me think that How The States Got Their Shapes is basically reeducating people with stuff maybe we knew at one time but have forgotten.
BU: Were not only reeducating people on the stuff they learned in school but were correcting the misinformation that they have gathered over the years. Its incredible. I think the majority of people have in their grab bag a lot of inaccurate facts about states and why things are the way they are. We were very careful not to go into this world with this - were going to educate people and/or make fun of how much people dont know. One of the things we really enjoyed - and this sounds like total bullshit - was we really laughed the most when people knew their stuff. One guy we asked said I want to draw the Hawaiian Islands. Then the guy proceeds to draw the Island chain and hes upset that hes not getting it exactly right but hes naming all of them and hes naming each one and whats unique about them and, come on, how many people can do that?! Then, for the people who couldnt draw to save their lives, I just let it hang there and not be like Jay Leno with that segment that he does where he kind of makes fun of what people dont know.
JH: How much of your own humor do you get to put into the show? Is the show scripted or is it pretty loose?
BU: I can attest to this because Ive seen five of the ten episodes so far but most of the funniest stuff was left on the edit room floor. [Laughs.] But History was very clear from the beginning that this should not be a conventional show about geography. The reason they hired me was because they wanted me to not be so serious about the subject matter and to draw out everyday Americans and let them be the color of the show. I try not to get in the way too much but I do step over myself sometimes in the show and I wish I would just shut my mouth. I do believe the funniest people on TV are not on TV and theyre people with great stories to tell.
JH: Do you think because you come from the Midwest that you have a different sensibility as opposed to having grown up in a more metropolitan area? Im from Indiana so I definitely see a difference.
BU: Its invaluable. I spoke to a graduating class from Ohio University about Ohio-ness and that adjective and how that can be applied to Indiana-ness or Missouri-ness. I think its why most of our politicians come from Midwestern or Southern states. I just think that the culture in the Midwest is sitting on the porch and talking to each other. Conversation is important, language is important and, not to get too nostalgic or Americana, I just believe that theres something in the world outside of the kind of East Coast/West Coast worlds of politics. America is mostly comprised of just regular people who dont really care about whose ratings are better or the things that maybe we care about in Los Angeles or New York. Their needs are pretty basic - that their kids have good schools, that they have jobs, someone listens to them and someone is an advocate for them and I think those are very basic Midwestern kinds of values.
JH: And when Im looking for my next tanning parlor, you'll steer me in the right direction?
BU: Whenever youre feeling pale and you need a good bronzing, I will guide you wherever you need to go. I know exactly where to send you. I also know which Hamptons Inn to go to. This is a job that has really prepared me for a job in hotel consulting. My first note to the hotel industry is to please dispense with the color beige. I wish it were something more like the Hamptons in New York but its not. I applaud them for their consistency but I would love to not see a beige room ever again.
"How The States Got Their Shapes" premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c on History.