Make History Fun with ‘The Who Was? Show’

Image: Netflix.

History is one of those subjects that a lot of people love, but few people claim to know a lot about. These days we are experiencing renewed interest in history, but some say it’s not enough.

Academics are alarmed that our kids are not learning history in school. We are frequently made aware of studies professing outrage at how few people can name our first president or the first person to walk on the Moon.

As a historian, I appreciate the frustration. But I will also admit that history is not an easy subject to grasp. After all, there is a lot of history out there to digest. And it is constantly being reassessed and reworked based on new discoveries or whatever social sensibilities may be in vogue at any particular moment. It also doesn’t help that there seems to be an unwritten law that history can only be taught in a dry, staid, boring, stale, (did I mention dry?) manner that puts people to sleep.

Learning history doesn’t have to be that way. Especially if we have programs like The Who Was? Show.

Based on the bestselling children’s book series begun by Penguin in 2002, The Who Was? Show is a new Netflix program that does what many seek, but few accomplish — it makes history entertaining as well as educational.

The Who Was? books began as in-depth biographies of influential figures from history packaged in an easily digestible format with several illustrations and tons of facts to spark an interest in history among young readers.

After the books became a huge success, Penguin got together with FremantleMedia to bring Who Was? to television. But they didn’t want to make yet another straight-forward history show. Those types of programs — with their rote facts, dry narration, and lifeless visuals — don’t fly with young audiences these days (if they ever did). The Who Was? Show needed to be something new.

“Fremantle and Penguin had a similar vision for the show,” says Who Was? Show executive producer Richard Korson, who was approached to help bring the program to life. “Netflix was intent on bringing a different kind of take. They supported our idea to give it a late-night sensibility with a little bit of satire baked in, to make it anti-establishment.”

Korson has a lot of experience with this sort of thing from his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. To that end, The Who Was? Show production team features a number of writers from those award-winning Comedy Central classics, along with other top creative minds.

Together they crafted a clever show-within-a-show sketch format that helps makes Who Was? an uncommon history show that appeals to the audience’s desire for entertainment and slips in a full episode of historical facts while it has their attention.

“We looked at a lot of things that had that appeal,” says Korson. “The granddaddy was The Muppet Show. That had a tone and an aesthetic that we knew would work for us.”

Each episode opens with a group of young actors deciding which two historical figures covered in the book series will be featured during that episode. The rest of each episode then features the actors in character performing a variety of sketches and songs that cleverly portray their subjects and their accomplishments. The show ends with a wrap session in which the actors reveal what they’ve learned.

The Who Was? Show is driven by a stellar cast of young talent that includes Lilla Crawford, Haley Tju, Adam Hochstetter, Kirrilee Berger, Bentley Green, and Zach Timson. They perform as themselves and as dozens of historical figures throughout 13 half-hour episodes.

The one recurring adult role in each episode is that of the show-within-a-show’s clueless producer, played by the very funny Andy Daly. Andy’s character represents the adults who just don’t get it.

“Andy is the establishment, and the kids, who get it, push past him to make the show happen,” explains Korson.

This is a big part of that makes Who Was? work. It doesn’t talk down to its young audience. It puts them in charge. In each episode, Daly’s character demonstrates zero knowledge about history, and it is the young actors who set the record straight. And inject a lot of laughs along the way.

“It’s not kiddie comedy,” Crawford is quick to point out. She plays Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette, Susan B. Anthony, Queen Elizabeth. Orville Wright, plus over 50 other characters, real and fictional, in other sketches. “I had a lot of fun playing Marie Antoinette by channeling Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

The Papal’s Court condemns Joan of Arc. Image: Netflix.

Other sketches that add a contemporary flavor that audiences will appreciate include recurring “WhoTubes” of the historical characters, a faux movie trailer featuring Marie Curie called “The Fast and the Curie-ous,” King Tut in an episode of “Tut Talks,” and Galileo trying to promote his telescope on an episode of “Ye Olde Shark Tank,” which features a cameo by Mark Cuban. John Oliver, Ellie Kemper, and Jane Krakowski also make brief appearances. And H. Jon Benjamin narrates each episode.

The Who Was? Show is going to be a lot of fun for kids who have read the books.

“Those books were a big part of my childhood,” says Crawford. “I had 30 of them. I read them all the time. We would trade them in class.”

But you don’t have to be a fan of the books to get something out of this show. And don’t let the Netflix “Kids’ TV” label fool you. The Who Was? Show is for all ages.

There are several references to programs that adults might remember from years past. The show includes a joke wall the characters pop out of between sketches inspired by the 1960s hit, Laugh-In. A group of famous explorers host a Who Was? Roast of Marco Polo that is reminiscent of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. Joan of Arc is even brought before “The Papal’s Court.”

Every historical figure, including Louis Armstrong, gets a few moments at the Joke Wall. Image: Netflix.

What’s even better about The Who Was? Show is that it transcends traditional educational programming in so many ways. It’s entertaining, modern, and fresh. It is incredibly funny, and it is packed with information. You will likely have to watch each episode more than once to catch everything that appears on screen.

I can’t recommend this program enough. Kids should see it. Their parents should see it. Adults without kids should see it. I highly suggest you put The Who Was? Show in your Netflix queue right away. And if you don’t have Netflix, then get Netflix. And watch The Who Was? Show.

I’d like to hear your comments. Send them along. And please be sure to check out my other articles on Medium and at my website. Cheers!