10 Questions with Brian Unger

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by Ryan Meehan

Comedian and television personality Brian Unger first came into the public eye as an original correspondent and producer on “The Daily Show”, and was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “100 Most Creative People in Entertainment” in 1998. Ever since then he has been a staple within the industry, appearing in numerous television shows and utilizing his genius writing skills to contribute to the National Public Radio programs “Day to Day” and “All Things Considered”.  Ungerhas guest hosted MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” and The Discovery Channel’s “Some Assembly Required” and History’s “How the States Got Their Shapes.”  His written work has been printed in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and he has also provided commentary for the popular online talk show “The Young Turks”. Currently he hosts the hit Travel Channel series “Time Traveling with Brian Unger” where he goes to places ordinary travelers can’t, using eye-popping CGI to visually travel back in time and tell stories you won’t find in guidebooks. These reasons and so many more are why we are delighted to have Brian Unger travel to First Order Historians for today’s installment of ten questions.  

RM:  Which specific instance that took place during your formative years sparked your obvious interest in geography?

BU:  Hate to spoil a good narrative, but there wasn’t a single moment when I sparked to geography. Curiosity and critical thinking – not to mention humility – led me to ask “What was here before me?” And the lines on the map hold clues to that answer — lines we take for granted in our day-to-day. Our geography – in addition to history – offer me the closest thing I’ll get to an instruction manual for life.

RM:  You were one of the original correspondents on The Daily Show…At that point in time, Craig Kilborn was the host and Comedy Central was far from the monster cable network it is today…How would you best describe the working environment behind the scenes of that show during its first few seasons?

BU:  Cathartic, adventurous, collaborative, hilarious, and not the least bit self-conscious. “Time it was, and what a time it was…a time of innocence.” Yes, sometimes it’s appropriate to quote Simon & Garfunkel.

RM:  Did you have to audition for the role of Reading Ron on the very disturbing RENO 911! episode of the same name, or were the writers pretty much dead set on having you play the part?

BU:  I can’t speak to their mindset at the time, but I recall being asked to meet with the cast, thinking it would be an audition, and it turned out to be a wide-ranging, fun conversation during which they asked if I’d be interested in playing the role of Reading Ron. And any time one is asked to depict a cocaine-addled children’s public television host, well, you leap at that chance.

RM:  What can you tell us about some of the other people who were involved with bringing the idea of you travelling around the world to our television screens?

BU:  Well, I’m not really sure what you mean — but at some point in a life, a person has an epiphany, and understands what it is they’re good at. I’m good at talking. To anyone. About anything. I was born a 94 year-old man holding up the grocery aisle, pissing off the people behind me, and boring the shit out of the checkout lady with idle chatter. Along my career path, certain employers have recognized this skill, and have paid me a salary for it.

RM:  For those who may not be familiar with the program, what is the best way you can describe the premise of “Time Traveling with Brian Unger” using an historical example from one of the episodes that is currently airing?  

BU:  Well, the show is in a state of evolution, so it probably won’t look much like it did in season one. But at its root, the show tries to be a fun, informative history of cities, exploring the DNA of places that give people identity, that defines what it is to be from a particular place. Off-hand, Key West comes to mind — how its care-free, far-flung nature obscures its strategic importance militarily to the United States, especially during the Cold War. Hilarious stuff, right? In Boston, we retraced Revere’s midnight ride. In Atlanta, we walked Sherman’s march to the sea.  In Jamestown, we explored America’s first European settlement. We’re trying not to be too academic, too — what makes Austin, Texas weird? Or San Antonio romantic? Mostly we’re trying to have fun as we discuss a region’s culture, ancestry, history, and myth with experts and folks who live there.

RM:  How much suggestive input are you allotted when it comes to determining the destinations that yourself and the crew will visit in future shoots; and what are some of the most important things the producers look for when it comes to selecting the geographical location and relevant historical subject matter?

BU:  It might come as a surprise, and mostly to me — I don’t single-handedly produce the entire show. I don’t muck up the works until a seed, or show idea, becomes a sprout, and even then, I try to stay out of its way, and let it grow naturally. Talent, as they’re often called, are supposed to stay out of the way, and their input is neither solicited or valued until its time to execute (shoot a show). And even then, there’s a do-as-your-told school of thought that can dog the process. I’m different, and that comes from starting out as a producer, and from working in comedy where the writing process is by nature collaborative. I like to be involved. Thus, this makes me a huge pain in the ass to my colleagues who work in this genre we call non-scripted TV.  Even when I’m not being a pain in the ass, I’m defined as a pain in the ass. So I say, hell, be the pain. But in the end, elements of good story always apply no matter what the topic:  Setting, characters, conflict, humor…STORY!

RM:  What was the most fascinating thing you learned while filming the “On the Vapor Trail of Mercury and Apollo” episode?

BU:  Scale — getting to outer space requires big, complicated design. Big ideas. Big minds with bigger amounts of courage.  Very few people work in this kind of scale, and call it a job.

RM:  Do you think that in order for younger generations to be more interested in subjects like history and current events there now has to be a certain amount of entertainment included in the information that is being presented to them; and if so, how much of that belief can be attributed to the fact that they have grown up with all of these technological advances people our age never had access to?

BU:  Non-fiction TV that lives on cable resonates best when it strikes a certain fun-formative balance between a lean forward and lean back viewing experience. It can’t taste like broccoli, and by the same token, it can’t feel completely trivial. Programmers have always used stock buzzwords to describe TV when it tilts one way or the other — like, “too dark,” or “too edgy,” or “too fluffy,” or “not enough take-home” or they ask “What’s the hook?” But I’m hearing new words to describe cable content these days, as in — “TV is wallpaper” or “engaging” or something feels “viral” or more like a “web-extra.” And this is where younger audiences are having an impact. We’re competing for live viewers no matter what anyone says, and the enemy is a meta-distraction of phones, tablets, and computers. And so there’s a push in TV to be faster, louder, simpler — and at the same time pleasant, non-disrupting, and binge-viewable. It’s TV playing out as background as viewers juggle all of these devices and real-time messages bombarding their brains. It’s almost impossible to be heard and seen. You can get screwed weighing all the metrics, trying to define a hit through research and focus groups and analysis. I try to just tell good stories and make people laugh while we’re doing it.

17716	Undergraduate Commencement 2006 Speaker Brian Ungar

RM:  What feeling of accomplishment – or any additional emotions – does the practice of doing radio have to offer you that you can’t get by appearing on television or completing voiceover work?

BU:  That’s easy:  In radio, you don’t have to worry about your hair. And you never hear the words, “That was GREAT! Let’s do it one more time.” Voice-over work can be tedious, like recording the best song ever, over and over and over again. But when you hit all the right notes and it works, it’s somehow worth all the time, effort, or frustration. A good conductor helps.

RM:  As someone who has held many different positions within the entertainment industry, what is the one facet of the business that you’d like to explore but haven’t had the opportunity to do just yet?

BU:  I would like to be a cop for a day, and ticket people who don’t use their turn signals. Is that a job in entertainment?

RM:  What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Do you have any big projects in the works that we should know about?

BU:  We just wrapped two pilots at the Travel Channel, and I’m awaiting my marching orders. If those orders don’t come by August, I’m going fill out an application for the police academy.

Time Traveling:  http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/time-traveling-with-brian-unger

Brian on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/brian.unger.775

Brian on Twitter:  http://twitter.com/IamBrianUnger

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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