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Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi rapping? They do on The Who Was? Show, a Netflix series created and produced by East Dummerston resident Richard Korson.

The Arts

Learning while laughing

Richard Korson's 'The Who Was? Show' hitches history to humor

EAST DUMMERSTON—Be perfectly honest: How much do you really know about Gandhi or Benjamin Franklin or Galileo? Or for that matter, what’s the lowdown on Queen Elizabeth or Joan of Arc or Madame Curie?

To help the whole family learn more about such historical figures, Richard Korson recently created and produced a new comedy series, The Who Was? Show, which premiered on Netflix streaming network in May.

“It’s a super cool project teaching kids about famous historical figures with lots of fun celebrity cameos, animation, sketch comedy, and music videos,” says Korson, who lives in East Dummerston.

The live-action production, featuring a diverse teenage cast, tells the story of two historical figures per episode, in a show-within-a-show format that incorporates sketch comedy, improv and impersonations, animated shorts, and music videos.

The Who Was? Show is a mixture of comedy and history and features key leaders, innovators, and creative trendsetters while placing historical figures into context for today’s children.

The series is about a group of kids that produce a show overseen by a clueless network executive, played by Andy Daly. The kids are played by Haley Tju, Lilla Crawford, Bentley Green, Adam Hochstetter, Zach Timson, and Kirrilee Berger, and special guests include Ellie Kemper, John Oliver, and Jane Krakowski.

“We had a nationwide search to get together our amazing young cast,” Korson says. “They are remarkably talented and were a joy to work with.”

Emmy-winners

The Who Was? Show also features a who’s who of comedy producers and writers who can boast 900 Emmys between them. Producing along with Korson were Bob Higgins, Jay Peterson, and Francesco Sedita.

Writers are Conan O’Brien veteran Brian McCann, head writer Elliott Kalan of The Daily Show, Eric Gilliland of the recently-cancelled Roseanne, Delaney Yeager of The Daily Show, and Tami Sagher of Inside Amy Schumer. Matador Content is also producing the series, with Bento Box Entertainment (Bob’s Burgers) serving as the animation studio.

“It’s The Muppet Show meets Saturday Night Live meets You-Can’t-Do-That-on-Television,” president and publisher of Penguin Workshop and an executive producer of the show, Francesco Sedita, explained to Karen Raugust in an article in Publisher’s Weekly.

Thirteen half-hour episodes of the Netflix family variety series are based on Penguin Books’ bestselling Who Was? children’s book series.

Raugust writes in Publisher’s Weekly that Grosset & Dunlap launched in 2002 the Who Was? book series of biographies for young middle grade readers who needed 100-plus pages but still were intimidated by books without illustrations.

“In its early years, Who Was? was a sleepy series for school and public libraries, with a few titles added each season,” Raugust writes. “When Sedita joined Penguin in 2008, he and his team saw trade potential. The team added more contemporary figures as subjects and expanded into historical events (What Was?) and landmarks (Where Is?). All told, Who Was? and its two spin-off series — collectively known as WhoHQ — will encompass 231 titles by the end of 2018, with more than 35 million copies currently in print worldwide.”

Korson says, “The Penguin book series became very popular, and kids would trade books like baseball cards.”

Penguin approached Korson about turning the books into a television series for Netflix. Korson is a producer and media executive who ran Jon Stewart’s Busboy Productions for six years. His producing credits include The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, T V Funhouse, Important Things with Demetri Martin, and A Night of Too Many Stars.

“They were interested in what I could bring to the project because of my background in late night television and working with Jon Stewart,” Korson says. “The idea was to add satire into the show, as well as a more irreverent messaging.”

Satire baked in

Korson told Terry Flores in Variety, “They wanted to look outside of their regular sort of kids’ world. They asked me to take a look at it, see what I thought. I saw the potential for turning it into a sketch format, and the ball started rolling. Netflix was super supportive of turning it into something with more of a late-night sensibility, with the sketches having a bit of an edge and satire baked into it.”

The series took about a year-and-a-half to create, and was shot in Brooklyn last summer. Korson was able to produce The Who Was? Show while living in Vermont, although it entailed a lot of commuting back and forth from New York City.

After a long time living in New York City, Korson in 2011 moved to Vermont from Brooklyn where he had a high-stress entertainment job. “With two kids and a writer wife, I thought Vermont would be an ideal place to move to, and it was,” he says.

Korson really admires the children’s book series Who Was?, but he knew the television series had to be different in some ways because they were searching for a larger audience. First of all, Korson wanted the show to be funny.

“The books are quite straight-forward in telling the biographies of historical figures,” says Korson. “We wanted the television show to be like The Muppet Show used to be, that is we intended to use satire to let the series work on different levels at the same time. So when we call The Who Was? Show family viewing, we really means that there is something that both kids and adults can get out of watching it.”

Keeping Up with the Hapsburgs

Korson also is aware that telling a story in a book is very different than in a half-hour television episode.

“We obviously can’t go into the depth the books do,” Korson says. “We want people to take away three or four ideas about each person as they walk away from each episode. While the books are straightforward in their presentation of events, on television we like to complicate things by adding the perspective of our modern culture.

“We have an episode in which Marie Antoinette opens up Versailles to the public, which we turn into a takeoff on the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s funny but it actually adds a significant slant on the events happening that modern audiences can relate to.

“Obviously in our abbreviated, half-hour episodes we can only show what a person would be like by highlighting certain aspects of him or her. For instance, Isaac Newton apparently was an antisocial miserable kind of guy.

“For our episode on him, we amplified that character trait for comedy and turned him into a curmudgeon who was actually excited that a plague was raging in England. This not only provides humor but is a shorthanded way to reveal how someone like Newton thought. You can learn while laughing.”

Although The Who Was? Show has been available for streaming for only about a month, the series has been getting great feedback.

“Some teachers are already using episodes as a teaching aid in the classroom,” Korson says. “We have got a lot of positive response on Twitter and a great review in Variety. Common Sense rated the show 4 stars.”

Korson feels good that his effort is being appreciated. “Working on this series has been a wonderful experience,” he says. “Netflix were great partners and I would love to work with them again.”

Perhaps a second season of The Who Was? Show?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #463 (Wednesday, June 13, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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