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TV Junkie Interview: Brian Unger's 'How The States Got Their Shapes'

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Brian Unger's new show, "How The States Got Their Shapes," premieres tonight at 10pm on the History Channel
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Brian Unger's new show, "How The States Got Their Shapes" premieres tonight at 10pm on the History Channel. We're big fan of Unger's and are always pleased to see him pop up, especially in an informative and entertaining show like this one. You've seen Unger on the early days of "The Daily Show," heard him for over six years on NPR's "Day By Day," and most recently you've seen him on FX's "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" as The Attorney where we hope to see him again this season (hear that Rob McElhenney?!)."How The States Got Their Shapes" is a combination roadtrip, history lesson, and mythbuster show which is refreshing in many ways, most particularly in the fact that Unger actually made the journey to dozens of states and hundreds of locations - the producers did not rely upon historical or stock footage knowing that it would be far more interesting to go to these places and talk to the people living and working there today. Californians will learn a lot of things from the show, particularly Los Angeles - just be sure to check out the first episode tonight to see.

Please check out our interview with Brian below and stay tuned for the complete interview on our Channel Zero podcast tomorrow.

LAist: I've seen the first two episodes of your new show and it definitely answered some questions for me.

Brian Unger: I'll take that as a compliment as any time we can do that in television, it's a huge achievement.

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LAist: There are some basic things [you address], such as "how did we get from 10 different time zones down to the 4 that we now have in this country," these structures that people assume that we've always had. I'm also a frequent visitor to Boston and every time I go I've heard that the crazy streets there were based on the paths created by cattle walking from their paddocks down to Boston Common and you guys investigate and debunk these topics.

Brian Unger: Every person we talked to on the streets of Boston were absolutely sure that's how the streets were created. A part of the attraction of the series is the "mythbusting" aspect that we're doing. There are so many popularly-held [but incorrect] bits of common-knowledge that we look at. Like the Amish, "they don't use phones or technology" but they actually do - the show is chock-full of those items.

LAist: Well, the whole Amish thing wasn't helped by Witness, that Harrison Ford movie from the '80s, probably the worst propaganda they could have been dealt.

Brian Unger: [Laughs] That's probably the most popular take on the Amish, that movie.

LAist: I think the first time I saw you was when I went to a taping of "The Daily Show" in 1997 when Craig Kilborn was host.

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Brian Unger: You're kidding, so you can attest that there was a show before Jon Stewart, very few people can do that. It's funny going back to that studio because it's now the Hudson Hotel. The building has been renovated and there's now a bar where the studio once was. I've been at that bar, having a drink and it's so bizarre being in that place, to see the difference in that scenery. "I'll have another martini please!"

LAist: So how did you get involved with "How The States Got Their Shapes" series?

Brian Unger: I did a series for the same production company called "Some Assembly Required" for Discovery and they thought I would be good for this program which was intended to be a one-episode special but it got such tremendous response and good ratings that they couldn't help but turn it into a series. Hopefully we can keep some of that momentum going.

LAist: It's a lot of fun, it's great that we actually see you go to these spots on the map. A lot of these kinds of shows have a lot of computer graphics with maps but nobody really goes to the spots, nobody talks to the locals.

Brian Unger: I think you can say that about TV in general, that nobody goes anywhere. We send people to the Royal Wedding but we don't send anyone to Montana or all kinds of places big and small here, Houston, Sacramento. There aren't many shows on TV that borrow on the [Charles] Kuralt model of getting into a car, traveling places and telling stories. We're using the map as a physical construct to tell stories about how we're shaped by the states and how we're defined by the borders. I was lucky enough to be hired by History to go out and have conversations with real people. This also freed me up from being an expert - I'm not an expert on geography or history but I like talking to people and anytime you can actually get paid for that, it's a great job.

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LAist: I did have an issue, or perhaps it's an opinion in contradiction with a thing you guys presented in the show, but that's actually a great thing because I think the series is going to spur a lot of debate between people on historical items you present.

Brian Unger: Hey, anything that gets people off of the topic "I hate the host and his big nose!" is great with me. I would happily participate in any historical debate.

LAist: How many episodes did you do?

Brian Unger: We did ten 1-hour episodes. The broad-brush fact sheet says: 38 states in 7 months, talking to close to 1000 people, we drove 36,000 road miles and flew 200,000 air miles.

LAist: You can really tell this amount of work went into this because you can see that you went to these places.

Brian Unger: I'm actually physically there.

LAist: You didn't do the Ken Burns' style slow-pan over still photos while you narrated.

Brian Unger: [Laughs] We did do slow pans over beautiful landscapes but I'm about 5 feet off-camera, freezing my ass off.

LAist: What were some tough locations for you?

Brian Unger: The producers for this show are so smart, they mapped out the journey according to meteorological maps in order to follow the weather. We did the east coast early, and then the south and southwest when it was warmer. But there were some things that were unavoidable, like Fargo in February which is nothing short of brutal. I learned all kinds of things from there: there start the cars with remote controls, they don't turn off the cars when they go to a restaurant, it's a kind of cold and a kind of existence that few of us are exposed to but they have this going for them in North Dakota - they have the lowest unemployment rate in the country. If you want a job, there are some sacrifices you have to make.