If you were ever bored in history class, maybe you just weren’t learning the right hilarious anecdotes.
Actress and writer Elizabeth Shapiro’s The Crossroads of History on History takes a look at yesteryear’s watershed moments through a comedic lens, chronicling stories that fell through the cracks of importance, like when Hitler was rejected from art school (twice) or why “Mona Lisa” del Giocondo and her husband refused what many believe is da Vinci’s greatest work.
It mixes real-life history, with some surmising (maybe Lisa just didn’t like her “smizing” look in the painting?), but unlike many in-class lessons, it will most definitely leave you rolling in the aisles instead of sleeping in them. All of the episodes are available for free on YouTube, with guest appearances by notable comedic actors like Paul Scheer, John Michael Higgins, and Justin Kirk.
I chatted with Shapiro about how this short film series came about, truth versus fiction, and what we can gain from these short lessons. With the Emmys expanding the short-form series categories to include Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Series and Outstanding Short Form Series (replacing Short Form Live Entertainment), writer/creator/executive producer Shapiro may be on track to make history herself.
AwardsDaily TV: How did you come up with the idea for The Crossroads of History? Are you a history buff?
Elizabeth Shapiro: I would not say I’m a history buff. I was a humanities major in college and certainly studied history. My aunt is a historian so she’s an honest-to-god history buff. I would say history to me is this fascinating train wreck that I can’t look away from and I’m trying to understand. I grew up watching Mel Brooks and Monty Python, so the idea of playing with comedy and history is definitely something I’m really into, and sadly history provides a lot of great comedic fodder.
I’ve been fascinated by this moment when Hitler applied to art school two years in a row. That moment in time has been really interesting to me for a long time. Just because that must have seemed so mundane. These admissions officers trying to decide who gets into the art school. How could they have known that rejecting this guy, who literally painted still life of pansies and daisies, would literally set him on the path to screwing the entire 20th century? To me, that’s morbid, but it kinda makes me laugh. What is this roller coaster that we are on? These little twists of fate can completely change the entire world. That was the jumping off point and I think in some respects, the fact that I’m not a history buff allows me to look at things through a slightly different lens. I wanted to zoom in so much that you’re really getting the mundane stuff of everyday life that I think humanizes the characters and the stories. The dramatic irony we get is really sad and scary, looking at today’s landscape, that I realize truly one moron can screw up the world.
ADTV: A lot of it is so naturally funny. In the Smallpox episode, with John Michael Higgins, the fact that his puritan friends suggest curing smallpox by using “the powder of a sole of a shoe of a man who walks a lot.” Did any of these real-life facts surprise you? Did you wonder if anyone laughed at this at the time?
ES: I’m with you. This is just naturally funny, right? I guess it’s a matter of perspective. I look around at things that we do today and think, “I have a feeling that people in the future will be like, ‘What dumb idiots thought it was a good idea to radiate their food?’” But at the same time, yeah, it’s the context of the time. What’s so interesting is that history is told by the victors, so it’s super random. I often think that certain historical characters must have had really good PR people. Why do some people make it into the books and others don’t? It’s been fun for me to bring to life these people who are accidental heroes or villains.
ADTV: What was the research-to-script-to-filming process like? How long did it take?
ES: You’re going to laugh when you learn how little time we had. This is one of the exciting things about doing short form. There’s this incredibly exciting, adrenaline, frenetic, energy to it. We shot the Hitler pilot on spec in March of 2015. Then, we sold the show in October, and Maker Studios ordered eight episodes, which started airing in February on History. In October, I had nothing else written. It was definitely a challenge, but it was also awesome because it forced me and everyone else involved with the show to work on instinct and just be very bold with what we were doing. We didn’t have time to second-guess stuff. It was a thrilling creative experience, even if it probably took a few years off of all our lives. I had some great help, too. Colton Dunn co-wrote some of the episodes, and he’s like written on Key and Peele, you may have heard of it. (Laughs.) And because the production process was so fast, we luckily got all of these incredible people together to lend their talents who weren’t busy at the time. The stars aligned a bit.
ADTV: What did you use for research? Wikipedia? (Laughs.)
ES: (Laughs.) I didn’t use Wikipedia. My main researcher was this woman who has like seven PhDs and teaches at Oxford and we would Skype. She’s intimidatingly brilliant. Serious, serious historical academic. And I would Skype with her and be like, “Um. . .do you think you could do some research on King Louis’s anal fistula for me?” (Laughs.) I felt horrible, right? She did a lot of the research from primary sources. She pulled stuff written by people there at the time and historians. Wikipedia was helpful for the initial thread, but we never relied on it. A lot of times, unfortunately, I’d get really excited about something I read on the Internet, and then when you pulled the thread, you realized it wasn’t that true. People only think it is. There were some stories I had fallen in love with and then had to realize, nah. Too much bullshit about it.
ADTV: How much would you say is fact versus fiction in these episodes?
ES: The title cards are all true. I always try to bookend each episode with what we know is factual. These moments are so zoomed in that we don’t totally know what happened, but I try to factor in a lot of facts about that era or facts about those characters. For example, with the pilot of Hitler trying to get into art school. That’s probably not exactly how it happened. But the reason why I wanted to tell the story that way is that we know it really messed him up. Did it make him Hitler? No, he was an asshole to begin with. But when you’re an asshole who’s not well-adjusted, to have your dreams shattered like that, he didn’t take that well. I think there’s something emotionally true, that in that rejection, it set him on a different path. I think that was a really pivotal moment in his life and I think what’s so interesting is to tell the story in an emotionally true way, so you understand what the consequences were. As an audience, we know you shouldn’t tell Hitler to work on his execution. (Laughs.) My first job is to make people laugh. This is definitely a comedy. Don’t write dissertations about this show as your primary research. But that being said, I did really want to draw on as many facts as possible. That’s why we used his real paintings. But as a creator, it’s also really great to have these cracks in the story. Like why the hell did Lisa and Francesco not take the painting home that they paid for?
ADTV: Were you able to find that out at all? (In the Mona Lisa episode, Lisa and her husband reject da Vinci’s painting.)
ES: It’s a mystery.
ADTV: In your story, she just didn’t like the way she looked. (Laughs.)
ES: And I don’t blame her. (Laughs.) She looks kinda weird in it. It also made me laugh because people are people throughout history, and girls, you have to take a thousand photos of yourself to get one you like. I don’t care if it’s Leonardo da Vinci painting your painting. There’s a decent chance you won’t like what you look like. Who knows if that’s how it happened. But it felt relatable in a way that I understand. The amount of information we have is very thin. As an academic, I’m sure that’s super frustrating, but as a writer/creator/actor, it’s super thrilling to fill in the gaps.
ADTV: That had to be a lot of fun.
ES: There are some things I do intentionally to make it anachronistic. With the Hitler episode, I wondered, “Should everyone have German accents?” I decided it would be funnier, and more relatable, to have everyone talk in a more modern and colloquial way.
ADTV: The whole episode reminded me of American Idol.
ES: (Laughs.) That’s hilarious. But again, so immediately you relate it to something that is of now. Something I always struggled with with history is that it’s hard to imagine these people as real people, that I might know in my real life. There’s a certain kind of alienness to some of these figures when you read about them, at least for me. That was a choice early on, for people to feel like they know these people. That’s anachronistic, obviously, but I also think it worked.
ADTV: Oh, I loved it. I thought it was great the way you weaved in those anachronistic details. The joke is that da Vinci didn’t know that Mona Lisa was going to be such a big deal, so it teaches you a bit about how this history applies to the future.
ES: Exactly. I hope people look at the show and realize that right now consequential things are happening and we don’t even know it. These moments we don’t pay attention to have consequences.
ADTV: Related to that, what do you think Trump’s “crossroads” moment might be?
ES: Oh man. I don’t know. I keep thinking there is going to be a crossroads where people remember this dude was on The Apprentice and had birther conspiracies.
ADTV: I wonder if it’s when he went to the tanning booth for the first time and said, “Give me orange.”
ES: His signature look. “You know what, I think that my skin and my hair should be the exact same color. No, not natural. Not anything that remotely comes from nature. Really fluorescent.” Yeah, it’s so hard to say what leads to what. On my show, there are some people who accidentally led to great things and people who accidentally led to awful things. The world is much more fragile than we realize, and one idiot can really screw up things for a long time.
ADTV: Do you have other “crossroads” you’d like to cover?
ES: I’m hoping we’ll get a second season order. I’d definitely love to do one. There’s no shortage of great stories. It was such a blast. The show aired on History, which launched a new comedy block. That was really fun to be a part of. Not just because I’m a huge fan of the History channel, but also my show splits a half hour with Dan Harmon’s show, Great Minds with Dan Harmon. I’m just a colossal fan of his. It was one of those things that was just surreal, to have one of my first shows ever made alongside his. That was a super honor. To get to do that again would be really amazing. I think there are a lot of fun stories to tell.
And I also think that it’s a way of telling stories that’s a fun hybrid of the traditional and the new. You can see it even in the people who made my show: Maker Studios is the studios and History is the network. You have these two real powerhouses, one more known for digital and one more known for television. And the fact that the show aired on TV but you can find it on YouTube is just really cool. We’ve developed this audience that’s super eclectic. It’s been cool to see the audience have all these great dialogues with each other. They’re so damn smart. I’ve been excited by where that can go. Maybe crowdsourcing future episodes, what they want to see. Everyone from the cinematographer to the production designers blew me away with how much passion they had for telling these stories, even if we didn’t have the kind of budget of bigger shows. Regardless of what happens, I’ve had such a magical experience working on this show and really excited that it’s finding its audience. It’s surreal that the Emmys have opened up to recognize short-form content. It’s an interesting time with the emergence of the Internet as a real player, and for a creator like me, it’s cool to get to work on something that was quickly able to go from conception out to the audience.
ADTV: In like six months’ time, too? That’s amazing.
Sounds like the perfect description for a crossroads moment.
Watch The Crossroads of History episodes on YouTube here and follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @LizzyShaps.