Crossroads Of History might be the funniest show you’re not watching. Made in partnership with Maker Studios and Trium and debuting earlier this year as part of The History Channel’s new late night comedy block, the series offers up bite sized chunks of comedy – 10 minutes or so each – drawn from some of the strangest, most tragic or just downright obscure moments from human history, reenacted by a roster of acclaimed comedians. But before you draw comparisons to shows like Comedy Central’s Drunk History, Crossroads finds its humor not merely in the telling, but in shining a light on the weird, often petty events on which history frequently turns.
Comparing the study of the past to waking up after a terrible binge eating session and wondering why your pants don’t fit, series creator Elizabeth Shapiro describes the present as “history’s waistline.” Moments covered in the show’s eight episode first season that illustrate the point include The Office alum Brian Baumgartner starring in the story of the drunken bodyguard who accidentally helped Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, and the time Adolf Hitler, played as an angry, nebbishy, paranoid hack by comedian Josh Fadem, was rejected from art school, which you can see in the video embedded with permission above that also stars Shapiro and Paul Scheer. “Every episode is really like a one-act play,” Shapiro says, “where you can really dig into the character and give them a nice arc.”
With the show vying for an Emmys nod and under consideration for a second season, Deadline had the chance to talk to Shapiro about the series, historical stories that turned out not to be true, Brexit, and more.
DEADLINE: Well, Europe apparently imploded overnight.
SHAPIRO: Wasn’t that insane?
DEADLINE: Did you happen to see the story that [Prime Minister] David Cameron apparently made the decision to call for the Brexit referendum over Chicago-style pizza at O’Hare Airport?
SHAPIRO: That’s what I’m saying – that kind of stuff is literally why I wanted to do this show. It’s scary how these small little moments have these humungous consequences.
DEADLINE: On the show you identify moments that history buffs know about, or in the case of Hitler’s art school rejection are infamous but not really understood.
SHAPIRO: Part of what was really tricky about this show but also what was really exciting is trying to look at history that [we] don’t really look at. Histories really focus on the bigger moments, there aren’t really any books like “check out these weird little moments.” Some of it involved taking a moment that I know is interesting and kind of rewinding, or a person who is interesting. I’m not really interested in knowing what happens as the boulder is going down the hill, I’m interested in the moth that lands on the boulder, or as is often the case the assh*** who leaned against it.
For instance John Frederick Parker, [Lincoln’s drunken bodyguard], he was a real person who was really influential in history. Again, talk about the assh*** who leaned against the boulder, but no one knows about him. He’s this guy that really should not have been guarding the president, he was a raging alcoholic which everyone knew.
DEADLINE: How do you identify these moments where history just turns on the most petty possible thing?
SHAPIRO: With the Lincoln story, my aunt is an honest to god historian, so she told me about the Civil War special order and about John Frederick Parker. There were also books I found helpful, a compilation of essays from prominent historians. Once I get the thread of something, I have this amazing researcher, Tanya Lawrence, who teaches at Oxford and has no business at all being involved in my little show. We would Skype and she would send me just an enormous amount of information on things like King Louie’s anal fistula, which I felt really obnoxious even asking her to research for me.
Unfortunately a lot of the stories we looked into turned out to be not true, so there were some false starts.
DEADLINE: Such as?
SHAPIRO: There’s the belief that a Pope declared cats to be demonic, causing people to kill a lot of cats which led to the black plague. Some of it was true: there was an edict, sort of about black cats, but what it really was was a precursor for a lot of the witch panics later, but there’s no evidence of mass killings of cats.
DEADLINE: Something I like about the show is how you get into this idea that history is kind of the chronicle of human gossip stretching back centuries.
SHAPIRO: It’s really true. First of all there’s this element that history is written by the victors, but also there is such a skewed perspective that’s sort of about what gets passed on, who had PR, who had bad PR. Sort of like our industry in a way.
DEADLINE: Crossroads covers a lot of contentious and sometimes really horrifying topics, for instance the episode about Columbus. When approaching the material, are you also aiming for a political discussion in addition to shining a light on some of the obscurities?
SHAPIRO: What I love about comedy is that, for me, things that upset me, things that frustrate or confuse me is where I find comedy. I won’t lie, it’s certainly fun to mess with Hitler, insult him left and right and make him sweat. I think there’s something about this, we are getting to Monday morning quarterback the past, or Friday evening quarterback it. There’s a perspective, we can really see the absurdity, but also the repetition. The Columbus episode, definitely there’s an eerie parallel in the Columbus story to the immigration debate we’re having now that I wanted to point out. I certainly aspire to do comedy that is saying something, teaching without being too didactic.
It’s funny, I don’t think God is a studio executive because it’s kind of the same story over and over.
DEADLINE: I want to make an obvious joke about stories in film…
SHAPIRO: (Laughs) As I see it, history is like the Big Mac you ate at four in the morning. And the present is why you don’t fit in your pants anymore. We’re living the consequences of it. The present is just history’s waistline. And I want people to connect with that. Just researching the show, there’s a sense that the world is basically getting better. And what I was shocked to see in my research is really how fragile the world is, that really, one idiot, on one moment on one day, can mess up the whole world for hundreds of years.