Enough, Already, With the Televised Celebrity DNA Testing


Look, everybody knows it's kind of a weird time for television. NBC is in ruin, reality TV is in a battle with scripted TV for the soul of drama, Oprah Winfrey is setting up her exit strategy... There's a lot to process as we consider how the medium can and will truly adapt for the 21st century. But one recent development marks a trend that can only be described as a new (low?) standard in celebrity narcissism, obsession and general ickiness. So please, networks: Enough, already, with all the celebrity DNA tests.

It's not like this is anything to really get angry about, and of course, like all unsavory programming, it's easy to change the channel. But last November, something in me experienced a more visceral reaction to the sight of Larry David swabbing the inside of his mouth in preparation to appear on Lopez Tonight, where once and apparently for all, the famously Jewish comic would learn his real ethnic heritage from host George Lopez:

It's pretty excruciating stuff, a perfect storm of feigned interest, junk science, patronizing pseudo-suspense and nothing particularly funny, unless Larry David being partly Native American is funny. Yet the feature has since become a staple of Lopez's show, with Jessica Alba, Snoop Dogg, Charles Barkley and even Lopez himself subjecting themselves (and us) to the underwhelming rigors of late-night genealogy. (Indeed, for any doubters out there, Snoop Dogg is officially blacker than Charles Barkley.) At first I wrote it off to taste, presuming celebrity DNA testing was of some value to an audience segment to which lineage, culture and nationality were of sincere personal intrigue. Fine. Like I said, nothing offensive about that.

But then came today's news release for the forthcoming PBS miniseries Faces of America. Sounds significant, maybe even canonical, right? Right:

Recently, 12 high-profile individuals - Eva Longoria, Meryl Streep, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Malcolm Gladwell, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Kristi Yamaguchi, Mehmet Oz, Elizabeth Alexander, Queen Noor and Louise Erdrich -- submitted to DNA tests for a new PBS television series. The findings - surprising and sometimes emotional - challenge notions of family, race, relationship and of what it means to be an American. One individual discovers he's a first cousin of Albert Einstein. Another makes a connection to a King of England. A third learns that she is related to a Founding Father. And several find out they are related to one another. These discoveries offer startling revelations about our biological connectivity to ancestors living 400-500 years ago in locales across the globe, and raise the importance of ancestry, the meaning of family and the role of both in creating identity.

They do? I'm going to learn all that from climbing Eva Longoria's or Dr. Oz's family tree? The "importance of ancestry" is determinable from Mario Batali's saliva? What is Queen Noor's lineage really going to tell us that her name doesn't already portend? Beyond learning that Stephen Colbert is the first cousin of Einstein (of course), please help me understand the educational reward in tracking the ancestry of celebrities -- let alone the entertainment value of "revelaing" their ethnicities, as performed by Lopez and Co.

No, seriously -- help me understand why even Lisa Kudrow is executive producing Who Do You Think You Are?, a soon-to-debut NBC reality show analyzing the ancestry of Sarah Jessica Parker, Susan Sarandon, herself and others, thus "lead[ing] celebrities on a journey of self-discovery as they unearth their family trees that reveal surprising, inspiring and even tragic stories that often are linked to crucial events in American history." DNA testing is said to be involved, which would be awesome if we were talking about some sort of paternity-test reality show as opposed to finding anything interesting in Parker's life or genealogy before Square Pegs. Oh, right -- I guess she did have kind of a bohemian upbringing before nabbing the lead role in Annie on Broadway. Thanks to my own independent DNA testing -- better known as Wikipedia -- for that disclosure.

Anyway, TV, whatever. It's all too much information, but you're going to do what you want to do. At the very least, just promise me it's a short phase and that you'll stop before you get to the coastal waste-processing plant that spawned the cast of Jersey Shore. Thanks.


  • SunnydaZe says:

    I just discovered I am one-quarter Na'vi! So that is why I turn blue and my hair freaks-out during sex....

  • Martini Shark says:

    This has an air of cruelty about it, watching the results of celebrity saliva tests on people who would not deign to spit on me if I happened to be on fire.

  • NP says:

    It's times like this I remind myself it's good I don't have cable.

  • Old No.7 says:

    All I usually have to do is watch one of their television interviews to determine that they have an extra chromasome.

  • SunnydaZe says:

    This just proves what anyone who has worked in Showbizness already knows>>
    It is the playground of the rich. Most of these people were born with silver spoons in their mouths to start with. Even though the press and the people love a good "overnight success" story; most are bullshit. But it is part of the lure. The audience loves to believe that someday they might get to be famous too. If they ever stopped believing that it would be the end of the show... Take The Simpsons> Fans argue and obsess because they truly believe that someday they will get to write an episode... Never-mind that most of The Simpsons' writing staff went to Harvard...
    Pretty much every person I know who has gone on to be famous was so god-awful rich to start with it really didn't even make that much of a difference in their lives. (except maybe for the worse> Be careful what you wish for...)
    But, thanks to Digital film-making and the internet> The times they are a-changin'....

  • Bill says:

    Pretty sure they already have "Who Do You Think You Are?" in Canada. We're stealing shows from them now?

  • DJ says:

    And you prefer reality shows and person-on-the-street "news" reporting????? At least this may encourage some people to learn about their own history.

  • jim berry says:

    Thankfully, you're not the TV czar.
    Listen to the science behind the stories and even you may learn how to learn something of your ancestry.

  • Mela says:

    I love DNA tests. There's desire inside of us, as humans, to connect with our ancestry and roots and the larger human race. Too bad it makes you uncomfortable. George, keep doing it.

  • Katherine Borges says:

    "Junk Science"? Really? Like every other naysayer, its obvious you haven't even fully researched what you've written about. Commercial genetic testing uses the science of population genetics to arrive at ancestral determinations.
    Maybe you have no interest to know where you came from but that doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't interested. Learning about celebrities' ancestry is much more interesting than the sad exploitation of paternity testing on Springer and like shows which you seem to prefer.

  • WJ says:

    It is always easiest to dismiss and to put down what you don't understand, which seems to be the case here. Genetic genealogy is real and would work for you as well as anyone else.
    Celebrities are used instead of the unknown rank and file along with as much suspense and drama as the writers can generate as this is show business after all. They serve as examples of what may be inferred or learned by comparing genes to others who have been specifically tested for genealogical purposes -- quite different from medical testing, BTW.
    If this isn't your cup of tea, so be it. However, there are many others who are, indeed, interested.

  • Karen says:

    Some of these DNA tests have to be taken with a grain of salt. Anything under 5% is considered an error. Moreover, some of these tests define Europe very broadly by including the Middle East. And according to a genealogy expert, the DNA test George Lopez uses is outdated. These tests are interesting and can provide some idea of where your ancestors come from if you don't already know, but nobody should let these tests define who they are.