Deep in the family roots, there's joy and agony


("Finding Your Roots" tends to be a fascinating journey through the lives of people's ancestors. This season's opener -- 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, on PBS -- is particularly good, finding joy and tragedy in the family trees of Larry David and Bernie Sanders. Other good ones are coming up; here's the story I sent to papers.)

By Mike Hughes

Larry David is not
the sort of guy to be jolly or ... well, enthused.

But during “Finding
Your Roots,” his joviality grew. Here was family history, unfolding
before him. “I'm sure everybody's curious about their roots,”
said David, featured in Tuesday's season-opener.

Well, maybe not
everyone. “That's insane,” said Jeff Garlin, David's “Curb Your
Enthusiasm” co-star. “I'd never want to be on that show.”
Others
jump at the chance, with genealogy pros finding deep details. “I
felt like I had won the lottery,” said Ana Navarro, a CNN and ABC
commentator. “I still don't understand how anybody says no.”

People on the show
do, however, have to be prepared for surprises. David got a big one,
but we won't mention that until after a spoiler alert, at the end of
the story.

One surprise – at
least for viewers – came last season, when husband-and-wife Kevin
Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick learned they're distant cousins. Sedgwick
said she kind of expected it.

“My dad's a WASP,”
she said. “The Sedgwicks are from New England and from England and
his family (is the same). I wasn't surprised, honestly, (but) I had
to act surprised.”

One unsettling
surprise comes when people learn their ancestors owned slaves. Ben
Affleck even convinced Henry Louis Gates (the producer and host) to
scrub any reference. When news of the change reached PBS, the network
said that won't happen again and temporarily halted production.

“We introduced
more fact-checking, a broader range of consultants -- academics and
scientists and genealogists – and made it a better show,” Gates
insists.

This year, David
learns he has slaveholders in his family. (“I figured that,”
dead-pans J.B. Smoove, another “Curb” co-star,) And Ted Danson
learns the same.

“Just my luck,”
Danson quipped. “My ancestor had a slave who wrote a tell-all
book.”

Not just any any
book. Venture Smith bought his freedom and then wrote a book
(speaking quite well of Danson's kin) that became a key chunk of
history. “All scholars of African-American literature know about
Venture Smith,” Gates said.

On the flip side is
Navarro. Growing up in Guatemala, she said, she had never seen a
black person until she was 7 or 8 ... so she was startled to find her
family tree has two generations of Costa Rican slaves.

Her father was even
more surprised, she said. “My dad was convinced we were going to
find out we were Spanish royalty.”

Janet Mock – a
writer and transgender-rights activist – also learns this season
that an ancestor was a slave. “It was incredibly emotional to see
this young boy – I believe ... my great-great-great grandfather --
was someone's property.”

Gates has been aware
of such extremes, ever since a West Virginia childhood in which his
mother wrote eulogies. “I would go as a little kid and just watch
this beautiful black woman read these stories.”

He delivers dark and
bright news. In this season's opener, Sen. Bernie Sanders hears of
ancestors' deaths in the Holocaust; later this season, Danson learns
that his 10th-great-grandmother fought the Puritans for
women's rights in religion. “I've been surrounded by women all my
life,” Danson said, “and it kind of makes sense that Anne Marbury
would be way back there kind of leading the way.”

Then – SPOILER
ALERT – there was the surprise for David ... and Sanders.

They learn of a DNA
link, suggesting they are third or fourth cousins. David – who
impersonates Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” -- offered uncurbed
enthusiasm. “I love Bernie,” he said.

-- “Finding Your
Roots,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays, PBS; the Oct. 3 opener has Larry David and
Ted Danson

-- Oct. 10 has Carly
Simon, Fred Armisen and Christopher Walken.

-- Continues through
Nov. 21; Danson is Oct. 17, Mock is Oct. 24, Navarro is Nov. 14