Making History: How Fox’s New Comedy Will Defy Expectations

We talk with Yassir Lester, one of the stars of Fox’s new comedy Making History, about fixing the past, being goofy, and ideal time trips.

Fox has done a remarkable job carefully cultivating a programming slate of eclectic, unique comedies that are as impressive as anything on cable or a streaming service. The network’s latest subversion of the sitcom is Making History, a series created by Julius Sharpe and the invincible duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Time travel series and revisionist history programs have become increasingly popular as of late, but where shows like Timeless or Legends of Tomorrow have a tendency to be deeply serious with their time travel, this show relishes in having fun with it all. You’re not going to find any other show out there were the heroes’ time machine is a freaking duffel bag.

Starring Adam Pally, Yassir Lester, and Leighton Meester, Making History offers a surprisingly fresh take on a classic idea that ends up taking its characters to some very funny, exciting places. The show manages to make watching these out of their league time travelers consistently exciting, with this all amounting to a fun world that should only gets better as it’s given more time to develop. With Making History now airing, we talk with Yassir Lester, who plays the history professor Chris on the series, about what this time travel show does differently, the likelihood of them visiting the future, and dream casting for historical figures.

DEN OF GEEK: This is obviously an inherently different sort of show, but what makes this series special and appealing other than the fact that it features crazy time travel?

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YASSIR LESTER: Well number one, there are other time travel shows on the air right now, but we’re the only comedy. Every other time travel show takes itself very seriously. It’s all about the ripple effects of this and that and what happens if we do this to history…There’s a lot of alt universe stuff out there, which we still deal with, but it’s not like we do stuff where we’ll go to the past and then come back and everyone is enslaved by sex robots.

So first, it’s a comedy. Then secondly, the biggest thing out there is that tonally it’s a fun comedy. At the end of the day it’s not one of these shows that claims to be a comedy and then 17 out of 22 minutes is someone walking down the sidewalk, looking at the ground, while a Bon Iver plays over it all. And there’s like four jokes in the whole thing. 

In our show, every twenty seconds there are like five to ten jokes. It’s just fun. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s goofy—and I mean that in a good way. I feel that sometimes people will use the word “goofy”—not as a slur—but in a diminishing way. But this show is goofy in the most fun way possible. I find it to be very family friendly, and on top of that it’s going to be fun for both adults and kids. It’s escapism. It’s a show that’s not trying to step out of the realm in which it’s been created. We’re here to just make you laugh.

You bring up a good point that there are a bunch of revisionist history shows suddenly popping up. You’re right to say that you’re the only comedic one, but you have other big differences present too, like bringing somebody from the past back with you and making them part of the cast.

Right, well all credit goes to the creator, Julius “Goldie” Sharpe. He’s made a very funny, wild, crazy show on its surface, but Goldie truly is a genius, and I don’t use that term lightly. Even just the choice to make a duffel bag into a complicated time machine is brilliant. Everything is so meticulous and well thought out. Nothing’s just there for a joke and then moved on from. Everything here pays off. Goldie knows how to tell a good story, but also how to do it in the funniest way possible. He did his research and knew exactly what he wanted here. He went for it and clearly it worked because now we’re a TV show.

Are you a big history buff in real life, or is it more of a blind spot for you? How close are you to your character, Chris?

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Well I know history through the stuff I read, which is mostly science non-fiction. So I read a lot of science, so weirdly the time travel aspect of it is more me than the history portion of things. But anything you do you end up learning something about history. But at the same time, I can’t just tell you random facts about the Bay of Tompkins or something. I have enough of an interest in the area—more so than someone that’s in high school currently, but definitely less than someone who’s in the middle of their freshman year of college for history.

That’s a fair barometer of history savviness! On the topic of your character, I like that Chris is the smart, responsible one on the show, yet he still manages to go about breaking expectations and stereotypes. Talk a little bit about him and what he brings to the table.

Well initially—and to give some context here—Chris is a history professor at the same college that Dan teaches at. Dan recruits Chris because he realizes he has enough knowledge of the past to help him out. Chris is cool, calm, collected. He’s the rock, if you will… at first. What’s really fun is that the show progresses and Goldie gets to flesh this thing out more, you see that people are always going to revert back to their personal interests. So that’s kind of what Chris does. First, it’s a problem that is introduced and he’s the only one that can solve it, but as things move along we see how this transforms from being the hero—if you will—to slowly becoming “what can I get from out of this?” 

He very much becomes a person that’s not necessarily using Dan, but is using Dan. But Chris on his own is a very, very smart guy, so when you introduce that level of intelligence into things he’s obviously going to manipulate Dan to get what he wants. You know, he’s not Batman. He’s not here for the greater good of humanity. Sure, that’s part of it, but he’s also a history professor. This is his opportunity to do the things that he’s always wanted to do. That always comes with a built-in level of selfishness and manipulation, as well as the excitement. 

We’re talking about characters and such, from what I’ve seen so far this show features a lot of great guest stars. Tim Robinson as Al Capone is particularly wonderful. If you had your pick, who would be your dream casting for some sort of historical figure within the show?

Oh man! James Earl Jones just playing—who knows—God? I know people always say that that should be Morgan Freeman, but I’d pick him. Obviously that’s such a big jump though. I don’t know, maybe push the boundaries a little bit, and I don’t mean that in a sensitive way. Like why not take Napoleon Bonaparte and instead of him being a short guy like he’s always perceived, we get like Michael Shannon or someone to play him! We turn him into just a giant who has this complex about being short and everyone just shreds him the entire time. Maybe if we did a ’60s civil rights movement episode we could have Michael Williams play Malcolm X, or Priyanki Chopra—who I’m in love with—play Cleopatra.

We’re talking about these different time periods here. Your show digs into a lot of the bigger moments in American history, but do you have a favorite historical event, or one that you think would be fun to see the show get into?

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You know, I personally—and I know it’s such an expected answer to say, “I would love to visit Ancient Rome or see the beginning of civilization,” and there’s nothing wrong with that answer—but I would love to do the period from 1974 to like 1983. I think it’s the most exciting time in terms of major motions with the civil rights movement. The ’70s is when you start to really see all of that paying off. You see the explosion of black culture, the birth of disco, the birth of hip hop, and punk rock all starting within three years of one another. It’s absolutely insane to think of New York City during that time.

At least in the episodes that I’ve seen, there’s a sort of two-episode structure in place where you’ll get to a new time period in one episode, there will be some complication, and it’ll take you guys another episode to sort things out and return home. Does this model stick through the season? 

Number one, the show is never structured to play out where there’s a given episode count for any given time period. If the time period and the story serves two episodes, then that’s exactly what we do. If it serves one, then that’s it. If it’s three, then so be it. There are also a number of episodes that are just us in 2017. We all still have lives to deal with. One of the coolest parts of the show is that once you introduce time travel to these people, does it make everything else in their lives feel meaningless? On our show they’re jumping back in time, but then they’ll also be like, “Okay cool, but I need to be back home by 7:00.” It’s a very real complication for them since they do have daily lives.

That’s a really interesting aspect I didn’t think about. I was so focused on the time travel that I didn’t think of the number of stories you can tell in the present as a result of what they’ve seen. On that note, you guys seem to be primarily going back into the past, rather than jumping into the future. Obviously the idea of going into the future must have come up when breaking the season. What’s the stance on that, and why are you taking so long to pull the trigger there?

Right now—and this is just my theory on this and nothing more—the first season is really dealing with how the past informs the future and what changing things in the past can mean for the present. So that’s the focus of season one. They’re still getting their bearings together when it comes to time travel. It’s an insane thing to have a time machine and actually use it—I think you’d have to be some sort of sociopath. If we discovered time travel today, I’d be in the camp of absolutely not wanting to use it. We’re not equipped for it! 

So I think this first season is more about us learning this skill. But also how to use it to our advantage. So in future episodes, maybe we’ll make that leap into the future, but now it’s more about fixing the things that they’ve screwed up and if they can escape from the past back to the present. Also, Deb is from the past! So it’s already a shock to her to be in her future/our present. If she jumped another 100 years forward from 2017 her head could explode from the shock! 

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Makes sense. Finally, do you have a favorite episode, set piece, or something that you’re particularly excited for people to see in this season?

One time we travel to 1919 Chicago, and in terms of style, architecture, and the life that these people led, it was just so incredible to shoot. Just wearing the clothes was unreal. Just the designs or stuff we would add to real bars in Los Angeles to age them back to that time was incredible. Also things like the way people spoke back then! All of it just made for such an interesting experience. 1919 Chicago is kind of the culmination of what modern society, post-industrial, all came together and interacted. It’s super interesting to me. 

Making History’s first season debuts on Sunday, March 5th at 8:30 p.m. on FOX.