Annie Oakley looks down the barrel of her rifle, and takes a bead on the man biting down on a cigar. His fame has thrown her off. She can taste the ghost of last night’s whiskey and her hands are shaky. If she should graze him, there’ll be hell to pay.
The bullet shoots past the man’s big mustache and neatly clips the cigar in his mouth, lighting it as the crowd roars.
The year is 1898. The prominent local is Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Had she hit him, the bellicose ruler who launched WW1 might never have had the chance.
This is one of the hundreds of 60-second interstitials developed to help The History Channel look back on the last 2000 years, and it illustrates why I give strange looks to those who find history boring.
Human beings are rarely boring, and that’s what history boils down to – lives that intersected in crucial ways and shaped our world. To me, Annie Oakley isn’t just a faded daguerreotype – she’s a living, breathing woman who affected the course of human events.
When smash began creating the series of Time Lab 2000 interstitial programs for thc, we were faced with the objective of making history tantalizing both to afficionados and those who couldn’t care less. The interstitials air on thc as well as before general audiences across the country during the local nightly news.
We figured the key was great storytelling. If we could find and tell riveting stories, like the one about Annie Oakley, we could truly bring history alive and make it so compelling that nobody would find it boring. Further, if we found the right stories about the right people, we could show how history is relevant.
Take the story about the Pope and the coffee. Annie Oakley’s single shot may have affected events on the grand scale, but an obscure Pope’s decision probably affected your morning.
In the late 1500s, the Vatican wanted to ban coffee because Muslims had introduced it. But, Pope Clement VIII took one sip and made a decision cheered by java lovers everywhere. He blessed the coffee, saying serenely, ‘Satan’s drink is too delicious to leave to the infidels.’
Everything has a history. The stethoscope was invented in the 1800s by a modest French doctor who didn’t want to put his ear to the lavish bosom of a female patient. An Italian priest perfected the first practical fax machine in 1863. You can’t make this stuff up…
Consider Napoleon Bonaparte. Not many people know that he may have lost the Battle of Waterloo because of a bladder infection and a bad case of hemorrhoids. He was in so much pain he could barely see straight, let alone ride his horse. That detail gets us beyond the picture of a short guy posing with a hand in his shirt, and lets us see a human being suffering the same problems we do, and losing an empire because of it.
We are dramatizing these events with the help of actor Sam Waterston, who appears in the shorts and tells these tales like a master storyteller. Sam brings to the project a formidable intelligence, humor, energy, and a passion for history. We’re supporting his storytelling with amazing props gathered by our ace property master, Deb Cutler. They range from a replica she constructed of Galileo’s first telescope, to an actual Gatling Gun present at the battle of San Juan Hill.
We’re also benefiting from the steady guidance of executive producer Artie Scheff at The History Channel, and a panel of four historians from Boston University and Harvard who keep us honest. I’ve learned one thing from this project – just because it’s written in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.
A minute isn’t long to tell a story, but it’s ample time to paint a moment, to pique interest, to spark a new idea. If they tune into thc for more, open a book, or check out a relevant web site, we did our job.
There’s nothing more entertaining than history. Where else can you find so much courage, cowardice, hope, triumph, sex, intrigue, folly, humor, and ambition? Combine these with chance, luck, and circumstance, and you have all the drama you need.
Rick Beyer is senior producer of Time Lab 2000 and creative director, SMASH. For more on THC’s promotional campaign, see pg. 18.