The family trees of three funny men were the focus of this week’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.”: “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader, late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, and television writer and actor Norman Lear (who’s going strong at age 90).
Gates’ contrasted each guest’s humorous outlook with the sadness in his family tree. Here are the highlights (or maybe I should say lowlights):
- Jimmy Kimmel: Usually the show waits until the end to get into DNA, but Your Genetic Genealogist blogger Cece Moore appeared early on to explain how DNA testing could reveal whether Kimmel’s great-grandfather Frank Kimmel was the biological child of German immigrants Christian Kümmel and Teresa Stockhausen. They were married six years after Frank was born and their obituaries don’t acknowledge him. Moore compared the autosomal DNA of a known Stockhausen descendant, a known descendant of both Teresa and Frank, and Jimmy Kimmel’s father. Results showed Frank was the child of Christian and another woman. Researchers weren’t able to learn why he was estranged from his parents.
Kimmel’s mother’s family immigrated from Southern Italy and settled on New York City’s crowded Lower East Side of (home to the wonderful Tenement Museum). His great-grandfather Vincenzo’s brother and father died in an earthquake on the island of Ischia in 1883. Vincenzo immigrated in 1903, then sent for his wife and children nine months later.
- Bill Hader: Hader’s German-American great-great-grandfather served in World War I in France, where he wasn’t seeing any action. He left his unit for the front lines, perhaps trying to prove his patriotism in the face of anti-German sentiment from home. Gates spent most of his time on Hader’s mother’s line, in which an ancestor from the conflict-filled border state of Missouri chose to enlist for the Union. His military pension record claimed he was going deaf as a result of “nasal catarrh” (a cold) contracted during the war. (Here’s our guide to finding your ancestors’ military pension records, and Antiquus Morbus is my favorite site for looking up archaic medical terms and causes of death.) The show’s researchers traced Hader’s mom’s family to Revolutionary War soldier and slaveowner William Simms in Virginia, an indentured servant in Colonial Maryland, and all the way back to Charlemagne (a heritage that’s not all that unusual, according to this article).
- Norman Lear: Norman Lear’s story had the most sadness to me, from his childhood spent partly without his father (who served prison time for a get-rich-quick scheme during the Great Depression) to his Jewish ancestors’ impoverished, persecuted existence in Russia’s Pale of Settlement. A series of pogroms there in the late 1800s and early 1900s prompted his family to emigrate to the United States. On his maternal side, Lear’s grandfather left first, and sent for his grandmother (“Bubbe”) and then-6-year-old mother in 1905.
Lear’s paternal great-grandfather died in the United States in 1902, and his tombstone inscription said he was a Levite, a descendant of the tribe of Levi. His DNA shows he indeed carries the genetic signature found among Levites.