“Funny, poignant, and heartbreaking” is how producer and co-host Ed Helms (The Office) describes his and Randall Park’s (WandaVision) new 6-episode Peacock series, True Story (which you can stream now). The show is structured a little like Comedy Central’s Drunk History with the use of star-filled reenactments to flesh out these stories. But the real charm comes from its blend of silliness and sincerity and seemingly mild-mannered storytellers, who roll out details from their adventures that are bound to shock and get a genuine response from Helms and Park, who have been given no prep for what they’re taking part in.
We spoke with the hosts/actors about their show, why they wanted to center it on true stories from real people, getting their friends to come play, and what makes a good storyteller.
I feel like I want to hear from people less and less, and you’re signing up for something where you want to hear more from people. What is it about just real storytellers, real people, telling you these stories that made you want to pursue this?
Ed Helms: So what I think is so cool about this format is it’s about human connection. We’re used to coming from a background where great writers sit down and they think about stories and they get stories really dialed in and really perfect. This is just more human and messy. And we just sit down and we hear people expressing these really unbelievable stories from their lives in the most honest and direct way. And I just love how human and direct it is. And tangible. And then, of course, by sharing and trusting us with these stories, they’re really allowing us to laugh with them at their own folly. Nobody laughs at themselves anymore in our culture. We’re all taking ourselves so seriously. This is just the warmest show I’ve had the privilege to be a part of.
Randall Park: Yeah. And there’s a real, real vulnerability in these storytellers. We don’t know [what’s coming]. We had had no idea who they were until we sat across from them and just them being so open about yeah, these trying times… this story of real sadness or longing or embarrassment. I don’t know, it really bonded us with them for that short period of time.
In terms of the other half of this, which is the recreations, you guys obviously bring in a lot of great guest talent. What’s your function there?
Helms: Basically, after each interview, we’d have a little brainstorm about “who do we know?” What friends of ours can we rope into this? What actor would be really fun in this part? And we had some great writers that really beefed up the reenactments, added a lot of jokes and visual comedy and all of that. It just was a really collaborative effort throughout the whole thing, and incredibly fun to make.
Park: Yeah, from beginning to end.
Who inspired a love of storytelling in you? Somebody who was a great storyteller when you were growing up or somebody in your career that you’ve encountered?
Helms: I’m trying to think. I have a buddy, Ross, who just has a story for every occasion and you can’t believe… Part of it, I think, is a talent for recall because once you start hearing a story, you’re like, oh yeah, I’ve got that. I got a story like that or whatever. But some people just have that gift. Of recalling stories and having the ability to inject them at the perfect moment of a conversation. And he is always just so easy to hang out with because he’s always got that.
What’s the key to a good story? Is it just that recall ability? Is it just being able to tell a story that’s surprising or is it somebody who’s acting out characters and really painting a full picture?
Park: Yeah. I think that’s a part of it. Really, really allowing you as the listener to visualize it. I feel like every great story feels a little cinematic. You know? And I feel like the ability to convey that scene to the listener is really key.
Helms: I also think the intention behind a story matters. A whole lot. If somebody’s trying to impress you or come off cool or whatever then the story just doesn’t really feel that fun. But if they’re really just being vulnerable and being honest and just sharing some embarrassing moment or something deeply moving, and they’re just trying to connect with you or be vulnerable with you… I think that’s really what this show has done beautifully. I think those kinds of stories are just inherently great.
Park: Yeah. I think the word sharing is key, you know? Just this real desire to share something of yourself with somebody… I think just to have that feeling of passing along this kind of sacred thing to another makes for a really good story.
Even if somebody is trying to look… Rick Steigerwald [who appears in the first episode] sounds like somebody at the end of a bar just sounding cool. But his story is so cool. So you can’t deny that.
Helms: It’s so genuine. It’s such an expression of who he is. Right? It’s such an honest expression of himself. I felt like he was hugging us in a way. Just welcoming us into his little dome of insanity. Yeah. God, he’s so funny.
And he’s this legendary boxer in West Pittsburgh and all this stuff. Lived an amazing life.
Helms: Well, here’s, what’s crazy. So Randall and I sit down and we do these interviews and we hear these stories. They’re heavily cut down just for time. Just to get an episode together. But Rick, my God, that story. There’s so much we had to cut out of that story. All the stuff that you’re talking about, his background, his childhood with his brothers, it was… he is quite a character.
Park: And the tangents. And the tangents were stories in and of themselves.
Helms: Sometimes, at a certain point, the producers are like, “He hasn’t gotten to the story yet.” We’re like, “Okay.” Because we’re having a blast.
‘True Story With Ed & Randall’ is available to stream on Peacock