For over four seasons (already picked up for a fifth) Comedy Central has aired Drunk History, the brain child of Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner. And while the premise suggests the show exists alongside fratboy-comedy, Drunk History stands out as something different from anything else on TV. The simple premise, comics getting drunk and telling stories, has resulted in educational TV for adults. Entertaining, clever, and legitimately informative, the show goes a step beyond…reminding audiences that while history can seem boring in the classroom, history should be fun because it’s just stories about people that did remarkable, unexpected things. And when framed as storytime with adult beverages, the fun of learning something new can actually be rekindled.
When framed as storytime with adult beverages, the fun of learning something new can actually be rekindled.
After last year’s failed retelling of The Stonewall Riots in Roland Emmerich’s critically panned period film, Drunk History shows audiences how it should be done, by telling the story of Marsha P. Johnson, as narrated by Crissle West (who appeared previously retelling the story of Harriet Tubman). The decision to tell that particular story in history was a passion project for the creators, as explained by Konner, Waters, West, fellow narrator Katie Nolan, actor Taran Killam and the night’s host Josh Charles (who made his debut on the show last week opposite Killam). The story of Marcia P. received high praise, with Killam (who has appeared in all four seasons as a re-enactor) saying it was an example of the show elevating itself even beyond its usual high quality. Not only being entertaining and informative, but telling an emotional and evocative story that moved audiences. Waters was so passionate about telling that story that he told West (and the actresses in the episode) “let’s not try to be funny, let’s just tell the story. And it’s hard to say that when you’re making a comedy.”
West was understandably concerned with taking on such a serious subject in the comedy format, telling the audience “the main thing I told Derek on this show, which is the same thing I said on the Harriet Tubman show was, I don’t want to be an embarrassment to black women.” West’s concerns proved unfounded as her storytelling, full of passion for the subject, was far from embarrassing and even earned her the praise of edutainment historian Lin-Manuel Miranda…whose conversation with Miranda on Skype was also played for the audience.
In fact, the show deserves high praise for finding the perfect balance between intoxication and incoherent. It’s a balance Waters and Konner make sure of striking…including having Waters drink alongside the narrators. While he isn’t matching their intake, Waters drinks the beverage of their choosing (even Zima), because he wants to know how they feel, saying “I will drink so they know they’re not being exploited. And then once they’re at a certain level, which is fun, I stop because it is a job.” Konner’s previously tried drinking as well, but quickly realized leaving that to on-camera host Waters was the right approach. Waters also appears within the show’s reenactments, playing a variety of random characters…sometimes in roles that would have otherwise been cast with a star, sometimes in less desirable roles (he plays a racist, homophobic authority in the Stonewall story), or the silliest parts. Last week, for example, he played a bear.
The unique visual approach of the show has earned it praise as the perfect example of mixing low and high art…making TV for audiences with a short attention span but requiring active viewing. While audiences can watch individual stories in 7 to 10-minute increments, getting the joke of the show requires audiences to watch and listen carefully. Looking away or doing something while watching doesn’t work because the comedy of the show comes from watching actors reenact word for word what the drunk narrators say. Waters explained “the premise is the comedy. Someone drunk, and what they’re saying being reenacted word for word is the joke. But the goal is for the story to make you go, why didn’t I know that?”
While a simple premise on the surface, the show requires Konner and Waters to sort through 8 to 10 hours of footage in order to piece together their short segments. This includes having the narrators tell and retell their story multiple times (while getting drunker and drunker). And then reenacting the show by playing the narration for the actors on a loud speaker on set. While the show has a regular ensemble of actors in nearly every episode, the show casts well-known actors in guest roles to mouth the words of the narration. Charles, new to being on the show, but a big fan, says acting out those scenes in such a way is almost childlike in the sense of play it inspires among the cast.
Waters and Konner, who have an air of cool college professors trying to get students interested in their subjects, embrace that sense of fun as the entry into a show. But while having fun, they take their work extremely seriously and have become even more passionate about the historical aspect of the show than when they first started. They have researchers providing details of the story being told (beyond Wikipedia), have the narrator tell the story on the phone before they ever get drunk to ensure they have the facts and will correct them on set to ensure they get the details rights.
Regarding what stories will and won’t be included, Waters and Konner want to use the show now to inspire. Unlike the previous seasons, season four and five will not have location specific episodes and use broader themes to tell a greater variety of stories (and get away from just U.S. history). Konner describes their approach to finding figures in history to talk about as needing them to be either “familiar people doing something we’re unfamiliar with or unfamiliar people doing something big with huge results.” This includes finding more stories about women, minorities, and the disenfranchised in history whose stories haven’t been told…the real underdog stories (the stories from history Spielberg would option, but not make which Konner defines as the ideal). But they rarely focus on examples of humanity at its worst points in history, because as Waters explains “there are a lot of things in history we just don’t need to see again. There’s a lot of sadness in history, and you don’t mix comedy and sad. You get heartfelt people in history that were trying to get something accomplished, that for whatever reason, haven’t been told before. And our job is to tell that bit of history.” That means stories people already know, like OJ Simpson or the most recent election season (the show is noticeable apolitical), won’t be touched on in the life of Drunk History.
Konner says the white wigs era provides especially good material for comedy because of the anti-period dialogue narrators use in their stories. But the most important thing is passionate storytelling. It’s the reason Water’s drink of choice for the show is bourbon, because “wine makes you tired, beer makes you talk about things that happened 16 years ago. But bourbon does the thing which is our goal with the show. It gives you passion. Although whiskey makes you feel very smart.” And he wants his narrators to feel smart and look smart, despite their inebriation (they have filmed comics who had a noticeable problem with alcohol and not used the footage). Waters explained “if someone does something embarrassing, it’s not in the show. My goal is not to make the storyteller or the audience feel stupid. My goal is for the audience to go, that person’s so drunk they don’t know what they’re talking about…wait, I just learned something. I never want the narrators to look bad. They should be the smartest person in the room.” The reason so many narrators return season after season to get drunk on camera. While the show casts big names in the historical roles, they usually cast fringe comics as narrators….people Waters and Konner are fans of that they think more people should be aware of.
The show started as a series of short films, one of which even won at Sundance (starring Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle in the story of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, as told by Jen Kirkman). They are about to celebrate their 10th year online (as some of the original YouTube sensations), but the premise originated as it should have…among friends telling stories while drunk. Water’s was drunk one night with actor Jake Johnson (New Girl), and explains “he was talking about Otis Redding, saying “you know Otis knew he was going to die when he got on that plane. And I said I’ve never heard that Jake. And he said “right before he got on that plane, Otis turned to his wife and said take care of yourself, baby, I got to go. And she said I will Otis, I will. And I kept picturing Otis Redding looking at me, moving his lips to what Jake was saying, but shaking his head to mean “this never happened.” And I thought that would be fun to reenact. But maybe that story’s true, and everyone gets drunk and talks about music anyway. So what’s something else people can talk about when they’re drunk, but it would be the same joke.”
They decided history made the most sense and asked their friend Mark Gagliardi to get drunk and tell the story of Alexander Hamilton (played by Michael Cera) and Aaron Burr (played by Johnson). At the time, they felt not enough people knew the story of Hamilton and Burr, being before the musical phenomenon. But later this season, Lin-Manuel Miranda will loop back to the show’s origins and tells his version of Hamilton while drunk. And this time, the show uses its own type of inaccurate casting to retell that piece of history.