Before they invented gods, governments, or grain, human beings knew how to make liquor. Some might even say that those later inventions could not have existed without the booze, because sober people rarely talk to ghosts in the sky.
Those ancient people’s elder gods were not fit for our time, and technically, neither was their alcohol. Despite countless booze advertisements to the contrary, today’s grog bears little resemblance to its historical antecedents. Industrial production and technology have permanently altered the way we brew our inebriating ethanol. Like all other drugs, today’s adult beverages are more potent than their historical counterparts.
And yet history, the story of who we are and how we got here, is more watered down among the general population than ever. The History Channel has given up its documentary format to embrace reality shows about custom-built motorcycles. Much is frequently made of how poorly American students perform in STEM subjects, but their understanding of history is equally lacking.
Six years ago, Drunk History premiered on FunnyOrDie.com and was viewed millions of times. It presented a historical documentary analysis custom designed for the Internet. Created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, the show features people getting shit-faced loaded and telling tales that they (and everyone else) should have learned in school.
In the vein of classic Comedy Central shows like Insomniac with Dave Attell, each episode of Drunk History focuses on a single city, with man-on-the-street interviews in local bars and businesses. In the second season premiere, which aired July 1, Waters sparred with fight trainer Eddie Haynes at the Fountain of Youth Capital City Boxing Gym in Montgomery, Alabama, to introduce a segment about Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Across three segments, Key and Peele co-creator Jordan Peele appeared as Percy Julian, Mariah Wilson and Lisa Bonet as Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, and Terry Crews and Weird Al Yankovic as Joe Louis and Adolph Hitler. Their stories were narrated by Allan McLeod, Amber Ruffin, and Morgan Murphy.
Waters serves as the show’s host, frequently appears in the re-enactments, and also conducts the interviews as he gets the narrators drunk. “They get themselves drunk,” he tells me. “I drink with them. We’re doing this together.”
Before filming begins, the Drunk History production team picks cities to visit and two Ph.D. candidates from the University of California Los Angeles compile a list of historical events that have taken place in the chosen location. “Nothing is scripted,” Waters says. “We have them research a little. Sometimes they already know the story and there is some rehearsal so it’s is a coherent story, but the narrators don’t have a script.”
After they learn the story, Waters has his readers get a buzz prior to the host and crew’s arrival. The cameras go on, and the story gets told several times. It takes five or six hours to film each story. During which, the narrators get pukingly drunk. “A lot of the time, I have no idea what they’re talking about,” Waters says. “But as they drink they get more passionate.” The show keeps a medic on set to provide emergency first aid in the event of alcohol overdose.
While the inebriated narrator struggles through their retelling, Drunk History, cuts away in the style of classic historical documentary television and features re-enactments of the tale. Traditional dramatizations are often performed by less seasoned actors, but Waters and Konner’s series fills the imaginary past with celebrity faces from all walks of entertainment media.
The original web series featured guest appearances from Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton, and Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in a dramatization of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. The new season ups the ante on special guests: Laura Dern plays investigative reporter Nellie Bly and scheduled to appear on the show are Friends star Courteney Cox, Jaleel White of Family Matters, and pantomime extraordinaire John Lithgow.
For the actors, “it’s like learning to sing a song. The narrator’s audio plays on a loop, like we’re filming a music video,” Waters says. “A drunk person doesn’t talk straight. They’re all over the place. It’s learning the rhythm of how the storyteller talks.”
The challenge of creating the show takes up a tremendous amount of Waters’ time. “I’m too busy to watch TV. But I loved Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted. I find something interesting about re-enactments. They take things so seriously. That’s what I like about Drunk History. Ridiculousness taken seriously. All these stories are true. The dialogue isn’t accurate, but the dates and stories are 100 percent true.”
Yet one topic Waters is uninterested in exploring is politics. “I never wanted to make a political show. I don’t want to be like Andy Rooney, preaching to people. History has more angles than you can believe. And all this really happened.” When asked who he would interview if he could, Waters says, “Phil Hendrie, he was always my dream, and he’s on the show this season.”
Drunk History touches the very heart of America and shatters some of the misconceptions that have crystallized around its most mythic elements. “These narrators that happen to be drunk humanize the historical figures we’re taught to look up to,” Waters says. “History is usually told in a boring way, but we have to remember where they started. Even historical figures were just like us.”
On September 15, 1787, George Washington and 55 of the other Constitutional Convention delegates partied at Philadelphia’s City Tavern. Between them, they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch. Two days later, they signed the United States Constitution.