Derek Waters was a terrible history student. He just didn’t find the subject very interesting. All it took to change his mind, though, was booze--specifically, other people drinking too much of the stuff while meditating on America’s past.
The story of Drunk History, the show Waters created, which premieres on Comedy Central July 9, begins appropriately enough in a bar. The comedian was out drinking with friend and collaborator Jake Johnson, who launched into a rambling tale of Otis Redding’s supposed death premonition. The story was riddled with paraphrased dialogue, as though Johnson had overheard it. Afterward, Waters had a premonition of his own: a reenactment of what he’d just heard would be hilarious.
"I just thought, Well, people get drunk and talk about music all the time," Waters says. "But what’s something people don’t really talk about when they’re drunk and that you can call bullshit on, and I thought history would be better than music."
Having ascended the ranks of the L.A. comedy scene, Waters had lately been making short videos with director and friend Jeremy Konner, whom he recruited for his new idea: having somebody very knowledgeable and passionate about a specific story excitedly telling that story, as though for a history show--but with just one tiny problem standing in the way of them getting it out.
"We went over to our friend Mark Gagliardi’s place and I had no idea what we were going to get," Konner says. "Mark was way more drunk than we had expected, but he was also way more knowledgeable about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr than we could have ever imagined. We drove away going, Oh my god, this is funny."
The concept got funnier, though, with the addition of the reenactment and some clever editing. The first Drunk History video, featuring Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton, immediately set the tone for what was to come. A clearly sloshed Gagliardi serves as narrator to a bizarro-world History Channel program. The familiar hallmarks of such series--tinkling piano score, black-and-white portraiture, indifferent acting--are all in place. Through a gauzy filter, we see the reenactors, including Waters himself, lip-synch the narrator’s words, slurs and delays included. Sometimes we cut to what’s going on with our narrator, who is sprawled out on the couch, asking if his belly is showing. He almost makes it through the whole story without passing out.
The video was never meant to be a series, just a one-off. At first, it was only run during a weekly live show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in L.A. called "Derek Waters Presents LOL." Although this show was something of a rebuke to the digital era of comedy that YouTube had ushered in, Waters still put the video up online. Funny or Die noticed soon enough, though, and wanted to get involved. So did a gaggle of actors, including Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and Don Cheadle. New editions soon followed, and eventually so did segments on Funny or Die’s occasional HBO incarnation.
"The original show, it’s a five-minute idea," Waters says. "How do you make a five-minute idea a half hour? That’s what’s taken us so long to figure out, but I think we have it."
Many ideas were discarded along the way. In one version, Waters went from town to town meeting locals and getting stories from them. It turned out to be more difficult than anyone had anticipated to find untrained storytellers who’d be comfortable in front of a camera, drunk, and able to tell a story with a complete arc.
In the eventual version of the Comedy Central show, every episode is an exploration of a city through its history. Each week, comedians like Jen Kirkman tell tales of, say, Boston, with three fresh reenactments. These are interspersed with scenes of the show’s crew in Boston, interviewing people in bars and on the street. What’s also new is the scope of the series. Whereas the Funny or Die videos seemed confined roughly to the era of powdered wigs, the new series includes more recent historical events, such as Elvis meeting Nixon.
"Making the world of history bigger, that was the only way the show could work," Waters says.
While the show is still steeped in the world of American history, Konner claims that the creators are open to going international one day. In the meantime, they are striving for authenticity.
In the movie Waiting for Guffman, Catherine O’Hara delivers what is perhaps the most realistic depiction of a drunk person that has ever happened. Most other performances are far less nuanced, relying on slurring, swaying, and hiccups to carry them like a drunk relying on designated drivers. Fortunately for Drunk History viewers, Derek Waters is kind of a snob about verisimilitude.
"I will always call bullshit on anything that seems like it was contrived," he says. “Just being comedy people drunk in front of a camera, it takes a while for them to calm down. But once it stops trying to be funny, then I try and sober them up and have them tell me this story. The goal is to get them to not even think that this is comedy, but just that they’re going to try as hard as they can to do this history show.”
The narrators are all friends of Waters and Konner, which makes it easy to figure out what stories they should tell on the show. These fellow comedy folks either already have stories ready to go, or they are given a selection to choose from, based on which subjects the creators know them to be passionate about. This fiery affection for the material is the show’s key ingredient that isn’t alcohol.
“You gotta keep that passion in there,” Waters says. “Otherwise, it’s just, ‘Oh, he spent two hours reading a Wikipedia page and got drunk.’”
The storytelling portion of the shoot usually takes about three or four hours, the first of which is often filled with the storyteller mostly just being psyched about being drunk. In the original series, Waters and Konner gave themselves a one-day limit on shooting the reenactment segments--this quick turnaround was crucial for enticing big names to get on board early on--and the creators have carried that tradition into the Comedy Central version.
“Shooting an epic biopic in one day is a difficult task, especially if you want to do it any justice,” says Konner. “When it turns out that 'oh by the way, the owner of that house we were supposed to shoot in just said we couldn’t shoot there,' we had to improvise. Like, we were doing the election of Davy Crockett that he lost and we were going to have an election scene, but everything fell apart. So we ended up just shooting Derek as Davy Crockett against a wood wall with a bunch of red, white, and blue bunting all around, and signs that say "Davy Crockett for Governor," and now it’s one of our favorite shots.”
Some viewers at home may wonder whether Davy Crocket ever did actually run for governor. Obviously he wouldn’t have been belching or using anachronistic slang during the process if that happened, they might note. Anyone who was as poor a history student as Waters was in high school can rest assured, though, that they actually can learn something from watching the show.
“I can’t wait for people to fact check us, because we made sure that these are all true,” he says. “Which is how I’ve learned so much about history lately.”