"Drunk History" may be the most necessary show on TV now

As co-creator Derek Waters explains, "What alcohol does to people ... is let your shoulders drop a little."

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 29, 2019 5:00PM (EST)

Rachel Bilson as Helen and Vanessa Hudgens as Marge in "Drunk History" (Comedy Central)
Rachel Bilson as Helen and Vanessa Hudgens as Marge in "Drunk History" (Comedy Central)

“Drunk History” host and co-creator Derek Waters does not believe in coincidences. He wouldn’t necessarily call his series prescient, either.

The main aim of “Drunk History” has always been to entertain. Waters says that the joke is that it’s a history series on a comedy channel; new episodes debut Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central. But in marrying his two passions, Waters’ show is able to do what most TV comedies don’t, remaining continuously fresh and thought-provoking six seasons into its existence.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, so this makes me feel like I'm close,” Waters told Salon in a recent phone interview. “I'm helping people learn something. And I also am proud that, you know, I can do a show where the people that think it's fake can look it up and see that it is real. So it does make me feel good, like I'm telling history in my own different way.”

Every episode of “Drunk History” is a multi-story booze flight, guided by comedy writers and performers narrating buried, forgotten or overlooked chapters in history reenacted with hammy brightness by famous actors.

This week’s episode, “Baseball,” stars Jake Johnson, Gaius Charles and Vanessa Hudgens, among others, recreating true stories of people who have changed the world in some way. Then again, there have been a few times when the comedy’s beer-goggled views of the past have aligned eerily closely with what’s going on right now.

Take the current season’s second episode, “National Parks,” which premiered on Tuesday, January 22. Included within the half hour were the stories of John Muir’s camping excursion with Theodore Roosevelt and the tale of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ role in protecting Florida’s Everglades.

Between those, however, was an account of the 19-month takeover of Alcatraz spearheaded by the Native American activists of Indians of All Tribes in 1969, narrated drunkenly by Daryl Johnson and enthusiastically re-enacted by indigenous actors Adam Beach, Zahn McClarnon and Q’Orianka Kilcher. Have you heard of this?

If not, look it up, or watch the episode — bottom line, it’s fascinating and hilarious, and appropriately aggravating when the inevitable happens and Richard Nixon quashes the occupation. Above all, it celebrates the audacity of that act of dissent and what it achieved.

The Friday before “National Parks” first aired, the world watched Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann face down Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The next day, not 12 hours after the episode’s debut, NBC would air an interview with Sandmann, doing its part to establish his viewpoint, not that of Phillips, as central.

We will never know if Sandmann and his classmates might have chosen to behave differently if they had an inkling of the indignities Native Americans have endured for centuries. Nor do we know if that “Drunk History” segment placed that occurrence in different context for anyone that viewed it; we can only point out the interesting timing.

This has happened before with the show. Last year, one week after the horrifying mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school in Parkland Florida, the series aired its “Civil Rights” episode, which includes a look at the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963.

This turning point in the Civil Rights Movement is recalled through famous photos of school children being pummeled against walls by water streaming from firehoses turned on at full blast. And viewing it in the wake of Parkland, as the voices of students such as Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg emerged from the fog of mourning not in resignation but fueled by anger, is invigorating.

“Drunk History” isn’t entirely serious, mind you. Waters carefully plans each season to include the right proportion of sobering chapters to fun, feel-good tales.

The sixth season premiere, “Are You Afraid of the Drunk,” takes the entire episode to tell the story of how Mary Shelley conceptualized Frankenstein, with Evan Rachel Wood, Seth Rogen, Elijah Wood, Will Ferrell and Jack McBrayer doing the re-enactment honors.

But it’s at its best when it demonstrates history repeating — an oft-cited aphorism those who study history may not completely agree with. Nothing happens in precisely the same way twice but there’s unquestionably an echo to them, a discernible refrain.  The lesson of history is too easily forgotten, obscured or altered, and worse, fewer professionals than ever are positioning themselves to pass that information along.

Ours is an age that has seen a vibrant reconsideration of a somewhat obscure figure in American history via Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton," still the hottest ticket on Broadway and on the touring musical circuit.  Yet, according to an analysis by the American Historical Association published in November 2018, currently the share of undergraduates who chose history as majors in the last decade is below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s.

Ergo, we can expect the issues that spawned previous flashpoints in history to surface yet again, providing ample reasons to get drunk.  But as the success of "Hamilton" proves, there's always an audience for historical narratives. It's all in how they're presented. This means “Drunk History” remains relevant as long as Waters is interested in getting storytellers soused and inviting famous performers to re-enact the accounts being told down to each stutter, sneeze and burp.

Prior to the airing of “Baseball” I was able to pin down Waters to chat about coincidence in addition to talking about how the show chooses which subjects to explore. Waters, for his part, remains completely humble and gracious even now, a dozen years after “Drunk History” became a mainstay of Funny or Die’s web series catalog.

He also sounded exhausted, perhaps due to his heavy production schedule, or maybe as the result of a night of listening to an inebriated recreation of history. Either way, he told Salon, “I have my eyes closed with a smile on, you know. I love what I do. I'm just tired.”

Despite this, he pushed through our discussion about how “Drunk History” makes stories of the past accessible, as you’ll read in this interview edited for clarity and length.

One of the things that I have noticed over the past couple of seasons on this show is that a few episodes have touched on subject matter that has been relevant to the news cycle of a particular point in time. It’s all coincidence, I know. But I’m thinking particularly of last week’s episode. One of the stories featured the Native American occupation of Alcatraz — and that aired the Tuesday after the video at the Lincoln Memorial of Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann in confrontation. Did you notice any kind of reaction about that?

I mean, of course. I definitely noticed it. There's a couple of things I want to say about it. . . It's hard to talk about this type of stuff because, you know, we all are just doing our part, you know? No one can say, "Yeah, I knew that was going to happen." Obviously, no.

But I truly believe when a history story is important, it's always important. You know what I mean? It doesn't vanish, like it used to be important but now it's not. All I can do is find stories in history that are important. Whatever is happening now, obviously, I have nothing to do with except reminding myself and everyone that these are important histories we should have been taught as children. Whether we were or we weren't, it's good to be reminded of them, and of the importance of everyone, you know.

I don't believe in coincidences, though. We work really hard to tell these stories and when something like that happens, I'm just very excited for people to see this very important story. But I'm just a messenger.

Even long before Tuesday episode there another the really terrible coincidence . . . days after the Parkland shooting (at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School), that's when the Civil Rights episode aired. That was the first time that I had really noticed the relevance of the lesson. That episode included the story of the Birmingham children's march , the main moral of that story being that children have long been on the forefront of major civil rights movements. And we saw that to be true with the March for Our Lives happening a month afterward.

And that made me wonder whether, particularly within the past couple of years, you've looked at stories in history that you've thought about covering on the show with an awareness of the current era. Has there been any kind of conscious effort to say, “Okay, we need to look at these points of history because they resemble these kinds of inflection points that people are concerned about today”? Does ever inform your filter in terms of what stories do you want to cover?

Obviously I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I know what the important issues are. So are we grabbing stuff that I believe are important issues that still are being worked on, are stories that we want to cover? Well I don't find it a coincidence when one of our stories airs and that shit's still going on.

The Nathan Phillips story is different and you know, the [Parkland] kids are different because obviously I would never, ever hope or think that something like that would happen. But the issues that all of those have going for them are issues that I want to cover in the show, that have been going on forever.

But it does give me the chills. And it also it gives me, in some weird way, hope that we're doing some good. I humbly believe that it's a history show on a comedy network . . . the joke, really, is that it's on a comedy network. I really just want to tell history stories and make you laugh while doing it, you know?

It's hard to answer questions like that because it's like . . . I just don't want to come off as arrogant or, like, "Yeah, I knew that would happen, that was great for our show!" No. I would never — I am not an opportunist. I just find stories that I genuinely go, "Why weren't we taught this?" And then when they air, the coincidence. . . I don't know. It makes me feel like we're on to something good.

I also think one way to get someone's attention is to make them laugh. The stories that I find for the show, and some of these issues, most of them that you just brought up are very hard. They're important issues, but they're hard to take. So if you get someone's attention without them knowing they're learning about that important issue, I feel like you get a better result because it's not as preachy.

Let's look at the episode that's airing this week an example of how you select the stories that are going to be told. "Drunk History" has done several sports-themed episodes, but what made you go after these particular stories?

For baseball? Well for one — Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black baseball player [in the major leagues] — you know, I just, I love baseball. I love Jackie Robinson, and we found this story and I was just like, I don't know anyone that's ever heard of this guy. I want to know who the hell Moses Fleetwood Walker was, and why we didn't hear anything about him.

I wanted to be a baseball player growing up. But it turned out I wasn't good at it. But I love the sport. I love the idea of baseball, I love going to baseball games and one of the stories, about the Black Sox, I think it's just one of those stories that you hear about, but you don't really know that much about it. Especially like if you're not a sports fan, you're like, "I don't know, what team were the Black Sox?" To discuss, you know, throwing the game and Shoeless Joe Jackson, that's a name everyone knows, but maybe they don't know how he was tricked in this.

And then, 'A League of Their Own' is one of my all-time favorite movies. I found the story of where it came from and how Penny Marshall discovered it, and I just thought it would be so cool. To do the 'League of Their Own' story. And it's funny, I really wanted someone from, 'A League of Their Own' in it, but I didn't know how to do it. But then when we had Megan Cavanagh, who played Marla Hooch, play Penny Marshall. So that was really, really cool.

Is all the subject matter that you choose for "Drunk History" that personal? Do you sit down and select stories that you're incredibly curious about, or are some suggested from other people who come across them?

Well, I think — and no arrogance about it — but I find that in anything you do, when it's personal to you, it goes further. When something's important to you, you work a lot harder and you find, you show all the colors in the story more. People can see that when it's a personal story of why you wanted to pick something. That's in any, in any creative idea you have. I don't want to fall asleep when I'm getting drunk, you know, I want the stories to be exciting.

I don't think it's arrogant, by the way, to say you're selecting subject matter that's relevant to history and it just happens to have a coincidence. I think that's happening across the board with a lot of scripted shows.

Yeah. That's out of our control, what happens afterward. Thank you.

But to follow up something that you mentioned, as I said, I've spoken producers that have created coincidentally relevant episodes, what have you. And they all kind of say the same thing, which is that it is an entertainment show, but it just, you know, that happens to fit in with a particular narrative in the news cycle because the story itself is about an issue that's been true for a long time.

Yes. Right.

But it seems like there's an extra lesson we're seeing in "Drunk History" in that you are providing entertainment about true stories and that gives people almost kind of a stealthy way in to history. And that may be taking on some additional importance right now, particularly when there are stories about history, as a general major among college undergraduates, declining in popularity as a major.

Yeah. I think I know what you mean. . . . So we did a show on the Birmingham Children's March. If this was just a show that tackled that matter, but it wasn't about history, if it was about kids that were standing up for something that they believed, then you might be like, "Yeah, it's a little bit preachy." But no, this is history. What have we learned from it? Do you know what I mean? It's like, here's a story. Maybe you've heard of it, maybe you have. But if not, this happened a long time ago. And look: this shit's still happening.

Is that what you're asking?

Yes. Then, and I don't mean to sound trite, what do you think adding the comedic element of getting people drunk and having them recount these stories, what do you think that adds to the conversation?

This is going to sound weird at first, but it's just humanizing. And I'm not trying to say that alcohol humanizes people. But I do think the subject of history, the subject of politics, things that are important, aren't usually told like this. They're usually told looking down at you, at the audience and this is looking at you straight in the eye. And sometimes the audience feels a little higher than, you know, the "professor" of the show. So I think the comedic part of it is that you feel like you might be smarter than this person, but when the story ends, you realize that oh, they just taught you something. Is that what you mean?


And again I'm not pro-alcohol or anything like that. But I think that what alcohol does to people, particularly for the show, is let your shoulders drop a little. In this example, I'm not saying in general for everyone. But in this, it lets your shoulders drop and listen to these stories without feeling like you're in trouble, or you have to worship everyone we're about to talk about. You know what I mean?

Sure. I've also noticed that one of the things that particularly in later seasons, there have been the big stories about figures that people know. But also, like the baseball episode, there are the relatively unknown stories. Do you try and strike a specific balance per season where you have a certain number of familiar stories, along with —

The unknowns? Well, a lot of our stories in this season have some serious tones. So I wanted to come out . . . you know, I'm obsessed with Pearl Jam. And Pearl Jam's very good at their set lists. It always changes and it's always a very like smart set list. And I'm not trying to compare myself to that but, like, you have to create your set list of the season. And I wanted to start with "Are You Afraid of the Drunk" and just a very fun opening to get in and then, you know, doing "National Parks" last week was so . . . well, it's funny but it's heavy, you know?

And so "Baseball," obviously is important but in a different way, you know? I humbly believe all the stories we do are important. But it's like balancing the importance of like . . . you can't be too funny and you can't be too serious. You’ve got to do both, I think.

Is there a particular chapter of history or history story that you may be holding back on for whatever reason? And I'm not asking you necessarily tell me what it is.

I think the ones I hold back on are the ones that are still being figured out, you know? Like there still needs to be an end to them. And I don't know, some stuff that's important to me, some stuff's just too sad. I like finding the stories that just make you go, why didn't I learn that before and what can I learn from it now?

So you think some stories are too sad for the show?

Yeah, I think so. That doesn't mean that we should ignore the sad. But when there's drinking and sadness, that's not funny. That would be the curse of the show. There's the blessing of the show, but the curse is, you know, certain subjects you just can't do because of the premise. For me. I choose not to, because I'm like, oh, that might be a little too sad, but all in all, there's a lot more history than I want to do.

I don't want to leave without asking, do you think that there's one particular or maybe just a handful of particular traits that you look for in a story when choosing a subject for “Drunk History? What are the qualities that make a great "Drunk History" story?

That's so hard because sometimes it's, "Oh, here's a person in history we know, and we all know him or her from one side, doing one thing. But did you know, they were also responsible for this?" That stuff, I love. Where, like, you've known this person forever but you don't know this part of them. And because of what they did, what did we learn from them?

Those are my favorite ones. Like here's a person that had a problem. That person went up against that problem. And because of them, we have this result in a good way. I know that sounds algebraic, but it's hard to sum up. . . Or a story that goes, oh my God, we've all been taught that story the wrong way. You know what I mean? We were told it went like this when really that was just what the history books told us. I want to tell the real story, you know?

So I don't want to ever go to the story where I'm like, yeah, everyone knows that story. I guess that would be my rule is like saying no, I want a story that even though I didn't go to college, I'm going to bet not a lot of people know this story. And if they do, they don't know this version. And if they know this version, they've never heard a drunk person tell it, and have it reenacted. Hopefully it’ll make them smile while they’re watching.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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