Moving something that’s successful online to TV isn’t a translation that always works. Remember $#*! My Dad Says? Memes flare brightly and die a pretty swift death online, and by the time TV execs (or morning talk show hosts) get in on the joke, the revival is like parading a corpse.
But Drunk History is a little different, in part because its creator, Derek Waters, is just very lucky. In 2007, he filmed a friend imbibing a bottle of scotch and recounting the 1804 duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The rest is, well, Drunk History. The original segment aired in 2010 on Funny or Die, the Will Ferrell and Adam McKay-created website. Having had the backing of both the public and some of the most successful current comedy minds, the real question is why it took so long for Comedy Central to run with the idea. Hit the jump for more on the new series.
The peculiar marriage of the drinking and the history is what makes Drunk History so uniquely satisfying. Most people have sat through the interminable and largely incoherent ramblings of friends who have imbibed too much, and many have sat through at least one or two historical reenactment documentaries. On their own, they aren’t usually the most engaging of pursuits. But together, they are genius.
For those unfamiliar with the original sketches, the setup is this: Waters (who also hosts the new show) finds a friend who has had too much to drink, and who also has a favorite historical story they like to recount. He films them through their non sequiturs, confusion, rolling on the floor, talking to the cat, and occasionally vomiting. Then, famous actors lip sync the well-known stories (and occasionally not so well-known stories), sometimes with unreliable narrator oddities included, in a reenactment that’s often hilarious and occasionally illuminating.
Originally, because Waters had been around the younger actor and comic scene in L.A. for awhile, he was able to get the then virtually unknown Michael Cera (Arrested Development) and Jake Johnson (New Girl) as performers. Now the sketches are performed by Jack Black, Will Forte, Dave Grohl, Winona Ryder, Jack McBrayer, Stephen Merchant, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Scott, Fred Willard and others, portraying stores such as the Watergate scandal, when Elvis met Nixon, the feud between the Booth brothers, the Scopes Monkey Trial, Harry Houdini’s friendship-turned-rivalry with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and more.
On the flip side, some have called Drunk History infantile and irresponsible, and those charges are not wholly wrong. Hearing almost anyone who hasn’t prepared a story try and tell it, drunk or not, is going to be full of stops and starts and confusion and personal flourishes — so why the booze? The drunkenness just seems to be an excellent gateway into getting people to open up and not be so self-aware of the story they’re telling. Essentially, viewers are watching people drugged for their knowledge of history. It’s an odd combination.
But, the bottom line is that the results are fun, weird, and actually educational. Those same adjectives have also propelled the popularity of the Horrible Histories books, which in 2009 were turned into an exceptionally good live-action children’s series on the BBC, now in its fifth season. Horrible Histories has found a cult adult following as well, because its desire to include the “horrible, funny and true” expands on rote facts learned in school, and elevates them further by incorporating them into popular vernacular or relating them to pop culture satire. There’s obviously a desire by adults for this kind of series, and on our shores, Drunk History seems to be poised to fill that void.
Drunk History isn’t on the same level as Horrible Histories (Comedy Central is not the BBC, after all), but it does provide a fine half-hour of entertainment, both for viewers and, quite clearly, the performers. It’s accessible, even outside of its original audience, makes history conversational, and works on a number of levels because of the calibre of the performers in each sketch. So while few online hits make a smooth transition to a wider TV audience, Drunk History may once again break the mould. Cheers to that.
Drunk History premieres Tuesday, July 9th at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central.