"Drunk History" is, at its best, ridiculous. The Comedy Central show follows host and creator Derek Waters across the country, city by city, where his comedian friends tell little-known historical tales ... while completely wasted. Then, Waters and a rotating list of comedians and actors perform re-enactments of the stories while lip-synching the narrators' exact words, down to the last stammer, belch or random non sequitur. In some respects, the worse the story is told, the funnier the show ends up being.
That should not give you the impression that Waters does not take the show very seriously, however. International Business Times caught up with him before the Season 2 finale of "Drunk History" to talk about drinking, Dustin Hoffman and the show's unique heart.
The history of "Drunk History" is a pretty interesting story in its own right. The idea came to Waters while listening to his drunk friend Jake Johnson, now famous as Nick on the Fox comedy "New Girl," telling a story about Otis Redding as Waters imagined the legendary singer saying Johnson's exact words. Soon after, Waters went to Mark Gagliardi, one of his best friends and "the smartest guy [Waters] knows" and asked him to get drunk and tell him a story from history that people needed to know about. Gagliardi told the story of Alexander Hamilton's duel with Aaron Burr, Michael Cera signed on to play Hamilton in the re-enactment, and "Drunk History" was born.
But the real story of "Drunk History" is Waters' refusal to let the show be just a footnote in the history of comedy. After making the original video, Waters held on to it, hoping to bring the concept to "Saturday Night Live," "The Daily Show" or “Conan O’Brien,” but he had no such luck. Finally, while home for the holidays in Baltimore, Waters thought others bored at home for the holiday season might enjoy the video and he finally posted it online. From there came the Funny or Die series, an award for Best Short at the Sundance Film Festival, and an appearance on HBO.
The struggle came when figuring out how to expand the concept from a five-minute short (which Waters says is the perfect time limit for drunk people) to a larger format. Waters originally envisioned a project called “Drunk History Channel,” imagining colorful scenes like John Wilkes Booth leaping from the Ford's Theater balcony with a machine gun yelling “die mother f----ers die” after assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Waters and co-creator Jeremy Konner also attempted a feature-length screenplay in which Waters would tour the country in a short bus in search of drunken, historical tales, much in the same way the show works now.
Eventually, “Drunk History” found a home on Comedy Central, where it has gained a large following. Waters now finds himself very busy (Season 3 will feature 39 stories) traveling the country, researching stories and filming (between the narrators, re-enactments and city b-roll, the show shot 420 hours of footage for three and a half hours of Season 2 air time). Comedy Central renewed the show in July for a third season and Season 2 ends Tuesday with “First Ladies,” Waters’ favorite episode and one of the funniest yet, featuring Courtney Cox, Bobby Moynihan and "the queen of ‘Drunk History," Jen Kirkman.
International Business Times: You’re going into your third season now. Are you still nervous the concept is going to get old?
Derek Waters: I think the day you stop getting nervous is when you get lazy, so I don’t think I’m going to use the word nervous anymore – I’m excited to make sure it doesn’t get old. I’m not nervous anymore because getting a third season gives you a little more confidence that people get it and now we can get away with things like [Aug. 26’s “Sports Heroes” episode], being able to have a story that took place not that long ago to a human who’s amazing, who’s still alive, Jim Abbot, opens the door to a lot of things and, not to be cheesy, but there will always be history. So, all that matters to me is finding the best stories. I’m not trying to change to world, just make people laugh…and trick them into learning something.
IBTimes: Can you walk me through what happens with the narrators before you get to them and how you find the stories?
Waters: I meet with each narrator to see, or if it’s someone I know really well, I already know what type of story they know really well or what type of world that they love in history and then we have hundreds of stories that we narrow down. They have some knowledge of the story they are telling, and then they are sent from our researchers some details of the story and then they talk to co-executive producer Seth Weitberg and Jeremy Konner to go over the story with them. So, when I go in I know the story, but it’s better if they kind of feel like I don’t know the story so they are excited to tell the story. That’s not lying to them; it’s the way to get the best performance.
IBTimes: You seem to have a knack for getting a great story out of the narrators. Would you say you are an expert at talking to drunk people?
Waters: I think I’d be arrogant to call myself an expert, but I humbly believe I’m good at it. I know what to say and, more importantly, I know what not to say. Also, you have to just let them tell the whole story and let it all out, and after they’ve told a beginning, middle and end, then you can go back in and fill in the details. But it’s very hard, much like when they say don’t work with children or dogs. Drunks are hard, but they’re also what make the show good. I commend all of them because being able to trust me in the most vulnerable state and not even knowing what we are going to use, I always just think, ‘I want to give them the coolest re-enactment ever,’ so they think they did this for a reason.
IBTimes: When you are sitting with them there for five to six hours doing this story, are you writing the episode in your head?
Waters: I love when natural things happen. I try not to force anything to happen. If there were going to be things I would do that are forced, they should seem natural, like playing catch with Matt Jones [during Aug. 26’s “Sports Heroes” episode] for Jim Abbot. I knew I was going to do that, but you can never try to push out him grabbing his dog and saying, "you fat f---ing banana," which is my favorite line. I think audiences are very smart and you can always tell when things are forced. I think the biggest misconception is people who think they aren’t really that drunk. Everybody holds their alcohol differently and some people are better at it where it seems like they aren’t drunk, but I do believe just having good stories is what will sustain the show. The drinking is just what gets people to tune in.
IBTimes: Have you been having the narrators drink less this season, because it seems like they have been less sloppy, fewer people throwing up in the middle of the story, at least from what we see.
Waters: That has not changed; it’s still the same amount of drinking. I never want to be like "keep drinking until you throw up," but I want them to get to a level so that they get to a place I call "frustrated passion," where they are trying so hard to tell the story, but they keep messing up some of the facts.
IBTimes: It seems like some actors are better in the lip-synching re-enactments than others at channeling the narrators’ voices and using a well-timed eye roll or shrug to make a joke work. What’s the secret behind doing it well?
Waters: Well, I call Jason Ritter the master of it, but when we do it it’s on playback like a music video. Some actors like to say, memorize the lines and say them out loud. I personally don’t because then I can’t hear it. It’s not so much memorizing lines as it is memorizing a rhythm of how the narrators talk. Some people like to take on the mannerisms of the narrator and become the narrator as this historical character, but everyone has their own take on it.
IBTimes: Was there a certain point where comedians and actors starting coming to you to get involved as opposed to you going to them?
Waters: I think it was Jack Black, after that first sketch. When we were pitching the idea originally, people couldn’t understand, and would say "you know, it’s really hard to play drunk" and I was, like, "No, the re-enactors aren’t drunk, they’re sober, the narrators are drunk." So, I think it was a ripple effect after Michael Cera did it, and then Jack Black, and then we knew Danny McBride and he wanted to do it. Then, obviously, when you’re on a television show the world opens up of people you don’t know. I didn’t know Johnny Knoxville and I love, love, love Johnny Knoxville, and him already knowing about it and wanting to do it was a dream come true. It’s not a coincidence that he did two of them.
IBTimes: I know you’re a big Pearl Jam fan and you’ve said before Eddie Vedder would be your dream guest…
Waters: It’s so funny that everybody knows, I know, you’re just like, "come on, man, give me a regular actor!" You know, I love Dustin Hoffman so much.
IBTimes: Oh yeah! Have you tried?
Waters: Yes. I think it’s this thing that you have to see the show. We’re a cable show, there’s no money, and you work all day, 12 hours, in limited conditions, but I love that. We have a low budget and it deletes all the divas and arrogance of people who just want to be there. No one’s there because they think this is going to help pay their mortgage.
IBTimes: I know the travel show aspect of the show came out of needing a format that fit TV, but you talking to these drunk guys in bars across the country (in the in-between scenes) show some of the most genuine hometown pride on television. Is that important to you?
Waters: I love it! Everybody loves where they’re from, and I just think it adds another layer to the show. It’s got to have heart. I believe that with any comedy, that’s how you get me invested in a show. There isn’t any town that’s perfect, but most people love where they’re from. Also, when you hear someone that’s passionate about something, whether or not you’re on the same side as them, they are being themselves and speaking how they feel. I think it gives the show a specific spirit that I don’t want to lose.
IBTimes: Do you think that sentiment comes from your background being from Baltimore?
Waters: I think so. I could have easily stayed in Baltimore doing a “regular” job and I respect the people that did. I think every town has that aspect of sticking where they’re from. I love that element of the show and I don’t want to lose it. As hard as it is going into bars and being yelled at by people who want to be on TV, it is worth it.
IBTimes: You’re the host of a comedy show, bit it strikes me as a similar dynamic to other travel shows, like Anthony Bourdain, where guests all over the world welcome him into their homes like family.
Waters: Yeah, and I think the importance of that is you need to feel like you’re with this person, you’re with me on this journey and you’re meeting these people and you’re in these cities and you’re in this world and I’m not yelling into the camera going, "isn’t this crazy?"
IBTimes: I think that's why it hasn’t gotten old and you're getting a third season. And speaking of the third season, can you tell me where you’re going?
Waters: No idea. I’m on vacation in Baltimore right now and I go back to work the day I get back to Los Angeles. There are a lot of places I want to go.
IBTimes: What’s on your bucket list?
Waters: I don’t want to say because then, if we don’t go there, it will look like I failed…I just want to go to the places with the best untold stories.
The Season 2 finale of “Drunk History,” “First Ladies,” premieres Tuesday 2 at 10:30 p.m. EDT on Comedy Central. Are you excited for the finale? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV.