Comedy Central’s Drunk History, created by a local, imagines what high school would be like if all your teachers were wasted
Published: January 22, 2014
It’s a two-hour wait to be seated for dinner under Mother’s’ plastic tin ceiling on this Thursday night. Some of the guests are leaving when they hear about the wait. “We were here last Thursday and it was dead,” says a big middle-aged dude standing in line.
Another guy listens to the reason: Comedy Central’s Drunk History is taping here tonight, and so there is chaos. The man does not know about Drunk History, so he pauses as he is told the concept, which is that a regular Joe-type is given enough hooch to make him or her tip over and then is asked to recount a historical event. Then, that event is reenacted by other professional actors as told by the drunk narrator—right down to lip-synching the narrator’s flubs and hiccups.
“Well, good luck to you,” the man says, hurrying out.
Derek Waters, who grew up in Lutherville and graduated from Towson High, developed this shtick about seven years ago. He’d moved to L.A. in 1999 with dreams of becoming a comedic actor like Chris Farley, but despite possessing a gentle demeanor, a pretty good sense of humor, and the strong-jawed good looks of Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe (another Baltimore export), he was not getting the parts, he says: “Looking and sounding like I do, I was ‘Drunk Guy Number Seven.’”
With Simon Helberg he co-wrote The Pity Card, a 2006 short comedy. That got him a little notice as a writer. Then he started Drunk History.
The idea came from Jake Johnson, he says, who is now starring in New Girl on Fox. “He was really drunk and telling the story of Otis Redding, and I was laughing and imagining Otis Redding talking in this guy’s voice,” Waters says between bites of steak and green beans.
That led naturally to Johnson as Aaron Burr killing Mike Cera as Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel, as narrated by Mark Gagliardi after drinking a bottle of Scotch.
Waters did pitch the idea, he says, but nobody in a position to give him a budget understood the concept’s essential brilliance.
“It’s kind of visual, so I finally just shot it,” says Waters, who played Thomas Jefferson in that six-minute Volume I production, which has about 5.6 million views. (In the comments: “our social studies teacher got fired for showing this to us.”)
Volume 2 followed just over a month later: Jack Black as Ben Franklin. A week after that, another sketch with Black as Franklin. This only happened because director Jeremy Konner worked with Black and showed him the first video, and Black immediately wanted in, Waters says.
Other names you might know who became involved: Winona Ryder, Owen Wilson, Don Cheadle, Crispin Glover, John. C. Reilly, Lisa Bonet.
Funny or Die picked it up, and the viral success led to eight episodes on Comedy Central in 2013, with 10 more scheduled for this year. Each episode has three history lessons, and this year they are going to be geographically related—hence the return to Baltimore to shoot interview footage of ordinary drunk citizens telling Waters why they love their city.
Waters has to shoot a history lesson per day to keep up—an exhausting work pace. You think it’s easy coaxing a comprehensible narrative out of a star who is literally vomiting?
The show keeps a medic on hand to make sure the narrators don’t die. If needed, they are given oxygen and fed afterward, Waters says.
He is asked about backlash. It is a confusing question, particularly in light of the fact that the Maryland Historical Society is so enthusiastic about the show that they sent an invite to the Mother’s appearance and offered a tour of their huge museum and library on Monument Street. “We have researchers,” Waters says. “We have history majors. The dialogue may be off, but the dates are actually true. We try to get at least three sources.”
Drunk History’s Baltimore stories will retell the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Battle of Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe’s rivalry with Rufus Griswold (who wrote Poe’s obituary), and “The Baltimore Plot” to assassinate President Lincoln before his 1861 inauguration. Waters is cagey about whether he’s got John Waters as Poe.
“I’m stressing about trying to put Francis Scott Key on the ship,” he says. But the saving grace of the show is that it strives to look “home-made.”
In fact the whole production has an improvised feel, including this meeting. Producer Melissa Wylie comes by to ask if I “have enough” for a story, and to clear the decks for a Sun photographer and a crew from Fox. Other diners by now are just getting hip that there is a “celebrity” in the room, and the cellphone cameras come out.
Waters, who has been a celebrity only for a few months, excuses himself, saying he wants to brush his teeth before getting his picture taken.
Drunk History is all about the dignity.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.