No Concessions: Drunk History Creators Discuss Moving to TV & the Key to Intoxicated Storytelling

July 10, 2013

There are countless activities, including red-eye flights and family dinners, that are made tolerable by alcohol. In 2007, Drunk History added history lessons to that list. The concept behind Drunk History, like the premise of anything successful and worthwhile, is deceptively simple: ply a friend with alcohol and have them recount a favorite moment in history. Then, enlist comedians to play out their slurred stories word for word. Not much to it at first glance, but like a good cocktail recipe, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Drunk History launched in 2007 when comedian Derek Waters and director Jeremy Konner asked their friend Mark Gagliardi to drink a bottle of scotch and tell the story of the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Waters and Konner then reenacted the telling, casting friends Michael Cera and Jake Johnson in the leading roles. The video was an overnight success and today has more than 6 million views. Over the next 5 years, the duo sporadically produced another handful of Drunk History episodes.

Earlier this year, Comedy Central picked up and developed Drunk History into a full-fledged series—the show premiered last night. The show’s new incarnation features its creators touring the nation, seeking out and recounting our country's lost stories city by city. Actors and comedians like Kyle Kinane, Natasha Leggero, and Jenny Slate will narrate stories like how Harry Houdini’s friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle turned into a bitter rivalry, or the rise and fall of Al Capone, and the tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The roster of actors enlisted to take part in the reenactments is impressive to say the least, and includes, among others, Bill Hader, Tony Hale, Stephen Merchant, Kevin Nealon, Bob Odenkirk, Aubrey Plaza, Winona Ryder, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Fred Willard, Luke and Owen Wilson.

Thankfully, the TV iteration of Drunk History is just as irreverent, delightfully crude, and endearing as the original. Stretched over 22 minutes, the show loses none of its potency and still delivers a stiff shot of comedic genius. Prior of the premiere, I called Drunk History's creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner to discuss their drunken inspiration, the academic merits of Drunk History, and why Ben Franklin would make a great drinking buddy.

A clip from Drunk History's premiere TV episode in which Nixon meets Elvis. The first episode in its entirety is available for streaming here

How’d you come up with the concept for the show? Derek Waters: It was 2007 and I was--go figure--having drinks with my dear, dear friend Jake Johnson, who’s now on New Girl. He was really intoxicated, telling me story about the great Otis Redding who died in a plane crash. We were talking about his music and he was trying to explain to me that Otis knew he was going to die before he got on the plane. He was so passionate about trying to convince me that this was true but he wasn’t able to articulate it because he was drunk. And I thought, well wouldn’t it be funny to reenact that.

When you finished making the first online episode, did you know you’d made something that was going to go viral? Jeremy Konner: No, we really didn’t. We were dying with laughter when we filmed Mark Gagliardi at his place and when we got out of there we felt like, this was really funny. I sat down for a week and edited 5 hours into 5 or so minutes and at that point I genuinely had no idea if it was even funny anymore. It was Jake Johnson, who’s in the first one, who came over before we were even doing the reenactments. I said, Look at this, and I put it on, and it was just the narration. He just buckled over with laughter and I thought, I think we’re onto something.

Derek and I were going back and forth because he really didn’t want it to be on the Internet. I was like, I really think this should be on the Internet, it’s pretty cool. Finally, I said, Can I just put it up? We’ll see what happens. We put it up not really thinking anything and immediately—this was when Youtube had a front page—it was on there. We immediately got a million views. A week later we were written up in Entertainment Weekly of ‘Things We Love’ or something like that. It was crazy—it definitely changed my career. It’s amazing, there are so many things I’ve done in my life with giant ambition where the goal was to make something large. But this was something that was just fun, just to make something over a weekend.

The first episode of Drunk History

Derek, were you surprised by the reaction? DW: More than surprised. I humbly thought it was good, but I didn’t think it was much more than that. My grandfather always said that nothing good ever came out of alcohol. Well, maybe just this.

So why did it take so long to get this developed into a larger project? JK: At first things happened very, very quickly. But then it happened very, very slowly. We did one a year for seven years. Again, it was just for fun. We would be like, Let’s do one more! Alright! And a few months later we might do another one. It was just a very fun project that we never expected to be much more than that. A year or so ago we went to Gary Sanchez and said, Let’s just try it. Let’s just see if we can develop this into a show--who knows?

Why Drunk History and not High History? DW: That would take too long. And I think there’s no one who thinks they know something better than another person than someone’s who’s intoxicated. Alcohol does things to your brain to make you think you’re the smartest person in the world.

Have you ever had to cancel a taping because the narrator was too drunk? DW: Yeah, at least a dozen times. When we were doing it for the Internet, a couple of things would happen: they would either get too drunk and we couldn’t understand what they were saying, or they said they knew a story very well and had clearly just rehearsed a Wikipedia page.

JK: There are three stages that Derek has identified in drunk people. When people first start drinking they’re having the greatest time of their lives, they’ll be giggly and hilarious and it’s amazing. And then they’ll sort of fall into this second stage of, ‘Wait, did I tell you that already? No, I didn’t really tell you where they were born.’ No, you told us where he was born. ‘Right, so he was born in New York…etc.’ And then for some reason, every narrator ends up apologizing profusely that they didn’t tell the story at all: ‘I didn’t tell you about any of it. I fucked up, I’m sorry.’

Is there a trick to being a good drunk storyteller? JK: We’ve found that one of the most important factors is that they really be in love with the story. If this is a story that someone knows, and loves, they can do it with their eyes closed, they can do it in any state. That’s what we’re always going for. We’re trying to find stories that people already love. People who are like, ‘Ben Franklin? Oh, I’ve read every book on Ben Franklin because I’m obsessed. Can I talk about him?’

How’d you find stories for all the different cities you visit in the show? DW: Jeremy and I would go through each city and dig up really rare, amazing stories with our researchers. But everyone we had narrate a story was at least familiar with the story and we just gave them more information. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like these people were just pulling shit out of their ass. I wanted them to treat it like a narrator on a history show.

John Wilkes, played by Adam Scott, and brother Edwin Booth, played by Will Forte

Are you a history guy? DW: I’m interested in it, but in school I didn’t know much about it. I had one great history teacher who will be my favorite teacher of all time, but overall I was never one to pick up a history book. But I’ve become really into history. People need to know what’s happened—I think history is really important.

So you see the show as a history lesson? DW: Yeah, I do, first and foremost. I want it to be as close as possible to a history show, just narrated by a narrator who is intoxicated, so it’s not boring.

Is there one story that you personally love and would love to see done? JK: I’ve always been very interested in this story that takes place in the 1980s of Skip Hayward and the beginning of Indian Casinos and the creation of Foxwoods Casino. If I was ever going to do a drunk history, it would be about that. And I also kind of wanted to do the drunk history of Scientology, but I don’t think I have the balls.

If you could get drunk with one historical character, who would it be? DW: I wouldn’t mind Edgar Allan Poe. He’s a pretty interesting man who used to drink a lot and died in my hometown—Baltimore. I would really like to hear a drunk Poe, but it would have to be in Baltimore.

What would you drink? DW: I would ask him, but I’m going to bet he liked wine.

JK: There’s no question that Ben Franklin was the most notorious partier of the Founding Fathers. He seems like a pretty great guy to get drunk with. He was brilliant and could drink anyone under the table. And he loved wine and ladies. And farting—that’s true. ‘Fart proudly,’ is what I think he said.

Drunk History airs Tuesday evenings on Comedy Central.

No Concessions: Drunk History Creators Discuss Moving to TV & the Key to Intoxicated Storytelling