A (Drunk) People's History of the United States

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Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner know more about the effects of booze on human behavior than your average alcoholic, and probably even your average booze scientist. As the co-creators of Drunk History, the second season of which premiered on Comedy Central earlier this month, they’ve practically made an art out of facilitating and managing drunkenness. When asked about what they’ve learned not only do they barely even have to think about it, they’ve already distilled their findings into jokes and spot-on analogies. Their wisdom is unsurpassed.

“I’ve always heard that there are the ABCs of filmmaking,” says Konner, who directs and edits. “Animals, boats and children: the three things to avoid. I would add D: drunk people. I think it’s animals, boats and children combined. They’re children, they’re animals and they’re swaying back and forth.”

Waters, the show’s host and original idea man, is no less prepared to explain what he’s learned about drunken behavior: “I compare it to when you went to a concert when you were young, and you’re on your way to see your favorite band Phish. They’re about to play ‘Bouncing Around the Room’ and you throw up. Adrenaline takes away your brain’s ability to realize how much alcohol its taken in.”

It’s unclear just how specifically Waters is drawing from his own experience here, but a lab-coated alcohol researcher couldn’t have explained it any better. On Drunk History, the end goal of his and Konner’s immersion into the nuances of un-sobriety is to expose viewers to compelling stories from American history as hilariously as possible. Each story alternates between footage of the narrator slurring and sloshing their way through the tale they’ve selected, and an alternate reality where some of the biggest names in comedy dress up in period costumes and act out the stories, staying faithful to the narrator’s drunken rendition.

Talking to Waters and Konner, though, it’s clear that their own enthusiasm lies not so much in drunken shenanigans as in the stories they tell, and the fact that they’re able to tell them (and have fun doing it). They couldn’t be more grateful that the side project they took on in their spare time seven years ago when they were struggling comedy writers in Los Angeles has turned into their primary gig.

When I speak with Waters it’s a few days before the second season’s premiere. He has family coming over from his hometown of Baltimore for a watching party, and he has another analogy at the ready for how he’s feeling as the big day draws near.

“I would say peeing in my pants with a boner,” he says. “I’m excited and I’m nervous.”

Seven years earlier, he couldn’t have imagined such success would come from a ridiculous idea he had when he was, you guessed it, drunk.

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In 2007, Waters was one of countless comedic hopefuls trying to make it in Los Angeles. Originally from Baltimore, he had moved west in 2000 at the age of 20 to become an actor. “I wanted to be Chris Farley,” he says. “That’s all I wanted to be.” After landing acting roles proved difficult, he turned his focus to writing, eventually teaming up with Bob Odenkirk and Simon Helberg (who now plays Howard on The Big Bang Theory) to produce an HBO pilot called Derek & Simon, which Helberg’s friend, Konner, edited. This was right around the time the Internet was beginning to emerge as a legitimate platform for comedy, and after HBO decided not to pick up Derek & Simon, the show made it’s way online, opening Waters’ eyes to the new life a piece of comedy can take when exposed to faceless commenters ready to rip it to shreds, and to the judgement of the views counter, the online video’s sole metric of success.

The experience inspired Waters to put together a live show at the Upright Citizens Brigade called “LOL” in which he screened his friends’ comedic shorts in front of a live audience, before they were uploaded to the Internet. “I felt comedy was being judged on hits instead of content,” he says. “Things were being judged by, ‘Oh, 8 million people saw it, this must be funny.’ [“LOL”] was a place where you could show an idea that you might want to put on the Internet and see if you actually heard people laugh out loud instead of seeing friends just type “LOL.”

Then, out for drinks one night, a drunk Jake Johnson (now best known for playing Nick on New Girl) tried to convince Waters that Otis Redding knew he was going to die before he boarded the plane that would crash and end his life. It was a totally ridiculous story and Waters couldn’t help but imagine Redding acting out Johnson’s words, wondering what the hell this drunk idiot was talking about. “I was like, ‘This would be a great video for my UCB show,’” Waters remembers.

Johnson didn’t want to drunkenly narrate with the camera rolling, so Waters asked his friend Mark Gagliardi if there was a story from history he wanted to get wasted and tell. He decided on the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. With Konner on board to direct, Waters enlisted Johnson to play Burr and his friend Michael Cera to play Hamilton. Waters took on the role of Thomas Jefferson, side-eyeing the camera as a meek, white-wigged Cera mouthed out Gagliardi’s drunken dialogue before sipping a cup of tea. It was a ludicrous scene.

It’s remarkable how little has changed from this first Drunk History story to the ones that run today as part of the show’s half-hour Comedy Central incarnation: a narrator gets drunk, tells a story, and the action shifts back and forth between gussied-up actors recreating the drunk version of the story and footage of the storyteller trying to keep his or her shit together. Part of this continuity is due to Waters and Konner’s insistence that the show’s charming homemade veneer is retained despite having Comedy Central’s money at their disposal, but mostly it’s because of how simple and inherently hilarious of an idea it is. A pie in the face is just plain funny; it’s a concept that doesn’t need to be tampered with. Same goes for sloshed storytelling. It’s exactly the kind of ingenious, organic idea that could only have come to Waters while witnessing it play out in front of him, unprovoked, in this case via a friend’s impassioned belief in a psychic Otis Redding. It’s an idea that Waters or Konner never could have thought up at the desks where they’d spent years trying to piece together the right formula for a show to make it onto TV.

The short was received well at the UCB, but Waters and Konner were reluctant to put it on the online. Waters sent a DVD of the short to SNL, The Daily Show and Conan to see if they might want to develop it as a monthly sketch, but never heard back. “Nothing happened until I was going home to Baltimore for Christmas,” he says. “I was like, ‘Man, everyone’s so bored over the holidays. Maybe this video could be like, man are you seeing this?’” He uploaded it on December 23, Eddie Vedder’s birthday.

“In a week we had a million hits,” recalls Konner. At the time YouTube blanket-curated content for users instead of customizing it based on viewing patterns like the site does today. The first episode of Drunk History made it onto the front page, which helped considerably. It wasn’t straight to the top of the YouTube game, though. “We could never beat ‘Maggie Snores,’” laments Konner seven years later, days before the premiere of he and Waters’ second season on Comedy Central.

They wouldn’t have been able to make it to where they are now, though, without the big-name actors they’ve been able to bring in to don over-the-top historical garb and act out their character’s lives as told by drunk comedians. The promos featuring the likes of Jordan Peele, Johnny Knoxville, Taran Killam and others gives Waters and Konner’s drunken history lessons an air of legitimacy and provides a reason to watch for those unfamiliar with the show. And never was the star power more crucial than with the first episode, when Waters’ friend Michael Cera appeared in an 18th-century wig only months after Superbad had hit theaters. “You need a concept and you also need a reason to watch it,” says Waters. “They didn’t watch because it was a good concept, they watched it because they liked Michael.”

In 2007 Konner was Jack Black’s assistant, and after Black saw the first episode he wanted in, too. “We weren’t planning on doing a second one,” says Konner, “but when Jack saw that he was like, ‘I want to do one of those.’” A few months later Black was discovering electricity as Benjamin Franklin in an episode punctuated by drunk narrator Eric Falconer taking a bathroom break to throw up.

The cameos snowballed from there, with the star power peaking in the fifth episode when Will Ferrell, Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel reenacted a story about the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. That episode was part of Funny of Die’s HBO series, and even went on to win the Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. “It sounds pretty cool until you’re standing next to a woman that’s in the same competition as you and she did dying kids in Cambodia,” says Waters.

Though nothing about “Drunk History” approached the urgency of dying children in Africa, it was beginning to serve a unique educational purpose for something that relied so heavily on slurred words and hiccups. Konner noticed the opportunity for the show’s historical element to have a real impact during the third episode, which featured Danny McBride as a slave-owning George Washington.

“The turning point for me was when we did the third episode,” he remembers. “Jen Kirkman was narrating the story of Oney Judge. That was the first one that was a genuinely moving story, about a slave trying to run away from the Washingtons, and Washington was the villain. All of a sudden we got really excited. Not that we decided to change our agenda, but we realized that those were the stories we got most excited about, stories that you never heard, stories that you felt like weren’t talked about.”

Like the idea itself, Waters and Konner’s crusade to uncover the stories that history has swept under the rug came about organically, and just as the star power of Michael Cera served as an entry point that allowed fans to discover the show’s hilarious premise, the hilarious premise itself has served as an unlikely entry point into another side of U.S. history that might not be in textbooks, but that is just as vital if we’re to truly understand America.

The first episode of the second season on Comedy Central, “Mongomery,” features the story of Claudette Colvin, a young black woman who was the first person arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white woman. In the wake of the arrest, the NAACP decided to start a bus boycott, but felt that Colvin’s skin was too dark and that she was too young to be the face of the movement. But the older, lighter-skinned secretary of the NAACP, Rosa Parks, would do just fine. Parks stepped up and made a demonstration of not giving up her bus seat, and the rest, as they say, is history. Colvin was mostly forgotten, of course, and her story makes viewers realize just how carefully our understanding of our own history has been orchestrated by the powers that be. And by the way, this is dawning on us by way of an impassioned, vodka-ed up Amber Ruffin who can’t keep from cursing or burping as she tells Colvin’s tale.

But Waters and Konner aren’t taking some moral stance against the way history has been taught in school. They aren’t trying to send any sort of political message or, as Waters says, “Michael Moore it.” What gets Waters and Konner most excited, and all they’re trying to do with Drunk History, is tell amazing stories.

“I always want to do projects that are like, ‘This is a story. This is what happened. It’s up to you how you want to take it,’” says Waters. Both he and Konner talk excitedly about the stories they’re able to tell as if they’ve stumbled upon some sort of gold mine in plain sight, in disbelief that so much has happened that we’re essentially unaware of. As we discuss an upcoming episode about William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles’ battle over Citizen Kane, Konner likens the areas of history they tend to mine to the types of stories that turn into Oscar-winning films. “We’re just doing five-minute shorts,” he says. “But some of these stories are really outstanding.”

Figuring out the most effective way to present these stories has been a long process for Waters and Konner, but after years of attending to Drunk History as a fun side-project, the need to hone their focus was accelerated when the show was picked up by Comedy Central. The decision to shift their focus to making Drunk History into a viable career endeavor was one that Waters notes came out “being broke” and not finding the type of success they were looking for with their various other projects. Konner was in a similar situation to Waters when they decided to make a move.

“We had a lot of projects that had legs and had heat and things were happening, but nothing was happening happening,” he remembers. “I was like ‘Dude, maybe we should just go try and sell it. We don’t necessarily need to know exactly what the idea is. Let’s just walk in and go hey, we would like to develop Drunk History as a show and see what happens.’”

After getting backing from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, Comedy Central came on board, as well. The process unfolded in a much smoother fashion for Waters and Konner than it does for most writers trying to sell TV shows, partially because of the unique idea and partially because that unique idea is something the duo had already been fine-tuning for several years. It wasn’t so much an idea they were pitching, it was a finished product.

The only thing that changed when Drunk History was expanded to fill 30 minutes on air time was Waters role as host growing to include on-location interstitial “Love Letters” to each city they spotlighted in an effort to add color and give a sense of the actual drunk people that the history they’re about to recount has yielded, however circuitously.

But that isn’t to say there haven’t been lessons to learn as far as mitigating the less-desirable side effects of drunkenness during shoots. From the first YouTube episode, to the Funny or Die episodes, to the first Comedy Central season, to the current second season they’ve figured out plenty. Dealing with something as volatile as drunkenness, the learning process never ends. They now know to tell their narrators to only get slightly buzzed before they come over to shoot. They know to make sure the subject runs through the entire story one time while still relatively sober in case things get out of hand. They know that Waters needs to be hearing the story for the first time because of the passion a drunk person exudes when they know they’re the story their telling is a new one to the listener. They know Waters needs to be drinking as well, lest the subject become insecure as the only non-sober person in a room full of cameras. The list goes on. Waters and Konner even have a medic with them at all the shoots should someone over medicate, but according to Konner the only time that service have been required was when Waters burned his hands on the top of a barbecue pit at Allan McLeod’s house.

Waters and Konner have gotten seven years of mileage out of a relatively simple idea, and despite the fact that they’re constantly learning new ways to make the process easier and the product better, there’s only so far Drunk History can go. Naturally, then, keeping the show fresh is a constant challenge. This season they’ve added themed episodes such as “Sports Heroes” and “American Music” to the usual slate of city-based episodes, but for Konner keeping things interesting comes down to two things.

“The two things that keep it fresh are when a drunk person is drunk in a way you haven’t really seen,” he says. “For example if they have the hiccups or something. It’s a unique way to tell the story. And then making sure the stories are just crazy good.”

A funny drunk and a good story never gets old.

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The fourth episode of the second season focuses on Baltimore, Waters’ hometown. It goes with out saying that it’s a significant episode for the show’s creator, as he was able to return home to his native Baltimore for the “Love Letter.” He’s greeted with high fives and cheers and pats on the back as he enters Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, where he meets old friends and raises more than a few glasses. It’s a touching homecoming.

In between shots panning shots of the city, Waters asks a man wearing a blazer about Baltimore. “It’s like an old comfortable shoe,” the man says as more images of the city are shown. “It’s a little scuffed up around the edges, but don’t polish that, because the scuff has a story.” They raise a glass to their hometown.

That man was not an ordinary bar patron, but Waters’ high-school history teacher. “He was an inspiration in life,” says Waters. “He was everyone’s favorite teacher. He will always be my favorite teacher. That old saying, ‘It’s not what you say but how you say it.’ That’s what I liked about him as a teacher. I humbly say that what I like about our show is that it’s a comedy show, but it’s secretly trying as hard as it can to be a history show. These stories are true. We’re not trying to change the world, but there are stories where I’m just like, ‘Why are we not aware of that?’”

The Drunk History origin story told most often is the one about the epiphany Waters had while listening to a drunk Jake Johnson talk about Otis Redding, but as the years have passed and the show has become the focal point of his career, it’s clear that what has sustained Waters’ faith in the series is its ability to tell stories, to make history fun, which, ironically, is a value he learned in the classroom.

“If you can make someone laugh,” Waters says, “you can make them listen.”

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