Although it may seem like Derek Waters has a pretty safe gimmick on his hands—get laughs from drunk people—the elements that comprise an episode of Drunk History are actually very high-risk. The historical topics must be appropriately balanced between familiar and surprising, the guest actors are stripped of their most powerful tools—voice and inflection—and Waters has little to no control over the show’s most critical element: what each storyteller is going to say.
“American Music” gets mixed results on each of these fronts. The episode puts its strongest segment up front, with David Wain describing the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as a form of pop music. Starring as radio DJ Alan Freed, Jack McBrayer still effectively manages to play over the top, even minus the sound of his trademark Southern twang. But it’s Wain who makes the bit sing, using his drunkenness to embellish the story with terrible impressions of the Beatles and silly descriptive flourishes that serve at least to crack himself up. (“I’m talking about Mr. New, Mr. York, and hello, City.”)
Less successful is Eric Edelstein’s recounting of how Kris Kristofferson got his start, abandoning a career in the military to pursue country music. Aside from the fun casting choices of Jon Daly as Kristofferson and Johnny Knoxville as Johnny Cash, the segment suffers primarily from a lack of interesting visuals. It’s hard for the performers to milk too many laughs from standing in a recording studio or singing onstage, though the image of a toy helicopter landing in Cash’s yard does inspire a chuckle.
Clever casting also drives the closing segment, about the creation of the Sugarhill Gang as told by Colton Dunn. Retta, as producer Sylvia Robinson, plays up the big-eyed, bad-ass persona that makes her so potent on Parks and Recreation. The story itself goes a little long, though it’s boosted along the way by appearances from Ron Funches, Da’Vone McDonald and a cameo by Jaleel White. But like other segments this season, it ultimately lands more on amusing than laugh-out-loud funny.
With all of Drunk History’s buzz-worthy stunt casting, it’s worth noting the strength and consistency of Waters himself. As host/interviewer, he knows how to walk the line between straight man and self-deprecating participant, and as a performer, he adds subtle support to every scene he’s in. Like any show rooted in improvisation, Drunk History can’t be expected to hit the mark every time. But it’s worth the wait when it does, and kudos to Waters for continuing to take the shots.