Focusing an episode on the Aloha state could easily—and understandably—have been an excuse for Derek Waters to spend a week working on his tan. But “Hawaii” turns out to be one of the series’ most ambitious outings yet, with the setting giving each scene a lush and vibrant landscape that provides a refreshing pop of color against the standard sepia tone of most weeks. Visual strengths aside, “Hawaii” also tells three well-paced, interesting stories from a place whose history remains unfamiliar to most Americans.
Starting with the “discovery” of the Hawaiian Islands by British Captain James Cook, comedian and Hawaii native Jonah Ray (here crediting himself with his full name, Jonah Ray Rodrigues) gives an energetic charm to his storytelling. When Waters asks him to drink another shot, a skeptical Ray jokes, “I’ve seen the show, I know how it works.” And indeed he does, giving the scene all the prerequisites for success: goofy dialogue, attempted accents and a quick improvisation when a present-day train horn interrupts the history. He portrays Cook as a cocksure, oblivious jackass, and who better to cast in that role than Ken Marino? Marino milks every smug expression in his repertoire and even throws in a couple of silent physical gags to really drive the character home.
You know a segment’s probably going to be good when the storyteller is already so drunk at the beginning he can hardly pour the tequila into the glass, and Phil Hendrie doesn’t disappoint. The radio host and voiceover artist has the perfect deep tenor to lend appropriate weight to the story of Daniel Inouye, the nation’s first Japanese-American representative and senator—and, oh yeah, TOTAL FUCKING WAR HERO. The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, at home running through fields fighting attackers, re-enacts Inouye’s courageous, literally single-handed assault on enemy machine gun nests during World War II, during which he lost his arm and pulled a grenade out of that shot-off hand to continue his advance.
On the surface, not exactly the funniest story, right? But Hendrie balances the genuine awe for Inouye’s bravery with a hilarious portrayal of his matter-of-fact return from battle and incredulous response to the racism he still faced back home. And Yeun has just the right mix of give-it-all scrappiness and expert comic timing to rise to the challenge of balancing those competing tones throughout the scene. Just a solid segment all the way through, arguably one of the series’ best.
Kurt Braunohler rounds out the pack with what’s ostensibly a much lighter story, about Hawaiian surf legend Eddie Aikau (Jason Mantzoukas). Braunhohler asks if he’s just the right amount of drunk, and whatever his threshold is, he comes across as a particularly entertaining level of drunk. He’s self-aware enough to know both what the story needs to be funny—a horrible Australian accent chief among them—and exactly how much schtick to add to the on-camera segments, such as when he wipes away sweat with a towel featuring a life-size image of his own face. On the surface it could seem like Braunohler is focusing attention away from Aikau and onto himself, but his story conveys a sincere admiration for Aikau’s selfless dedication to his home state and its people, even appearing to tear up when talking about Aikau’s disappearance at sea while trying to get help for his stranded shipmates.
Again, it’s a semi-serious story that, at some points, may make you question whether you’re still watching Comedy Central, but it’s that type of earnestness that gives Drunk History its staying power. I sincerely wonder how many high school kids out there are learning about unsung American heroes (I know I am) and getting a few more questions right on their history tests, telling their friends, “I saw it on Drunk History.” So you go get yourself another mojito and slice of pineapple, Derek Waters. You’ve earned it.