If you’re unfamiliar with Drunk History and are wondering just what this show is all about, the phrase ”’Weird Al’ Yankovic as Adolf Hitler” oughta catch you up pretty fast.
Fans of Season 1 will appreciate that the mixology hasn’t changed much with this new batch of episodes. Creator and host Derek Waters ventures to cities across America and has inebriated comedians tells stories from the local history. The show’s interstitial segments work well as mini-travelogues, enlightening viewers to a city’s modern people and culture and breaking the limited perception they likely have based on its past. Drunk History doesn’t necessarily set out to be an educational show, but like a late-night drunk stumbling toward home, it finds its way there by accident.
While the season premiere’s storytellers are not household names, the series continues to attract top-list talent for the superbly produced re-enactments. First, comic Allan McLeod relays the tale of Percy Julian, the African-American chemist who was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. (I picked up that last part from Sober Wikipedia.) It’s much funnier than it sounds, especially with Jordan Peele in the starring role. That casting perfectly matches McLeod’s ramblings about “carBONS, hydroGONS, oxyDRONS and carbaTRONS,” any of which could easily be included with Key & Peele’s East vs. West football names. Peele also lends suitable gravitas to a serious train of thought about how the ratio of soybeans to horse dicks favors his discovery of creating steroids from plants instead of animal urine. It’s a relatively by-the-book Drunk History segment, down to the in-period portrayal of a speech stumble by the modern-day storyteller, but Peele’s presence elevates just about anything he touches, and this sketch is no different.
Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin is one of the show’s rare cheerful drunks, as opposed to the laconic, cynical approach taken by most guests. She chirpily reveals the little-known story of Claudette Colvin, a teenager in Birmingham who in 1955 refused to move from her seat on the bus, an act that later inspired the organized protest by Rosa Parks (Lisa Bonet), that made more famous civil rights history. Ruffin’s ebullient approach at first smacks of trying a little too hard, but it pays off with her very funny mix-up of “Birmingham” with “Burning Man”—which the show’s producers pay off with some well-placed visual gags—and an equally silly conclusion that involves Colvin talking directly to a coffee mug. And hey, now we know who Claudette Colvin is.
Casting is key to the tightly produced final story, with comedian Morgan Murphy talking about the historic boxing matches between Joe Louis (Terry Crews) and Max Schmeling (Tim Heidecker). Not only are Crews and Heidecker game for hamming it up a little in the boxing ring, but the cameo of “Weird Al” Yankovic as Adolf Hitler brings a buffoonery to the Fuhrer that would make Mel Brooks proud. Here, too, is where Waters’ premise depends not only on boozing up his monologists, but in finding smart comedians who can embellish their stories with colorful details. Yankovic as Hitler is funny enough, but throw in Murphy quoting him as exclaiming “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O!” and a simple “No Jews!” as he exits the room and you’ve got yourself an instant classic.
Drunk History feels like it should be a one-joke premise, and on some level it is. But Waters and his team strengthen the gimmick by heightening everything around it: The costumes, production design, cinematography are all top-notch, utilizing the increased budget for the TV series in a way that only works to serve the premise. Among the other guest stars coming up this season: Jack Black, Courteney Cox, John Lithgow, Stephen Merchant, Charlie Day, Emily Deschanel, Patton Oswalt, Retta, Johnny Knoxville and Laura Dern. For Drunk History, the future’s looking bright.