Great Moments in TV Drinking: Drunk History

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Great Moments in TV Drinking: <i>Drunk History</i>

The year may have been miserable for most things, but television had a great 2016. Politics helped boost interest in news programming (as Trevor Noah helped Rand Paul explore Kentucky bourbon), new series like Stranger Things and Atlanta brought truly unique styles to the forefront (along with a great ad for Mickey’s), and powerhouse dramas like The Americans kept humming along. On top of it all, the reigning champ of television drinking—the beautifully simple Drunk History—ended its late-year season with its finest half-hour to date: “Sh*t Shows,” tales of history’s greatest performance fails.

Drunk History works best when pairing slightly unknown history with rambling comedians, creating the perfect forum for delightfully drunken embellishments and interjections that heighten a story’s seeming un-believability (and the after-show joy of its Wikipedia rabbit holes). So “Sh*t Shows” was not only the perfect analogous concept for a year filled with trying times, but it delivered a murder’s row of obscure history for the trio of Jenny Slate, Allan McLeod, and Bob Odenkirk(!) to play with.

Slate started with the tale of the Cherry Sisters, a kind of vintage family-style vaudeville act long before the days of the Partridge, Jackson, or even Kardashian clans. Unlike those (or 2/3s of those) groups, however, the Cherry Sisters essentially traveled the country with a stage play that your younger cousins might make up during holiday dinner. “The sisters were like, ‘We’re putting on a play with a lot of segments that are boring and will also make you feel nervous about your life,” Slate recalls. Gypsies, womanizers, and a song about corn juice (set to “Time After Time”) follow. Though world’s greatest play-it-straight guy Derek Waters seemed to enjoy the Cherry sisters’ moment of provocateur—literally rolling up their sleeves while in a bathtub on stage—the most.  

SLATE: They had to be careful. If you show your forearm to someone, then their penis goes inside of you
WATERS: Then you die.
SLATE: And then you die of being cool.

An ideal Drunk History host seemingly requires the same qualifications as a great party guest. Silly drunks willing to make noises, embrace bodily impulses, and spit absurd quotations always elevate an episode, especially when emphasized by an actor willing to ham it up as much as Jack McBrayer (30 Rock’s Kenneth). Allan McLeod, like Slate, clearly fits the bill. Along with McBrayer, he unfurls the history of the Shakespeare riots, when elite London actor William Macready hosted American Edwin Forrest, then returned the favor with New York performances of MacBeth that drew riots. A squeaky fart, a hissing crowd, and Shakespearean dialogue like “We’re here, we’re Lear, get used to it” allows Drunk History to do what it does MacBest (another McLeod-ism).

But throughout Drunk History’s history, its final key component has been subtle star power. Comedic icons like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Jason Alexander, Jack Black and more have portrayed history’s biggest players as accurately as their Drunk History retelling. The prior episode’s score of Questlove—calling Lin Manuel-Miranda to ask about being on Drunk History as the Hamilton man is being taped—seemed like it’d be the season four peak, but Waters managed to snag a tequila-sipping Bob Odenkirk to finally appear on the storytelling side of the show’s equation. He retells the story of DJ Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition promotion at the Chicago White Sox’s Comiskey Park. Fans were invited to bring vinyl to be destroyed by an explosives expert (here played by Patton Oswalt as a biker-type) during intermission of a double-header.

“It’s a f**ken disaster, sh*t’s getting unhinged,” Odenkirk says. But his performance is anything but—there’s a masterful Harry Caray impersonation, a fake disco song called “Tonight’s the Night,” and an impassioned, 2016-appropriate conclusion. “This was like a massive tweet sent out by a generation, and they said ‘We don’t like disco that much,’” Odenkirk says. It’s a sentiment he clearly shares—“This shit’s the worst” as he blurts out at one point—but luckily even with four seasons of its familiar formula, Drunk History continues to be the exact opposite.