Before season 5 makes history drunk again, revisit the 5 best episodes of ‘Drunk History’ so far.
Disclaimer: in the spirit of Drunk History, I am writing this article with a glass of absinthe.
In chapter three of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, after growing to nine feet tall, crying and then shrinking again only to find herself in a sea of her own tears, Alice finally comes ashore with a strange assembly of birds and animals. As they’re wondering how to get dry again, the Mouse begins reciting the history of William the Conqueror, the driest thing he knows.
History has a bad reputation as a dry subject, full of dates and names to memorize. Despite being a good student, I personally hated history for most of my school years, at least as it was presented in class. Even Derek Waters, creator and host of Drunk History, says, “History is pretty boring.” If only my teachers had downed a few cocktails before giving their lectures, I may have enjoyed it more!
Drunk History features lively — and inebriated — historical retellings with reenactments set to the slurred speech of the show’s “historians.” To make things even more fun, the reenactments feature cameos (such as Billie Joe Armstrong from the band Green Day as Charlie Chaplin), with the guest stars lip-syncing the often ridiculous dialogue provided by the Drunk historians.
Stories are punctuated by swearing, unintelligible speech, belching, hiccupping and vomiting (especially in the web series). Historians — along with host Derek Waters — get extremely intoxicated with breathalyzer-wielding nurses on hand to make sure things don’t get out of control. Then, armed with hours of drunken footage, an army of sober editors and fact-checkers put together a surprisingly accurate historical reenactment for your viewing pleasure.
The show is hilarious. And it also happens to be pretty educational, at least in a broad sense. The quotations can get…a little fuzzy. In an interview with NPR, Derek Waters posits that the show’s accuracy rate is “92 percent.” He says that “every date is accurate” but admits that, as viewers know, “the dialogue is the stuff that’s not accurate.” Websites like SBS have even fact-checked episodes, which isn’t necessary since the show’s research department hires a team of UCLA PhD history students to ensure the facts are as accurate as possible.
Now hugely popular and heading into its fifth season, Drunk History, which focuses primarily on American history, has spawned several international versions, airing in the UK, Brazil, Hungary and Latin America. Before the fifth season begins January 23, let’s review five of the best episodes so far.
5. The Original Web Series
OK, so this isn’t a proper episode of Drunk History, but any fan of the show, and anyone new to the format, should check out the original web series on Funny or Die. Beginning in 2007, the show didn’t remain a web series for long before being picked up by Comedy Central. (It helped that Derek Waters got his friend Michael Cera to star in the first episode and that the web series also starred other known actors such as Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Danny McBride.)
The original web series is cruder and lower budget than its Comedy Central counterpart, but the brilliant concept of acting out the ramblings of a drunkard is evident in the first episode. Each episode of the web series is under 10 minutes, unlike the Comedy Central version, which strings together three related stories to fit the 30-minute television format.
4. ‘American Music’
Most episodes of Drunk History focus on an American city, probably because the program’s original concept was a reality show in which host Derek Waters would travel the country, learning about local history from local drunks. But some episodes focus on a theme, such as great escapes, inventors or American music.
The episode on American music examines the birth of rock and roll, Kris Kristofferson, and “Rapper’s Delight,” which arguably marked the beginning of hip-hop. Jack McBrayer and Jaleel White (aka Steve Urkel) make guest appearances, and Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame portrays Johnny Cash opposite Jon Daly’s Kris Kristofferson.
Examining the making of Citizen Kane, the surprising creation of Mickey Mouse, and Ronald Reagan’s transition from liberal actor to conservative politician, this episode features several inspired performances by John Lithgow as William Randolph Hearst, Nick Kroll as Ronald Reagan, and Jack Black as Orson Welles.
The episode begins as host Derek Waters meets with historian Steve Berg, who asks, “How many beers will we have?” Waters answers, “As many as it takes to tell a good story.” And with these words, the show’s mission statement is made clear: by focusing on the “story” in “history,” Drunk History makes a normally bland subject much more palatable.
This episode tells the story of Claudette Colvin, a Black woman who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama — nine months before Rosa Parks (played by Lisa Bonet) did the same. It also touches upon chemist Percy Lavon Julian and the fight between Joe Louis (a boxer from the United States) and Max Schmeling (a boxer from Nazi Germany). Highlights include Jordan Peele as Percy Lavon Julian, Terry Crews as Joe Louis, Tim Heidecker as Max Schmeling, and “Weird Al” Yankovic as Adolf Hitler.
Most episodes of Drunk History feature three wasted historians, each delivering a 10-minute story about a particular historical figure or event, linked by a city or theme. “Hamilton” is the only exception to this rule so far, which makes sense when you consider that the drunk historian speaking about Alexander Hamilton’s life is Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the groundbreaking Broadway smash hit Hamilton and the most recognizable face in American theater.
The episode has cameos by Aubrey Plaza as Aaron Burr, Dave Grohl as Hamilton’s opponent, and David Wain as Thomas Jefferson, as well as a special appearance by Questlove. It also features, according to an article on the website Playbill, 26 F-bombs being dropped by playwright, composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, two Grammys, an Emmy and the MacArthur Genius Grant. Fun times!
If you are a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton, you will absolutely love watching him get drunk with Derek Waters and enthusiastically recount tales from Hamilton’s life. From his first slurred words, “Our story begins in the exotic Caribbean” with Alexander Hamilton’s “hellish, Dickensian childhood,” the viewer is in for a rare treat. And by the time he mentions Hamilton’s “political genius or f—k-you-itiveness,” the episode’s legendary status is secure for all time.
My personal favorite moment comes when Lin-Manuel Miranda, like many musicians who are three sheets to the wind, finds himself at his piano, banging out chords while he and an equally drunk Derek Waters sing at the top of their lungs Semisonic’s 1998 hit “Closing Time.” It’s a completely irreverent moment that exemplifies everything awesome about Drunk History.
History was my least favorite subject until one of my high school teachers gave me a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Only then did I realize that history is a story that can be told many different ways, often more compellingly than it is depicted in mainstream textbooks and AP test preparation materials. Add a bottle of whiskey, and magical things can happen.
Here’s to Drunk History for making these important stories accessible to all. Cheers!
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