‘Drunk History’ Bends History in All the Right Directions

The sixth season, premiering January 15, brings a new crop of historical tales to television

Seth Rogen playing Dr. Frankenstein in the upcoming sixth season of "Drunk History" (Comedy Central)
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Actress and writer Amber Ruffin has only just begun telling the story of future Civil Rights activist Claudette Colvin, and she’s already in trouble. She can’t seem to get the word bespectacled out of her mouth. “Claudette Colvin is a 15-year-old bespectalcaled teenager … uh-oh … It’s a hard word.” She pushes through her slurring speech to pronounce each syllable precisely, the way one often does when trying to prove one isn’t that drunk: be-spec-ta-cled. As she continues to narrate on camera, clearly inebriated, she’s intercut with reenactors portraying Claudette and her friends as they get on the bus after school one day in 1955. And in Ruffin’s telling, “Her friends are like, ‘Hurray, we’re having a nice trip to … home.’”

It hasn’t been easy for Ruffin so far, but then the problems start to escalate for Claudette in the story as well: A white woman questions the black teens’ seating near the front of the bus. Claudette’s friends scatter to the back of the bus, but, Ruffin says, “Claudette stays and is like, ‘You know what? I paid my fare the same as this white lady paid her fare.’ So Claudette’s like, ‘F--- you I’m f---ing sitting. Have a seat!’”

After the police drag Claudette away and word gets out, the NAACP is flooded with letters praising the young woman. Activist Rosa Parks reads some of the letters, and a historic idea is born: What if Rosa Parks, an older, more sympathetic figure, were to do the same thing, as if it were a spontaneous decision after a long day’s work? She does, and, Ruffin says, “then white people were like, ‘Oh, she’s just tired. We’re eating this up!’” The Montgomery Bus Boycott makes history.

The story is among the many surprising historic tidbits unearthed and retold by charmingly inebriated guests on the previous five seasons of “Drunk History,” the Comedy Central show whose sixth season premieres January 15. The show features guests, often celebrities, telling historical tales while drinking with host Derek Waters and a cast re-enacting the stories as they’re told, lip-synching to the narration. It has gone from web series to a highlight of the cable network’s lineup, attracting high-profile storytellers and re-enactors such as Lisa Bonet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jack Black, Terry Crews and Winona Ryder. And because of its emphasis on little-known stories, it has become a repository of great roles for women, people of color, and disabled people—those who have battled the toughest odds, often without getting the credit. Hence stories like Claudette Colvin’s, a favorite of Waters’s from the second season: “There are so many inspiring people we just never heard about,” says Waters, who co-created and executive produces the series with director Jeremy Konner. “It gives me chills just thinking about it.”

Waters first got the idea for “Drunk History” when his friend “New Girl” actor Jake Johnson drunkenly tried to tell him a story about Otis Redding’s 1967 plane crash death. When Waters told another actor friend, Michael Cera of “Arrested Development” fame, about it, they decided to shoot an episode with Cera playing Alexander Hamilton in a retelling of his fatal duel with Aaron Burr (this was, it should be noted, eight years before Hamilton’s Off-Broadway debut). The clip blew up online with the help of Cera’s star power, on the rise in 2007 thanks to Superbad and Juno; it’s gotten more than 7.5 million views on YouTube to date.

Waters and Konner produced several subsequent episodes for comedy website Funny or Die, where it became a hit, and Comedy Central picked it up for television in 2013. Comedy Central is keeping many details of the upcoming season under wraps, but it has announced that the first episode will feature a story about writer Mary Shelley (played by Evan Rachel Wood), with Seth Rogen as Frankenstein, Will Ferrell as Frankenstein’s monster, and Elijah Wood as Shelley’s husband, poet Percy Shelley. Waters remains shocked that his simple idea has risen to such starry heights. “I never expected it to go on this long,” he says. “I thought it would be a little video I was showing at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. I never thought I would have an office floor and six seasons of this.”

Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton and Tony Hale as James Madison in Season 4 of "Drunk History" (Comedy Central)

The vicarious drunkenness might get curious viewers to tune in, but there’s another secret to the show’s longevity: It features juicy and diverse roles, and also often colorblind and gender-blind casting. J.T. Palmer, a black actor in “Drunk History”’s core ensemble, played Adolf Hitler in one segment; in Miranda’s segment about a lesser-known chapter in Hamilton history, actresses Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza play Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, respectively.

Even without this sort of innovative casting, “Drunk History” has largely depended on stories buried by white-man-centric history, such as the tale of Frank Emi, who led fellow prisoners in a draft resistance movement in U.S. Japanese internment camps during World War II; and the backstory on Chinese-American architect Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., while still an undergrad at Yale. That means historically marginalized people are the show’s go-to protagonists. “We keep finding over and over that those stories are better stories,” Konner says. “And this is where I go: Hollywood, take note. If you want good underdog stories, look to the people who have fought the hardest and had the most to lose.”

The bench mark is high for “Drunk History” stories: “One of the standards we try to hit is: Would this be an Oscar-worthy movie?” Konner says. And the segments are produced through a rigorous process. Konner and Waters, along with a staff of researchers, take pitches for stories from each other, cast members and colleagues. They must find a clear protagonist for each piece to avoid what they see as a key mistake in many historical texts: recapping an event instead of telling a good story. “It’s the biggest thing that’s missing from a lot of history, which is the realization that these people are humans and flawed and real,” Konner says. “There’s no reason it should feel dry because there are always incredible people fighting against the odds to change the world.”

From there, the staff researches the subject and shapes the story points, summarizing their findings in research packets. Konner and Waters then match the stories with storytellers, usually comedians and actors, who serve as the show’s major satirical piece, sending up the staid historian talking heads in traditional documentaries. The storytellers go over the packets on their own (while sober, presumably) to learn the key points. Ruffin, for instance, likes to memorize the important parts, then recount it to Waters and Konner via phone to check her recall. After taking a few notes from them, she’s ready for her drunken showtime.

Ruffin, who’s also a writer at “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” is dedicated to drinking with impunity once she’s in front of the camera—a major part of the show’s basic appeal, for better or worse. (Don’t worry, they have a nurse on site in case of real trouble.) Waters walks guests through the actual telling, drinking along with them but remaining sober enough to coach them toward corrections in dates and names. “The good news is that God made me look and sound drunk,” he says. “I’m also a big fan of sipping and nodding.”

Ruffin says Waters’s technique is key to the show’s success: “He’s the only human being who could do this. He’s so unflappable. I can’t imagine what he might look like upset. He’s the perfect person to drink with, cameras or not.” Because of that, she feels comfortable “going hard.” And whenever she sees the final product, “I’m always like, ‘I don’t know her! I don’t act like that!’” she says. “It’s your story and your voice, but it’s drunk drunk voice. It’s always news to me.”

As for the show’s future, Konner hopes to continue to push into uncharted territory like they did in the fifth season with a segment about the 1977 sit-ins protesting the lack of regulations providing equal access to federal programs and buildings for the disabled. The collective action resulted in the first significant disability rights legislation until the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The episode featured comedian Suzi Barrett telling the story and disabled actors playing the activists—a striking sight when so many disabled characters are played by big-name, able-bodied actors in movies. “I don’t think we would have had the guts to tell that story, or even know how to tell it, our first season,” Konner says.

Konner’s mother has been in a wheelchair since he was 7, and when a friend of hers pitched the idea to him, he decided to go for it. “It was so scary at first,” he says. “We thought, ‘Are we going to be able to do this respectfully and cast all people with disabilities?’ But it turned out it was not hard. Again, Hollywood, take note.”

Of course, even with the care and work “Drunk History” producers and researchers put into the process, the stories—by design—aren’t told with pinpoint accuracy. The dialogue is (quite obviously) presented in the modern, drunken narrator’s voice. Characters in the re-enactments have been known to take out cell phones in 19th-century New Jersey or witness a car driving by in 17th-century Boston. The show ultimately serves to draw attention to unknown tales and encourage viewers to learn more about the ones that intrigue them, not provide detailed, accurate, or groundbreaking scholarship. As public historian Callison Stratton wrote in an academic paper about "Drunk History": “In their state of lowered inhibitions, the narrators present a story that is influenced more by their own emotional connection to it than is tethered to a desire to tell the ‘truth.’ Rather, their obligation is to their own truth, their own uncensored perceptions of how events in the past transpired.”

And one can imagine someone, somewhere, far into the future, getting tipsy and telling the story of how “Drunk History” changed television history in its own way.

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