By Sara Coughlin
Photo courtesy of Arallyn!
We open on a clandestine meeting peopled by shady characters. The year? 1865. The place? Washington DC. The shady characters? John Wilkes Booth and his gang of conspirators in President Lincoln’s assassination.
It’s a truly sinister scene, save for a few details: The men at the table lack a certain amount of period-appropriate facial hair; when Booth gets upset he says things like, “What does it all mean? Slavery. I don’t even get it;” and finally, Booth bears a remarkable resemblance to Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott.
Welcome to Comedy Central’s Drunk History, the brain child of creator Derek Waters that proves just how, shall we say, intoxicating education can be.
Every episode opens with a disclaimer, which, for anyone who has seen even five minutes of the show, can verify: “All of the stories depicted in the following program are based on real events. It should be noted, however, that every storyteller you are about to see is completely drunk.”
Each half hour-long episode is divided into thirds, featuring a retelling and reenactment of a moment in (so far only) American history. The actors in each vignette speak in their respective storyteller’s slurred, booze-soaked voice, leading to scenes where presidents and generals lose their train of thought in the middle of an order, or use words like “fuck” and “whatever” probably more than was accurate to the time period.
That being said, in an interview with NPR, Waters reassured his public that the names, dates, and facts are as they would appear in any Advanced Placement US History textbook. Only when the storyteller needs to have a quick lie-down or take a trip to the bathroom do the cold, hard facts get interrupted.
While the show reenacts stories of widely known historical figures, the series also tackles the tales of lesser-known people, as if to assert that they deserve to be “icons” just as much as their storied and canonical peers. A perfect example of this is their retelling of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks. Colvin, not Parks, was, in fact, the first African American woman to sit at the front of a bus during the Civil Rights Movement.
Stories like that of Colvin, offer a fresh perspective on an era in history that most of us consider old hat and work perfectly for Drunk History’s format. After a few drinks, who wouldn’t want to have an excuse for an indignant rant about the total lack of acknowledgement of Colvin’s bravery simply because she was not the most desirable poster child for the movement?
Drunk History relishes in these particular sorts of stories, where an unknown person failed to receive credit for doing something that went on to gain icon status a little later on–when the right person did it. Before Paul Revere, our soused narrator tells us, there was Sybil Ludington, a 16-year-old girl who rode miles farther than Revere to warn her neighbors that the British were planning to attack.
Viewed in the right light, what seems like a show with a playful and unserious premise (which it still certainly is) can simultaneously act as a launchpad for countless untold stories. Very few people talk about the intricacies of the Kellogg–yes, that Kellogg–brothers’ relationship anymore, and yet it comes to life when Luke and Owen Wilson portray the quarrelsome siblings. Sample dialogue from that vignette: “I’m gonna put sugar on my shit, and sell ‘em. Fuck you.”
And what about courageous folks like Nellie Bly, one of the first investigative female journalists, and Robert Smalls, a black slave who commandeered a Confederate warship? Entire theses could be borne out of a single episode of Drunk History.
Nevertheless, Drunk History probably won’t be screened in many by-the-books history classes anytime soon. But that does not mean a show this simple in conception cannot educate. Whether they’re covering Elvis’s determined trip to the White House or Lewis and Clark’s westward expedition, there will probably be a fun fact thrown into the basic talking points that you didn’t know previously.
Case in point: the American national anthem is set to the tune of a drinking song. Truly, everything is circular.
The show wraps up its second season next month and at the very least this writer will miss regularly learning random bits of American history trivia–er, what I can remember of it, anyway.