Arts + Life
7:53 am
Wed July 2, 2014

'Drunk History' Serves An Educational Cocktail, With Comedic Twist

The second season of TV's Drunk History starts this week. In it, people recount genuine historical events while sloshed, and actors dressed up in period clothing re-enact the drunk person's story. Here's a taste:

The show started as a Funny or Die Web series and is now on Comedy Central. Its creator, Derek Waters, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep about the show's accuracy, teaching history through humor and at what point during filming he switches to iced tea.


Interview Highlights

On the reasoning behind the show

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but overall, history's pretty boring. But history is very important. I grew up with the best history teacher ... who's still teaching history, and the reason why I liked history was — it was how he taught it. And I believe if you can make someone laugh, you can secretly make them learn something.

On the show's enthusiastic storytellers

They love [the story] and they need to get it out, no matter how many stumbles it takes.

On how he prepares storytellers, apart from pouring them a drink

They read up on it [while sober] but I never want it to be rehearsed or feel like homework. I want it to feel like they're finally getting to tell this story they've always wanted to tell. ... Learn this, then drink to forget. But try to remember when you were sober and you were excited to hear the story.

On whether he drinks with storytellers while filming

I drink with them. And that is letting them know we're doing this together. It makes the subject feel more comfortable. And who would want to do this show if you just had a camera in their face and you said, "Yeah, drink! Drink! Talk about history. Drink! Drink! Talk about history." So it's like, "Hey, I'm gonna have a drink with you," and secretly, once they get to a certain stage, I do the old iced tea switch.

On how accurate the show's historical renditions are

I would say 92 percent. Every date is accurate. I'll make sure to go back and say: Make sure you say this date or this person's name. I don't want to mess up anyone's names. But obviously the dialogue is the stuff that is not accurate.

On whether making a Drunk History episode has ever gotten him so interested in a topic that he went out and got a book about it

Yes. Claudette Colvin, who's in our premier episode, who did what Rosa Parks did months before Rosa Parks, but we've never heard about her. She was a 15-year-old girl who refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested and the NAACP got her out of jail. But she was pregnant out of wedlock and she was darker-skinned and they did not think that she would be a good role model. So it's [not] like, "Oh, forget about Rosa Parks"; it's more, "God bless Rosa Parks, but let's embrace where this idea came from." And, not to be preachy, but to remind people everyone has a voice even if you're 15 years old. And voice doesn't mean tweeting; voice means making a change.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Independence Day comes this week and so does the second season of "Drunk History."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DRUNK HISTORY")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 1: Today we are going to talk about Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the American national anthem - the Star-Spangled Banner.

MONTAGNE: That pretty much tells you what "Drunk History" is - a Comedy Central program in which people recount and reenact genuine history after a drink or two or three or four. It started as a web series on funnyordie.com and is now in its second season as a TV show. The show's creator spoke with our Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He's Derek Waters of Baltimore, Maryland. He's on the line. Welcome to the program.

DEREK WATERS: Thank you Steve. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So why do history this way?

WATERS: Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, overall, history is pretty boring. But history is very important - I grew up with the best history teacher, Mr. Stang (ph) who's still teaching history, and the reason why I liked history was - it was how he taught it. And I believe if you can make someone laugh, you can secretly make them learn something.

INSKEEP: And I suppose the storyteller is always, shall we say, enthused about the tale that they're recounting.

WATERS: They love it, and they need to get it out.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 2: Under the control of vice admirable - vice admirable - Sorry - admiral - let's back up - Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane.

INSKEEP: (Laughing).

WATERS: No matter how many stumbles it takes.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) Now, we heard a clip from the upcoming season. There is an episode centering on your hometown of Baltimore. And of course, there's a story of Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key, as many people will know, went out during the War of 1812 to secure the release of a prisoner. He was held on a British ship as they were bombarding Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and - Well, let's just listen to how your narrator tells the rest of the story.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 3: Eventually Skinner and Beanes wake up and they're just like, is the flag still there? And Key's watching, and the dawn's light breaks. And all of a sudden Key sees this giant, humongous American flag, and Key is like, yeah it's still there. It's way [bleep] there.

INSKEEP: (Laughing).

WATERS: That's what he said. That's his - that's actual dialogue from Francis Scott Key.

INSKEEP: (Laughing).

WATERS: But what is interesting, I found researching this story, is that how anti-war Francis Scott Key was - that he was only wanting to save his friend, Dr. Beanes.

INSKEEP: Oh, the man that he went out to recover from British custody.

WATERS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Well, now, you mentioned researching the story, and that raises another question that was on my mind. How do you prepare your subjects other than pouring them a drink?

WATERS: They read up on it, but I never want it to be rehearsed or feel like homework. I want it to feel like they're finally getting to tell this story they've always wanted to tell.

INSKEEP: So the method is read up on this while sober and then recount whatever is in your head while drunk.

WATERS: Learn this, then drink to forget.

INSKEEP: (Laughing).

WATERS: But try to remember when you are sober and you were excited to hear the story.

INSKEEP: So I want to mention for people who have not seen the program that you have actors put on costumes of whatever period and reenact the story that the drunk person is telling. And there's a detail in this Francis Scott Key thing I want to ask you about because the intoxicated person says Francis Scott Key writes this poem. He's very excited and, so he calls up somebody about it. That's the phrase that is used.

WATERS: That he calls his brother-in-law - yeah.

INSKEEP: And so you have the guy in 1814-costume pick up his iPhone and, of course, make a call - just literally reenact whatever the person says.

WATERS: Right, exactly. They are the Geppetto to the Pinocchio, you know what I mean?

INSKEEP: This leads to a couple of questions, one of which is, simply, how accurate, ultimately, are the renditions you come up with?

WATERS: I would say 92 percent. Every date is accurate. I'll make sure to go back and say, make sure you say this date or this person's name. I don't want to mess up anyone's names. But, obviously, the dialogue is the stuff that is not accurate.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 4: Francis Scott Key goes to President James Madison, who was the president at the time. He says, listen, the honorable Dr. Beanes has been kidnapped. President James Madison is like - it's like a terrible, like, yeah, obviously - you've got to do something about this.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) Now, when you have done one of these "Drunk History" episodes, has it ever caused you to get so interested in the topic that you go out and find a book about it?

WATERS: Yes. Claudette Colvin who is in our - our premiere episode, who did what Rosa Parks did months before Rosa Parks - but we've never heard about her. She was a 15-year-old girl who refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested, and the NAACP got her out of jail. But she was pregnant out of wedlock, and she was darker skinned, and they did not think that she would be a good role model. So it's not unlike, oh, forget about Rosa Parks. It's a more - let's, you know, God bless Rosa Parks, but let's embrace where this idea came from - and not to be preachy, but to remind people everyone has a voice, even if you're 15-years-old, and voice doesn't mean tweeting. Voice means making a change.

INSKEEP: Well, that's a great story. Now, conversely, have there been episodes of "Drunk History" that, as you've learned about the history, you've actually just wanted to get drunk?

WATERS: Well, I drink with them, and that is letting them know we're doing this together. It makes the subject feel more comfortable. And who would want to do the show if you just had a camera in their face and you said, yeah - drink. Drink. Talk about history. Drink. Drink. Talk about history - So it's like hey, we're - I'm going to have a drink with you. And secretly, once they get to a certain stage, I do the old iced tea switch.

INSKEEP: Derek Waters is the creator of "Drunk History," which is on Comedy - Comedy hentral? - let's take that again.

WATERS: You can say Comedy hentral. That's like the drunk version of - how you would say it.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) All right. Derek Waters is the creator of "Drunk History" on Comedy Central. Thanks very much.

WATERS: Thank you Steve.

INSKEEP: Cheers.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 5: So they distributed this song to everybody, and people in the town would be kind of like, oh say can you see - I get this. I dig it. This - this will work.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.