Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Joys of "Drunk History"

It's taken me a little while to warm up to "Drunk History," which originated as a series of Funny or Die shorts and is currently in its second season on Comedy Central. In the first year, each episode told three stories from a particular city or region. The second has expanded to particular topics like First Ladies and sports heroes. I liked the sound of the premise and the promos at first. Inebriated "storytellers" - no credentials are offered, so they could be paid actors for all I know - are recruited to tell the stories of famous figures or events from America's past. Their drunken ramblings are paired with with historical recreations acted out by haphazardly cast comedians in period dress. However, the first episode rubbed me the wrong way. The poor man trying to recount the particulars of the Watergate scandal was so drunk, I was more worried for him than amused. Also, as a lifelong nerd, I was actually interested in the stories that were being relayed, and found that the drunkenness was getting in the way of the storytelling, which was very annoying.

Subsequent episodes, however, have won me over. Though I still don't find the drunken narrators as funny as other people do, I love the way that the reenactments are staged, with the actors lip-synching the modern, off-the-cuff dialogue and all the little ways that the show finds to send up the talking-head documentary format we usually see in history-themed programming. History has always been associated with pompous ivory tower academia to some extent, and thus often viewed as unapproachable by the common man. The introduction of alcohol cuts out all the pretension immediately, but not the passion of the storytellers who are eager to tell us about the wackier exploits of Abraham Lincoln or Billy the Kid. And I love the way that Great Moments From History have essentially been reframed as drinking anecdotes, bringing untouchable icons back down to a human level. Drinking to excess can be dangerous and morally murky territory, but we could all use the reminder that quite a bit of early American History took place in and around taverns and bars.

Pains have been taken to ensure the drinking is less of an impediment, too. The featured stories tend to be a little off-color, and often they're obscure tales that don't usually come up in schoolbooks. The showrunners seem to have quickly figured out that their narrators can't be so drunk that they're incoherent and unable to finish the stories. Interruptions and mixed up words come up regularly, but you rarely see them impact the storytelling. I've even noticed a couple of instances where the narration over the reenactments sobers up a bit for the endings, possibly thanks to some good editing. This was particularly evident in the Hawaii episode, where a pair of less well-known heroic figures were spotlighted in their own segments, who the show clearly wanted to do right by. The show has gotten downright informative, though I'd hesitate to call it educational considering how incomplete and chaotic a lot of the stories are.

The reenactments are far and away the best part of the show. Where else could you have Stephen Merchant as Abraham Lincoln or Kevin Nealon as a Grand Dragon of the KKK? And we must have more Jack Black, who has played Elvis and Orson Welles so far with glorious abandon. It's a shame that the majority of the time the actors don't actually get to speak any of their dialogue, but the pantomime is more than enough to get laughs. The production values are self-consciously a little rough - fake facial hair quality varies greatly from segment to segment - but they're just good enough that you can treat them as legitimate reenactments. Some have been so well produced that I legitimately got wrapped up in the story and forgot that I was watching "Drunk History" instead of an actual historical program. Well, until we cut back to a plastered historian anyway.

I hope that "Drunk History" goes on for a long time, because there's certainly no shortage of history for them to retell. And I hope that they expand their horizons, so we can get some international stories. I want to see the Defenestration of Prague! William the Conqueror's funeral! Caligula! You'd hardly even need to be drunk at all to tell a fun story about him.

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