Talking to Derek Waters About ‘Drunk History,’ Comedy Central, And Humanizing Abraham Lincoln
In 2007, Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner created the first video in the web series Drunk History, in which wasted comedians retell stories of figures such as Thomas Edison, Aaron Burr, or Abraham Lincoln, and familiar actors reenact the sloppy histories. The video gained the attention of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who made it into a Funny or Die exclusive series, as well as a heaping handful of comedians and actors who later starred in the reenactments, including Jack Black, Don Cheadle, Zooey Deschanel, Ryan Gosling, and more.
On July 9th, Drunk History makes its television debut launching an eight-episode season on Comedy Central. Waters acts as host of the new series, which has him travelling across the US to hear comedians and locals drunkenly share the hometown histories they are most passionate about. I recently got the chance to talk with Waters about converting web shorts into a TV show, never exploiting his intoxicated storytellers, and some of his favorite bizarre moments in history.
How did you first get your start in comedy?
I moved to Toronto from Baltimore when I was 19 to study at Second City up there. I was there for a couple of months, studied, and then came back to Baltimore, where I’m from. I worked for my father and for a tire company, not to brag. And then I moved out to Los Angeles when I was 20 and studied at Second City and was doing sketch comedy and stand-up out there, but only open mics and stuff like that. I was doing that for a long time and booking commercials here and there. I was on a sitcom, but no one really watched it.
What sitcom was it?
It was a TGIF sitcom called Married to the Kellys, in 2003.
When did you start working on Drunk History?
It was 2007, at a time where I had been out here for seven years and I was getting really tired of auditioning. I was just an actor who was auditioning for things like, Stoner-Looking Guy Number Seven or Drunk-Sounding Guy Number Eight. And well, that’s… you can be bitter about this or be proactive and realize that I’m not just a guy who looks like he’s stupid. So I started writing sketch comedy and then I had this idea after having drinks with my good friend and actor Jake Johnson; he’s in New Girl now, and he played Aaron Burr in the first story. He was telling me this story about Otis Redding that he was so passionate about, but I knew it just wasn’t true, just bumbling nonsense while yet still so passionate about this story. And I thought it’d be really cool to reenact Otis Redding responding to this B.S. story. But then I thought, everyone gets drunk and talks about music, and the stories might be true. It won’t take much to get some people drunk and get them to talk about anything they’ll bullshit on. So I think, “We’ll do that. We’ll get people who are really passionate about a moment in history and get them drunk to have trouble explaining in detail what they’re passionate about fully.” That was the rough idea.
So does each person who’s telling the story choose which historical event they’re doing?
In the shorts it was more of that, but because the Comedy Central show is broad in the world of history and each episode takes place in a city, we give them the option of, like, “Oh, you’re from Chicago; we’re trying to do these types of stories. If you’re from Chicago you probably like Al Capone.” I should mention that they’re all my friends that do the stories, and if they don’t choose them, they’re familiar with them. And then [Drunk History director] Jeremy Konner and I do the show, and he and I explain to them details of what their story is, just to make sure they’re not making something up. All the stories we do are true. We try to make them as factual as possible.
How did you get involved with Funny or Die?
Funny or Die was great enough–when we were doing this on YouTube, it was just an independent project that Jeremy and I did for a live show that I was in at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. Once it was posted, Funny or Die would advertise it and put it up. It never became an exclusive Funny or Die video until we did that HBO Funny or Die show [Funny or Die Presents]. And then we did the Lincoln/Douglass with Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle one, and Nikola Tesla and Edison. Then it became an official Funny or Die [series]. But they were always so supportive and helped us out a lot.
How’d you get involved with Comedy Central then?
I think luck. I pitched the show to them, and they were so sweet and really encouraging of keeping the tone the same. That was one thing we really wanted, to make sure that wherever we put it, it wasn’t going to change the tone of what the story’s saying. Comedy Central has been most supportive of keeping that, and also being open-minded about broadening the world. I’ll be the last one to tell you that I’m not afraid of finding that idea getting old. It took a lot of time to figure out how it’s possible to make this one-noted idea last for a half hour. They were encouraging us, and they’ve given us a show that travels across the country each episode; I don’t have to do just one town. It’s cool; it feels like a new show that has the same tone that the shorts did.
Could you explain that tone a little bit, and how you’re going to structure each episode?
Well I always say the tone is “ridiculousness taken seriously.” The way the show’s gonna work is that, each episode you’re gonna see people that are passionate about their city, and then you’ll be seeing narrators that are either from that city or know a lot about that city telling these detailed stories. We’ll be doing the reenactments just like the shorts, but it’s gonna have more of me interacting with locals from those cities. Three stories an episode.
You often appeared in the web videos, but now since you’re hosting, how has that been different for you?
More pressure. Yeah, I don’t have a hosting mentality, in all honesty. I’ll never be compared to Seacrest, but I’m okay with that. [Laughs] I guess it’s kind of a good thing. When I wanted to take a break from acting because I didn’t like it and it felt self-indulgent, I found a place back home to work with special-needs kids, and then something happened out there where I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m supposed to stay out here.” If I’m making this show, it’ll make me feel like I’m getting to do comedy and work with people that… were in large special-needs–drunk people. So I did it to get to do comedy and for getting to be a caretaker, in a way. And not to exploit anyone at all who’s very very passionate about nothing; the show will never make anything that might exploit people in a negative way.
What kind of work were you doing with special-needs kids?
Oh, well that’s what I wanted to do, I mean, I do Special Olympics stuff. That’s what I want to do, it just didn’t work out. I was in Special Ed so, I think I can relate the most to special-needs kids.
Do you have an interest in history and travel that inspired the show? Or is your interest just because of the show?
Oh yeah, a hundred percent! I mean, I’m getting educated. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t pay attention in school, except for one teacher, Ms. McDaniel, the only teacher I paid attention to, who taught history. Yeah, it is something that I’m embarrassed that I don’t know a lot about, and it is something that I think everyone should know about. With this show, I’m not aiming to change the world; I’m aiming to be like, hey, we should know this stuff. But I’m not gonna preach; I’m just gonna show a fact and not put any, sort of, initiative behind it or angle behind it. It’s like, oh, glad to know that happened and how can we learn from that in today’s society. And then cut to somebody speaking. But no, I just think we can learn from our past. And I like learning that, and thinking, “Okay, how is that similar to what’s going on today, and how can we change that?”
Do you have any historical moments that you are passionate about, that you’ve either already covered in the show or that you’d want to?
Well, the show has a story that I’m most passionate about in our Atlanta episode. We covered a guy named Stetson Kennedy who, in the ’40s, claimed to be the closest person to ever take down the Ku Klux Klan. He did it by infiltrating them and betraying them and trying to find their mentalities and their secrets. At that time, the way and the biggest entertainment for how people were getting news was the radio, and they had these radio shows like Superman. The Superman radio show was looking for a new villain, and Stetson Kennedy contacted them and said, “Well, what do you think about the Ku Klux Klan? I’ve infiltrated them.” And they were like, “Yes!” So every week, he would call in to the creators of Superman, giving away their [the KKK’s] secrets. And they would be on the air; Superman would be taking them down. And some of the guys dropped out because their own kids, who didn’t know they were in the Klan, were making fun of the cloak and this villain named the Ku Klux Klan, and all these guys, out of embarrassment, dropped out. I don’t know, I just think that’s pretty cool. Could we do that in today’s society? You hate, but would you still hate if you heard yourself out loud? But that sounds preachy. I just really like that story.
And another thing, from your previous question, but I also like taking historical characters that are sort-of put on this pedestal, and I’ll humanize them. I like humanizing anyone, but [especially] when they’re like, Abraham Lincoln.
How long have you been working on the TV series for?
Oh, I don’t know. Around a year and a half? We were in Boston during the marathon last year so, yeah, I would say a year and a half.
Do you think when you were making the web series you were always aiming for a TV series or were you happy with just the web?
I was so unhappy with that. I really just wanted to do it once and that was it, it was just a cool idea. 2007 was right at the time where so much Internet was about if [videos] had a certain amount of hits. I kinda was really passionate about, like, “Well, that doesn’t make something good, if it has a certain amount of hits!” And so I tried to send the DVD of the first Drunk History to The Daily Show and Conan, or I thought it could be a monthly sketch to go up at a sketch show. But nothing came of that, so I decided over Christmas break, since everyone’s so bored over Christmas and not knowing what to say to their families, Jeremy and I put it on the Internet. Somehow it got on the front page, and then Jack Black wanted to play Ben Franklin, and you’re not gonna say no to that. I never thought of it as a TV series, but just thought it would be a fun little short. I never wanted it to get old, but I think in this new way the show is structured, with different historic stories that have taken place, like, now we have a Patty Hearst story and now the 1800s, and stories from the 70s. Now that the world of history is bigger, the possibilities are greater. So, yeah, it was never a plan to have it become a TV show, but many years in the making.
Obviously, you’ve had a lot of well-known comedians and actors in the reenactments, and the TV series has a lot lined up, too. Was it a lot of, like you said with Jack Black, people contacting you and wanting to play somebody? Or was it you contacting them?
Most of the time we were contacting them, but a lot of those people that we reached out to were actors or actresses who sought us out and said, “I would really love to do one of those.” So it was a mixture of both. But we never, I mean, this show has 24 stories, so we definitely had to dig around and get some people that we didn’t know at all and got really, really lucky.
I don’t know if this is a silly question to ask, but are there any episodes that you’re really excited for? Or any cities that you liked the best?
[Laughs] No, I mean, I love them all. Y’know, obviously I’m gonna say I love them all.
I’m excited for them all. I humbly am excited for them all and to see what people think. ‘Cause each episode really has its own tone.
How many cities total do you visit?
Well there’s eight episodes, and one of them is a theme, which is the Wild West, but there were eight cities that we went to.
I think those are all my questions. Do you have anything else you want to mention?
Hmm… I want to say something about the arsonist in Boston, but I’m wondering… it’s the only [story] we have that’s personal. I don’t want people to think we have personal stories in every episode, but I did one I’m very excited about. It’s a friend of mine who, when he was fourteen, found out that he had been in witness protection his whole life and that his father was the biggest hired arsonist of Massachusetts in the ’70s.
That’s one I’m really excited about. Nick Offerman plays him, and Connie Britton plays the wife in it. I’m pretty excited about that.
Yeah, that sounds cool.
And the guy pulls down his pants while he’s talking about it.
Jenny Nelson lives in Brooklyn, writes, and goes to school.