Derek Waters on How ‘Drunk History’ Is Made
Tonight sees the return of Drunk History, comedian Derek Waters’s Funny Or Die web series-turned-Comedy Central show that sees comedians getting intoxicating and recounting famous historical events. Season two of Drunk History finds the show expanding and taking on new challenges, with a full 10-episode order (two more than last year) and a handful of episodes structured on certain themes (like “American music,” for example). I recently had the chance to talk to Waters about the elaborate safety precautions Drunk History for its historians, his dreams of having Pearl Jam do the show as themselves, and allude to a secret Comedy Central project he can’t talk about yet.
I was reading an interview with you last year and you said that you had come up with the idea for Drunk History while drinking with one of your buddies. Is that correct?
That is 100% correct. That is Jake Johnson from New Girl.
Have you had any other really good creative ideas that have come as a result of drinking?
I mean, if I said yes, then I just look like I’m one-noted, you know? I’ve had ideas of, “Oh, that’s a funny character,” but never, “Oh, here’s an idea for a show.” I don’t support good ideas coming out of drinking. I don’t want to applaud that, like, “Yeah, that’s a great way to come up with creative ideas.”
Do you think substances — drugs, alcohol — can be good creative tools if used properly?
Ahh. No. Alcohol is nice to celebrate when you finish your vision. It should be the ending, not the beginning. You know what I mean? Why it works for our show is because it makes you feel smart. It makes you feel like you know everything. And that’s why every morning I get an apology email from the narrators, afraid they didn’t do a good job. That’s what you would do with your idea if you got drunk and were like, “I’m gonna write!” Then you read it in the morning and you’re like, “What the fuck?” So yeah.
I talked to Kyle Kinane last year–
You did! Did you understand anything he was saying? His voice is almost harder to understand than mine.
No, I can understand you fine. Kyle is the same way.
But he said that he drank almost an entire bottle of tequila before he did his Drunk History. Is there a certain amount that you encourage people to drink?
No. I encourage them to have a nice buzz when I get there and then I’m going to drink with them so I know their level and — not to brag — but I’m pretty good now at reading, knowing what buttons to hit to know, “Oh, they are sensitive right now. Right now we should take a little break. Okay, they’re repeating.” I know what stage they are in. It’s like a psychology. I understand what you can and can’t do to a person who has had a certain amount of alcohol. You know, there are rules. One thing is you can never say “no” to someone who has been drinking. You just can’t. Or, what helps with the show is me not understanding what they are talking about and asking, “I don’t understand what you mean.” You get that passion of them going off on trying to explain it to me. But there’s never a certain amount. The last thing I want is anyone to get sick. Really I like the tone of frustrated passion where they are so passionate about the story but due to their intake of alcohol, it’s frustrating for them. As an audience member, you want to root for them and hear their whole story. But the audience doesn’t know that it takes five or six hours to film.
It’s way more scientific than it looks. I think for the average viewer and maybe a lot of the fans, they like just the idea of “drunk” history. It seems reckless, it seems like a party. But it sounds like you have it down to a science.
Like, “I could do that. I could do that. Put a camera in front of me. Let me show you some history,” yeah.
Are there any liability issues with combining alcohol and performance?
Liability? Oh yeah. We have a medic on set, a breathalyzer, oxygen tanks, which really help if someone gets too drunk. It makes sense. It sounds weird but it’s oxygen. There were times, more last year, where people were too drunk where it was like they aren’t coming back, but some water and some oxygen brought them back. They’re always safe. I won’t say the number but they cannot go above a certain number through the breathalyzer. But trust me, it’s a high number. They’re very drunk.
How do you choose who your historians are going to be?
Most of them are my friends and then this year, I did some interviews with people that I heard were funny or knew casually. But the number one requirement is likeability and being able to tell a story. The original claim of this show was that I would go to a town and learn history from the locals. It’s very hard to tell a story and comedians know how to tell a beginning, middle and end to a story. That’s really the biggest thing: Likeability, not having an alcohol problem — I don’t endorse that at all whatsoever — and someone that makes you smile. If you don’t like the narrator, you’re not going to watch the story. You have to like them. If you go into a bar and you’ve got some frat, whatever type of person yelling and yammering, even if he could tell the most amazing story, you wouldn’t pay attention to him because you just couldn’t stand him.
You just did something at Bonnaroo. How do you adapt for a live show compared to when you’re filming on set?
Showing live clips is what we did and also played this game called “Do You Remember?” where we bring out a narrator — my favorite narrator this year — Molly McAleer and played raw footage of the filming of her Drunk History and asking her if she remembers. No one ever remembers anything, so it’s a really fun game. Then I had Peter Farrelly, Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney come out. I told everyone I was working on this one act play that I wanted to get up on its feet. And I took the transcription from one of the narrators where he was yelling at me that he needed to find his sword and had them act it out really dramatically and then cut to the video of Nick Rutherford trying to find these swords that he has. So, you know, try to do fun stuff like that. But I’ve tried to do the someone-tells-a-drunk-history-story and act it out, but it doesn’t work. So showing clips, showing things people have never seen, that’s the way to do a live Drunk History.
Who are some of this season’s notable guests?
Weird Al as Hitler is definitely notable. Johnny Knoxville as Johnny Cash is pretty amazing. Stephen Merchant, coming back as George Washington. David Cross as von Steuben. I’m just saying names. Everyone we got, this whole thing was a dream come true. Just working with people that I love, like Jesse Plemons. He’s one of my dear friends and one of my favorite actors. And Jason Ritter who is one of the very first to ever do it. Lisa Bonet is coming back, that’s very exciting. Jack Black. Alia Shawkat, from Arrested Development, she’s one of my favorite actresses right now. There’s a lot. There’s no one that’s in this show that I didn’t pick or want to work with, so I’m just honored that I got to make this show.
Who hasn’t been on the show yet that you would love to have on and what character do you have in mind for them?
I keep saying Eddie Vedder, just because I love Pearl Jam. It would probably be the jump-the-shark season finale where I would get drunk and do the history of Pearl Jam, and then have Pearl Jam reenact my version of the history of Pearl Jam.
That would be great.
Yeah. Well, for me. I don’t know who else would enjoy it but…
No I would love it. My wife would really love it. She’s a huge Pearl Jam fan. It’s a little off format, because it’s not “history” history-
Well, we’re doing American Music this year and music is part of history. Pearl Jam is just a little too recent. But we have a great Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson story. And a Rapper’s Delight story about The Sugar Hill Gang. Then we’ve got an Alan Freed story, so we’re covering themes this year which really excite me. Makes the show more than just one-note of powdered wigs and celebrities.
Do you have any other projects that you’re working on right now that we should stay tuned for in the next few months?
Yes. But I can’t say.
Ah! This happens every time!
Well, the people have to because they’ll get in trouble. Comedy Central will go out and say, “No they’re not. They’re fucking working on this. This is all they are working on.”
Season two of Drunk History premieres tonight at 10pm on Comedy Central, right before the season two premiere of Nathan For You.
Isaac Kozell is a writer and standup comic.