Derek Waters Is Living the Drunken Dream
Emmy-winning Comedy Central series Drunk History returns for a ten-episode fourth season tomorrow night. The new season features fascinating historical events, more endearing drunken narrators, and stand-out lip sync performances by all of our favorite funny people in the universe. Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda narrates the untold version of the Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr rivalry. Paget Brewster narrates the friendship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Busy Phillips) and Soviet soldier Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Mae Whitman). Other exciting guest stars featured this season include Jack McBrayer, Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Cera, Ben Folds, Dave Grohl, Tony Hale, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Aubrey Plaza, Ronda Rousey, Liev Schreiber, Alia Shawkat, Bob Odenkirk and many more.
I had the privilege of speaking to the wildly gifted and charming Drunk History creator Derek Waters about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personal life, death by Ronda Rousey, and turtles.
My first question for you —
Derek. Got it. I got it covered. One of the most wonderful parts of the show is how passionate your guests are about their history stories. How do you decide which moment in history each narrator will learn and share?
This year is different because we are doing themed-episodes, not cities because I wanted to make the world of history a little bigger so we could just worry about finding the best stories. Ninety percent of the narrators I know and the other ten percent I met recently, so I meet with them to get a good feeling about what worlds they like to talk about. I know when I find a story — I can just picture Steve Berg or whoever the narrator is being obsessed with this. I think it’s just getting to know these narrators on a personal level and then having our research team find the best stories. But secret be told, I send the narrators three stories that I know they won’t like, and then one that I want them to do.
That’s a smart strategy there.
Because everyone performs better when they feel like they’re responsible. They’re like, I picked that one! And I’m like yeah, you did! That’s great.
You make them feel like it was their idea.
Yeah! And I’m not lying, because I want them to tell the story anyways, I just want them to be more excited about it. I’m a con man, Sydney, I’m a con man.
Clearly. I read that PhD students do the research for Drunk History to find the best stories. Are there any stories they dug up for this season that you loved but that didn’t make the show?
Yeah, about a hundred. But that’s why I’m hoping we get to do the show again so we can do those. I feel bad because if I answer the question people will know what stories we’re going to do the next time. If there is a next time.
What are your favorite kinds of history stories?
I love stories about someone that you’ve heard about, but you’ve never heard this portion of their story. Like this year we have a story in our “Siblings” episode about the Wright Brothers, revealing that there was a Wright Sister.
She got written out of history. Those kinds of stories. Like you’ve heard about the Wright Brothers, but you’ve never heard blah blah blah. Jason Ritter and I play the Wright Brothers and Jenna Fischer plays the Wright sister. There might even be a “you got the Wright one baby” joke in there. Maybe.
Do you ever get to meet any of the descendants of these historical figures? Do you ever go to museums or meet a primary source when conducting research?
As in like, when we did Patty Hearst did I hang out with Patty Hearst and get her version of it? No, but I think that’s a good goal.
Do historians ever reach out to you?
Yeah, that’s happened. But just on Facebook. And who knows if they’re real historians. I like when people are excited about history and when they want to get drunk and tell it, but I think it works best with people I know. I humbly say.
Is there a strange fan interaction that stands out? I imagine that your show inspires some interesting characters to reach out.
It’s more interesting characters than inspiring. Most of it’s like, come to Idaho! My brother is hilarious. It’s never been like, I’ve got the best story, I hold the key to where Hoffa is buried. I haven’t gotten that Facebook message yet. But the night is young and so are we.
Indeed. Lin-Manuel Miranda narrates an episode this season.
Fuck yeah. Fuck yeah.
That’s incredible. Were you nervous going into that episode?
Definitely, despite it being the biggest musical of all time, it was also the first time we had ever done an episode that is just one big story. Usually we have three stories, so I felt pressure with that. But I made it a point not to see the musical until the night after we filmed, because I didn’t want to keep asking him about the musical, so that was the first time him and I had met. We’d talked on the phone and stuff, but yeah I was definitely nervous about it. It’s a big deal and putting somebody who is in such a bright spotlight into such a drunk, vulnerable state. It was a little nerve wracking, but it turned out really well and I’m excited for people to see it.
Did you learn anything about Lin outside of his public persona that was surprising?
Well, we shot it at his parents’ house, so I learned a lot about where he grew up and it’s kind of cool to see where somebody’s roots are and to meet their family. You hope everybody is down to earth, but he was so down to earth and so game for anything. You know it’s six hours of drinking and talking about something that he’s spoken about every day for a long time. I didn’t know he plays the piano. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the rights to the song that we sang in the episode. Yeah, he was just versatile and sweet as hell. He gives amazing hickies. Sorry, I had to try to put something funny in there.
Was Lin always down to be part of Drunk History?
I think he was. I remember hearing that he liked the show. That he’d seen the first one when he was writing it. I wanted to make sure that he knew this was going to be a completely different thing from the first one. It’s about how close Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were, and all the things that were so similar in both of their lives. And I wanted him to be able to speak about stuff that he didn’t get to in the musical. There’s stuff about James Monroe. It’s hard for me to talk about it because we’re still editing it, so I don’t want to say anything if it gets cut out.
Do you like your editors?
I love my editors. That’s the hardest job in the world. To watch six to eight hours of someone drunk just to find seven great minutes of it. They’re really talented and have extreme patience that I really admire. It would be bad enough to watch someone repeat themselves. But a drunk person saying something over and over again — it’s a show that can only run on passion.
Ronda Rousey makes an appearance this season. Does she narrate? What was that experience like?
Oh, I wish she narrated! She was a reenactor. Ronda Rousey is the coolest. I was so, so, so excited to meet her. And she did say she would like to get drunk and do a story, so maybe for the future. I’d just be afraid if she got drunk and wanted to fight. That would be a season finale. That would be a series finale.
That might be a life finale.
It would be a good funeral.
What is the strangest thing that happened in the making of season four?
Strange in a good way — my hero Bob Odenkirk, getting him drunk and having him discuss a story that I’ve known for years that he loves: the Disco Demolition in Chicago. So not really strange, more just wow, how is this really happening? That will be in our season finale. The theme is Shit Shows, a classic historical term. Sorry if it’s not that strange. I think getting to do a fourth season of a show where I get drunk with my friends and have famous actors reenact it will always be strange.
This is true. Has the novelty worn off? Does it ever wear off?
No, no. Every day I’m like thank god for this. Am I part of the Make-a-Wish foundation? I don’t know. But I’m not questioning it, I’m just enjoying this little choo-choo train ride and seeing how far it can go. All aboard. All aboard. The little engine that could.
Your job is so much fun. What do you do for fun outside of work?
Man, I’ve never been asked that question. I don’t want to sound like a dick, but I don’t really get to do much. The show takes a year to make. Um, I started taking boxing lessons. I could kill you with my right hook. I needed something new to be active and if Ronda Rousey comes back I’ll be prepared. To defend, not to fight. But yeah, I love watching documentaries. I love unsolved mysteries. I would love to do an unsolved mystery episode.
Can I ask you some hypothetical questions?
You can ask me anything, Sydney.
If 100 years from now you could choose a narrator and cast to tell the story of this election season who would be in the episode?
Well, they won’t be alive! A hundred years!
We’re assuming immortality.
Okay. Who would get drunk and talk about this election? Neither Hillary or Donald would be President anymore, so I would have them both narrate. Together. Ted Danson would play Donald Trump. Hillary would be…Meryl Streep? Larry David would be Bernie, for sure. Danny DeVito as Ted Cruz, I would like to see that. I just think it’s too sad really. It’s a crazy time. We’re always part of history, but this is such a specific time.
A terrifying time.
Petrifying. That would be in our petrifying-themed episode.
If there was a historical figure who could tell your story, Derek Waters story, who would tell your story and what would they drink?
Do I want them to get it right? I’m not sure. I’m torn between Tesla and Edgar Allen Poe. I guess Poe because he would make it poetic.
What is one thing about you that you think people would be surprised to learn?
I own turtles. I just moved into a new place and the previous owner had a little pond on the deck so there’s like Koi fish and turtles. But when people come over I’m always quick to say, they were here when I got here! It’s not like all of a sudden I move into a new place and I’m like, finally! I can get turtles! But I do find it funny that I have turtles.
Did you name your turtles?
No, because they’re not — they are mine, but they’re not. Well okay, I guess I do. I call the big one Mama and the little one Scaredy-Cat. But they should be Slow, Slower and Derek. Because if there is any animal I can relate to, it’s a turtle. Nobody has ever told me to slow down. But let’s not forget the Tortoise and the Hare. That’s all we can hope for, slow and steady.