Derek Waters Continues to Top Himself with ‘Drunk History’
It’s hard to pinpoint where any good ideas come from. Sometimes it’s not so much the talent to think of something out of thin air, but the talent to recognize what’s interesting and entertaining about something that’s already happening to you, in front of you, or by you. We’ve all heard people drunkenly tell stories, but in 2007 Derek Waters recognized how funny that could be during a conversation with actor Jake Johnson, especially if it was reenacted by other actors.
He started with a web series that included appearances by people like Don Cheadle, then six years after inception, Drunk History began a run on Comedy Central with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers and people like Kristen Wiig, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as reenactors. Now five years later, Waters is seeing the fifth season of Drunk History premiere tonight. While Waters doesn’t know if Drunk History will return after this season, saying that he would “refuse to do the show” if there were any sign that it weren’t still improving after five years, he’s already built a stable comedy institution unlike any other show on TV. More than a decade after the night with Johnson, the idea lives on. With 14 new episodes, a ton more people getting drunk, telling stories, and lip-syncing those drunk stories in old-timey garb.
Truly a good, unique idea.
After the first couple of seasons you said you were getting pretty good at knowing how to push buttons or when to steer the conversation in certain directions. How is that different for you in season 5?
I humbly say I’m getting — everybody’s getting better after doing it again and again, but the thing that I’ve learned: alcohol isn’t gonna change. So I still know when someone’s had too much or someone’s at that point where I know, “Now we’re starting to get into the drunk part.” I still know that. If I’ve done anything differently I would say I don’t put as much pressure as I used to on myself or the narrator: “Make sure you do this, I wanna make sure you say that part.” I know the story’s good, I know the storyteller’s good, and letting them make the story they’re telling their own. I think in this season it’ll show more that everyone we had as a storyteller makes it their own. I’ve become better at letting the show be what it is and not trying to force it.
Drunk History has been nominated for an Emmy several times but this was the first year you were individually nominated for directing the Lin-Manuel Miranda episode. What was that feeling like this time around?
Aw, that’s so nice of you to go down that route. That’s nice. I would say it made me obviously very happy and I don’t know — none of us really know why we’re here but we keep doing things that we like. I have learned from doing this show that I really enjoy directing. I always thought I’d be acting and writing, but I love directing. So being able to get considered for an Emmy for something that I’m pretty new at made me feel very good. That episode, having Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza be Hamilton and Burr, I like it when I humbly say, “Oh we were taking a risk doing that” and when risks are paid off people can see that even if it looks like it’s just a drunk show, it’s secretly a history show and we’re doing the best we can.
You’ve heard so many stories over five seasons. Have any ever inspired you to think “This story would make a great movie, I should write that”?
I think all these stories, when we do ‘em, that’s the question: What would the movie version be of this? The easy pitch is: I’d love making a movie about Harriet Tubman — who would I want? Well, Octavia Spencer. It’s like “Holy shit, she said yes?” It’s like a fun little comedy show. It’s also that I want to make a really cool short film that would kind of be like a trailer to what I would make the movie version of, ya know? It’s taught me directing, but also, the biggest difference of our show this season now compared to the past is learning what you need and don’t need in a story. The shows that evolve are because they’re learning things, and we’re not doing the same thing over and over again. The premise will never change, we’re just finding new and fun ways to tell stories. This season we did something that I’m very excited about, by letting the show evolve. I’ve always loved Unsolved Mysteries, so this season we made an episode called “Drunk Mysteries” and I play Robert Stack and with a really great sound-alike actor doing Robert Stack. And I feel like if the show is going to continue you just gotta find new stuff. “Well why would I want to watch that again? If I’ve seen one, I’ve seen ‘em all.” No — the stories are better, and we’re also getting the most amazing people that want to do a show like this and take scale, which is mindblowing.
You had Lin-Manuel Miranda on last season — is there anyone else who you maybe were surprised was a comedy nerd or fan of Drunk History?
Yeah: “How did you know the show?” The one that sticks out the most because he narrated this season is Questlove, wanting to do the show and tell the birth of hip-hop. That’s definitely something that I never would’ve imagined being able to do, but that’s what I like about this show — that people like history. I think everyone should like history, but it’s a lot easier to like it if you’re laughing and it’s told in a certain way. We’ve had Dave Grohl twice, and it’s like “Holy shit, one of my rock heroes wants to be in this little show.” It’s just evolved into a fun thing to do.
Drunk History is also interesting because it requires a different type of acting, and rewards those who can convey a lot with their faces and not their own words. Do people ever comment that it makes them a better comedic actor? Because that would be my first assumption.
In a weird way it’s like a silent film and your mouth is part of your body — obviously — but also your body is part of your physical comedy. For me, when I do it, I know usually when you’re acting you’re like, “How am I gonna deliver this line?” That part of your brain is gone. You have no choice of how you’re gonna deliver it, you know how you’re gonna have to deliver it, and makes you think “Oh, while I’m doing that I could also be doing this, or a prop.” I think that’s another reason people like to do it — because it’s a different style of acting that I don’t think you get to do. Maybe the closest thing is a music video. I’m not gonna open any acting schools, but it’s a good, fun tool. The people that are best at it are people that are very good at ADR. They understand the looping of getting it exactly the way that it was said prior. Busy Philipps is phenomenal. We don’t have anyone that’s bad. Evan Rachel Wood blew my mind, it was the first time that I ever worked with her. So much fun to work with as a human being, but as an actress, performer, she’s flawless.
It seems like a behind-the-scenes reel would be in high demand for fans of the show.
You know, what’s crazy is that I always kinda wanted it to be a secret thing. We’ve done behind-the-scenes of reenactments but people never know how hard it is to to get the narration down. That’s the foundation, how hard it is to make that. This year I got an opportunity to have Nightline follow us and do the behind-the-scenes of the narration and the reenactment, so that’s the first time I’ve ever done it. Because when else am I ever gonna have the opportunity on Nightline? I think it’s fun but it seems like…I don’t know, if I watched it and I wasn’t in the industry I’d say, “That looks fun but that looks kinda easy.” But then people forget they’re lip-syncing, it’s on a loop, playing over and over again. There’s so much that goes into it. It’s hard for me to sound humble about it but it is hard, but also so fun. There’s no one in this show that’s higher than the other one. Every job has to be at the top of their game. The editing is flawless. Yeah, I can’t say enough about this team that I work with that’s made it the way it is.
Comedians associated with drugs or alcohol tend to have a lot of interactions with fans involving drugs or alcohol, but you don’t do drugs and aren’t a big drinker. How do those interactions go for you usually?
Well, it’s always a good joke. Well, pretend you’re a fan and you say that to me, I’ll tell you how I respond.
Hey I love Drunk History! Can I buy you a shot?
Thank you. No, I really appreciate it but I don’t drink. I don’t do shots. Then they say, “Let me get you a beer.” No, let me shake your hand, thank you very much. We’re taught as children never to take anything from strangers and I just take it as a compliment and say thank you. Because I love the show, but I try to let people know as much as I can that I don’t ever wanna glorify alcohol. I never wanted to be like “Yeah, let’s get fucked up!” I want it to be like “Oh they’re so passionate and excited.” They got intoxicated but it was fun, it wasn’t a place where you feel bad for the person. Unfortunately that’s too easy to do and I refuse to ever exploit anyone or put anyone in a position where you’re just like “Is it really worth it for your comedy show to tell someone to have a drink when they’re clearly already drunk?” No, it’s not. It’s nice when anyone says they like the show.
A show like Drunk History lends itself to the idea of “topping yourself” because you have different stories and storytellers and reenactments. Some may say “How will you top the Hamilton episode?!” Do you feel the need to “top” yourself with Drunk History?
Look, I’m a comedy nerd and artist and all those things, so it’s impossible for anyone to say they don’t wanna “top” themselves, but I think the word is more like, “How can I prove there’s a reason to keep watching this show?” That you’re not like “Yeah I get it.” How can I do that? I kinda feel like the blessing with the show is that these are history stories. I didn’t come up with them. Let me continue to do my best at finding the best stories and having the best people tell them. If I got Matt and Trey drunk and they told the Book of Mormon, that wouldn’t be me trying to “top” Hamilton. That would be me going, “I wanna fucking see that.” I think it’s when people always compare your next thing from your last, but I feel like Hamilton, because you brought it up, it was like “Yeah, well that was that. That’s over.” Once the episode is over it’s over so I wonder what the next one’s about. I think, more or less, what will happen is whatever my next project will be, they’ll say, “Ah, that one isn’t as good as Drunk History.” That’s where you have to top yourself is my next project, not my next season. If we do the show again, the next season will be better than the last. I refuse to do the show if it’s not like that.
You’ve been doing comedy for almost half of your life and enjoyed success on various levels with numerous projects. What advice would you have for people just starting out as you once were?
I would say it goes beyond comedy. I’m 38 and I’ve been trying to do this for I guess 18 years, and the only thing that I know for sure is that when things started getting good for me it was when…as a kid you’re taught this line that sounds so stupid and easy and lazy: “Be yourself.” But the older you get, the more you realize how important it is that there is no human being on this planet that will ever be like you, and it just takes time to fail and to do the things that you think are good to figure out who you are. I truly believe if you figure out who you are, what you like, it’s impossible to ever be stopped, because no one can compare you to anyone else. My advice is don’t listen to anyone except yourself or your instinct, without being arrogant. Do what you enjoy. If you’re doing something that isn’t hurting anyone and you’re enjoying it, others will enjoy it too.
Any moments from this season you are really excited about or want to preview?
There’s an episode called “Game Changers” and a segment about Nichelle Nichols; she’s African-American and was on Star Trek. I never watched Star Trek FYI, but in short it’s really cool that she was on Star Trek and she enjoyed it but she really wanted to do Broadway and wanted to quit. The creator said “Why don’t you take the weekend to think about it?” and over the weekend she went to an NAACP meeting and they were like “Somebody wants to meet you.” She said “Okay, bring on the nerd,” and this “nerd” comes up to her and he says “I love your show, my wife and kids watch it and I think what you’re doing is beautiful.” And she says, “I’m sorry, but are you Martin Luther King?” And he said “Yes, and I’m a huge Trekkie.” So Martin Luther King and her have this conversation and she says “I’m so honored to meet you and I’m glad you like the show, but I’m leaving.” And he says “You can’t leave, you’re the first black woman on TV that’s not playing a servant. You’re inspiring the community — you need to do this.” She stayed because of him, and then they did the first interracial kiss on TV between her and William Shatner. Because they kissed the network was like “We can’t have an interracial kiss on TV,” so Shatner said “Let’s do two versions, one where we kiss and one where we don’t,” and on the one where they don’t kiss Shatner looks at the camera and crosses his eyes. When they saw that they said “We either are gonna have an interracial kiss or we aren’t gonna have a scene at all.” I thought that was cool. And the end of that is after Star Trek she started recruiting people for space like Mae Jemison and Sally Ride. A lot of people. I just love stories like that: “I’ve heard of her, maybe I knew about that interracial kiss, but I didn’t know all of it.” Those are the stories that I just get so excited about. Like, “How did I get so lucky to get to tell these stories on a comedy show?”