Contrary to popular belief, Derek Waters – the mastermind behind the Comedy Central show Drunk History — does not always take his work home with him. “People usually think I’m drunk, but it’s just how I talk,” says the series host and co-creator in his friendly, languid Baltimore drawl (which does, indeed, share the slight slur of some of his more inebriated guests). “But I’m not drunk right now. This is iced coffee.”
Waters hasn’t had much time for benders lately; when he calls Rolling Stone from Los Angeles, he is rushing to finish production on the second season of his zany TV show, which kicks off tonight. The series operates on the same hilarious premise as the cult-hit webisodes that preceded its basic-cable iteration: profoundly wasted narrators recount pivotal events in American history as costumed celebrities lip-sync reenactments – cursing, vomiting and wild soapboxing stoically included. Last season, Jack Black, Winona Ryder, Dave Grohl, Kristin Wiig and more famous folks shared the (hiccupping) gospel about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and Elvis Presley’s meeting with Richard Nixon, respectively.
The new season of Drunk History features even more sloppy armchair lecturing – including inspired rants about the creation of the Statue of Liberty and the rise of chemist Percy Julian – as well as turns from David Cross, Charlie Day, Courtney Cox, and Laura Dern, among others. It also expands its sloshed-scholarly focus to include themed episodes about Hollywood and American music; the latter boasts Johnny Knoxville impersonating the hell out of Johnny Cash and Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain haphazardly chronicling the career of the influential Fifties rock DJ Alan Freed.
The very charming Waters, 34, paused his hectic production schedule to chat about his Season Two casting coups, the qualifications for being the perfect inebriated amateur historian and the series’ unlikely inspiration from of an ‘adorkable’ TV star.
You said the second season has more off-the-cuff moments than the first – sort of like the initial web series.
Yeah. I always like to have those. It’s kind of a documentary where you don’t know what you’re going to get. That “Wait a second, let’s just take a beat here” humor – there’s a lot of that this season. Those are my favorite moments; you’re so invested into the story and then, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Oh, right, a drunk person is telling this.” But it’s all true.
The actors break the fourth wall in that moment, too. They look at the camera with expressions of, “Seriously?” Its an oddly communal experience – everyone’s reacting in the same way, onscreen and off.
I directed the Baltimore episode and we broke the fifth wall. Edgar Allen Poe starts talking about Drunk History. He comes out of a portrait and walks off the set. Jesse Plemons from Breaking Bad plays Poe.
The narrator Jen Kirkman cried last season. Are all your narrators so passionate about history? Where do you find them?
Jen Kirkman is the queen of Drunk History. She’s been a friend of mine for a long time, and I truly believe that if she wouldn’t have done the third video on YouTube, [the web series] wouldn’t have been as successful. She talked about George Washington and his slave, Oney Judge. [The series] could’ve totally become just this frat-party mentality of, “Yeah, guys gettin’ drunk and talking about history!” But Jen is so good, and she’s so passionate, she’s the definition of what a Drunk History narrator has to be — knowing the story and needing you to know exactly how she feels about it and what happened. I never want to make a political show. I want to make a show that tells stories and it’s up to you, the audience, to go, “Oh, how do I interpret that?”
Last year, she said she would never do the show again and I sent her an email before we started shooting this year. I sent her this story and said, “Hey, this is a story we’re gonna do. Would be a real shame if some other girl tells this story.” And she said, “Fuck that, I’m doing it.” [Laughs] Those were her words. She did so good, again.
This year, we have 10 or 11 new faces – some people I casually knew, some I’d heard of, some I’d been recommended. I had about 150 stories that we’d found with a research team that we wanted to tell, and then I’d send them three of the stories while secretly hoping they’d pick a specific one because it seemed like it’d be a good fit. Thankfully, they always picked the one that I wanted them to pick.
Do you ever have to reshoot because the narrators get too drunk?
Oh, yeah. It didn’t happen this season, but it used to.
Are people now drunkenly pitching you in bars all the time?
Yeah, yeah. I have to figure out a way out, like, say, “Legally, I can’t hear this because if I do this story and you’re not the narrator, you could sue me.” I don’t know if people would believe that, though. I’m just trying to figure out ways of getting out of those pitch meetings.
The thing is, everyone says, “Well I know about this and this and this,” but the hardest part of finding narrators is: you have to be able to tell a story. Anyone can tell you a fact, and a lot of times, at the beginning, people would say they know a lot about a certain person. But when you interview them, it’d be like hearing a Wikipedia page rehearsed.
This year, the day before shooting them, the researchers and Jeremy [Konner, the series co-creator and director] would hear them tell the story over the phone sober. Then when I’d go over, I would act as if I didn’t know anything about the story — which isn’t really lying, because I would try to stay away from too much of the detail. I would genuinely be asking questions. I have a slow voice and it’s not hard for people to believe me when I go, “What? I don’t understand.” [Laughs] You’ve gotta get them wound up.
So you’re just whipping them into a frenzy about history?
If you ever want a drunk person to really go off, just be like, “I don’t get what you’re talking about.” It is my least favorite question when someone says, “What are you talking about?” I hate that question. It just means that person clearly doesn’t get me.
But I always make sure that I’m drinking with them; I do that to not make them feel exploited. It’s like, “Hey, we’re doing this together.” But doing that takes a lot out of you. And going on the road – this year, we got to do a lot of things, like go to Hawaii and try to learn how to surf. In Montgomery [Alabama], I tried to learn how to box. Lot of fun, getting punched in the face.
Jake Johnson [who plays Nick on New Girl] said he inspired the original Funny or Die series when he drunkenly told you a long-winded Otis Redding story. Do you remember it?
Jake Johnson and I have been best friends since 2004. One night in 2007, Jake had me over and we were drinking and the classic topic of music came up. Jake was like, “You know Otis Redding knew he was going to die before he got in that plane, right?” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “I’m serious, man. Right before Otis got on that plane, he looked at his wife and was like, ‘Take care of yourself, baby.’ She was like [happily], ‘I will, Otis. You take care of yourself!’ And he’s like, ‘No, I’m serious, take care of yourself. Otis has got to go.'”
As he was saying it, I was like, “Oh, okay, man,” but he kept… It was like a 30-minute story of that. I just kept nodding and imagining Otis Redding looking at him like, “Shut the fuck up, man, that didn’t happen.” I was like, maybe it’d be fun to reenact that: Otis Redding having to move his lips, knowing he didn’t even say that, but he has to because that’s the premise of the show. But then I was like, “Everyone gets drunk and talks about music. What’s something people don’t get drunk and talk about?” And maybe that story is true, but what’s something that you can tell when they’re flubbing a story or not? History.
I asked my friend Mark Gagliardi, who is a really smart guy and loves to drink, “What’s a moment of history that you feel more people need to know about?” That’s the question I ask everybody. He was like, “Well, I just saw this documentary about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and I would love to talk about it.” Michael Cera is a really good friend of mine, and was like, “If you ever have an idea we can shoot, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” I finally got the courage to get Mark drunk and talk about history and Michael was in town and did it.
Have any actors impressed you with their knowledge of the historical figure they were playing?
Johnny Knoxville playing Johnny Cash. When I emailed him about it, he said, “Be sure to tell the costume people that I don’t need shoes. I have his boots.” He came in with Johnny Cash’s real boots; he bought them at an auction. He said, “Too bad there isn’t a knife in this scene because I have one of those, too.”
So, last season, you threw up on-camera. This season, you get punched in the face. You suffer for your art.
And my balls! I get punched in the balls in the Montgomery episode, which I’ve never found funny. And I’ve never found puking funny. But I do find people puking and still wanting to tell you a story very funny.
It’s gonna be hard to top last season’s premiere, which had Adam Scott as John Wilkes Booth and Jack Black as Elvis.
Yeah. But I can tell you that Weird Al is Hitler. And Lisa Bonet is Rosa Parks.
Weird Al as Hitler is a very promising start.
He looks so much more like Hitler than Weird Al that I’m wondering the percentage of people that aren’t going to know it’s Weird Al until the end of the episode [credits].