Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. Today he examines Comedy Central’s popular program Drunk History, and explores the role non-authoritative, even inebriated, history can play in getting students to question accuracy, opinion, and historical perspective.
The first episode of Drunk History aired on the web as a Funny or Die feature on August 6, 2007. The show’s narrator Mark Gagliardi, fresh off a bottle of scotch, told the story of the infamous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to friend and show creator Derek Waters. A good deal of the episode takes place in Gagliardi’s apartment as he weaves his tale, but the funny comes from an amateurish documentary acted out by a cast of the creators’ close friends. After some initial background told by a clearly inebriated Gagliardi establishing Burr’s reputation as a shrewd opportunist, he launches haphazardly into the “scene” where Burr confronts Hamilton, boiling down the complexity of a nineteenth century “Affair of Honor” into a matter-of-fact declaration from Burr, lip-synching Gagliardi’s drunken mumble, “Hey you’re giving me shit, we gotta duel.”
Since its creation and its subsequent acquisition by Comedy Central in 2013, the show has developed a consistent following on the strength of that comedic juxtaposition of a serious historical event and a slurred, stammering, seemingly stream of consciousness narrative provided by an intoxicated comedian or comedic writer. The show is about to kick off its sixth season on the cable network. On the show’s website a mission statement of sorts describes the intent of the creators:
“Drunk History is the liquored-up narration of our nation’s history. Host Derek Waters, along with an ever-changing cast of actors and comedians, travels across the country to present the rich tales that every city in this land has to offer. Booze helps bring out the truth. It’s just that sometimes the truth is a little incoherent.”
To historians and observers of current events, the central conceit of the show begs the immediate question about the efficacy of “incoherent truth” and the process of creating it. Anyone following the American President in the last few years has likely reinforced both the unreliability of incoherence in relation to the pursuit of truth, and the popular anti-intellectualism that has rallied around incoherence as a mode of speaking truth to power (or perhaps more accurately, speaking power to truth).
While Donald Trump’s apparent teetotalism precludes attributing the Commander-in-Chief’s communication skills to intoxication, in Drunk History the relationship between intoxication and the pursuit of incoherent truth is on full display. My purpose here is not to extol the virtue of intoxication as a tool for pursuing truth, but as someone interested in the role of intoxication in cultural realms (I’ve written about it on this forum), it’s worth unpacking this relationship to assess why the show is so popular, and more importantly what role the show can have in the pursuit of a more historically-aware society.
To be sure, the show is not, and should not be, conflated with more serious and academically rigorous popular historical forms. The Drunk Historians in the show are not trained historians in any sense, and the show doesn’t make any overt claims to historical expertise. In other words, the show is DRUNK history, not drunk HISTORY. The show traffics in the commodification of drunken humor and it succeed or fails less on the compelling nature of the historically “true” story and more on the frequency and effectiveness of comedic blunders in telling that story.
That is not to suggest that the show’s producers are being entirely disingenuous when they claim to be recalling true historical stories. One of the benefits of the show’s jump to cable was an expansion of its production budget. The most obvious benefit of the larger budget manifests in the markedly improved quality of the documentary portion of the show, and behind the scenes, the expanded budget allowed writers to support a research staff.
In a 2015 “behind-the-scenes” article in Complex, show producer Seth Weitberg discusses the role of his research staff, made up of Ph.D. students from UCLA, in generating the roughly 500 stories per season that are whittled down to 39 (13 episodes, 3 scenes per episode) for that year’s run. About 90 of those ideas are considered by the producers and each pitch generates a “research packet” which consists of a three-page narrative summary, links to relevant documentaries, and books for further reading. By contrast, the Funny or Die series relied largely on the whims and individual effort of its narrators for topics and background information. The research packets are provided to the narrators up to two weeks prior to the shoot to help them craft their story.
In a 2017 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Waters admitted, “I secretly want people to learn from this show.” And despite its ostensible reliance on drunken humor for the comedy, the research process described above, as well as the filming and editing processes, have a specific emphasis on historical accuracy. Each story runs approximately 5-7 minutes (early episode stories were a little longer), but the interview shoots can take between three and eight hours at a time. Waters and the show’s editors are keen to get the facts correct and will reshoot and edit out inaccurate statements made by the narrator.
But these editorial decisions are often obscured during post-production, leaving the viewer to assess the value of the story, and its level of historical truth, for themselves. But the lack of, say, a bibliography at the end of every episode is hardly the only issue with the kind of history the show pursues. Historians could just as easily critique the show’s lack of nuance and the lack of analysis and consideration of primary sources (to inform the dialogues, say) as being problematic.
But the crowning achievement of the show is, according to Emily Nussbaum writing for the New Yorker in June, that it stands as “a corrective to the oracular, authoritative, we-know-better tone of most historical nonfiction.” Again, from the perspective of an academic historian, this does not seem to be a ringing endorsement of the show’s content as good history. Instead, Nussbaum engages in constructing a straw man of sorts by conflating “authoritative” with “reliable” and suggesting that “typical” histories do not evoke anxiety, doubt or even emotion toward their sources and subjects. This reflects a common assumption about history as THE story of what happened. But despite the straw man “we-know-betterism” that pervades public perceptions of historical scholarship, this is still something that academic historians continue to ignore at their own peril.
In 2015, Helen Sheumaker, professor of American Studies at The University of Miami, Ohio, argued that the show could be useful in creating a critical environment for questioning and interrogating historical sources. Writing in Perspectives, Sheumaker discussed her use of Drunk History in an assignment for a class on “History, Memory, and Tradition.” Students concluded that the show “[moved] viewers to assume an active, participatory, and ultimately critical position” of the historical narratives presented in the show. To Sheumaker, the drunkenness acts as a leveling device that transforms the stereotypically staid narration of authoritative professional historians in traditional documentaries into the more vernacular “unreliable narrator” that tends to challenge student’s ability to differentiate fact from opinion.
In my teaching experience, which seems likely to be reflected among non-student learners as well, students struggle with distinguishing fact versus opinion coming from an individual historical actor (in a speech or essay). They have an even harder time formulating adequate critiques of their textbook authors. But historians and historiographers know that historical sources, and the histories written with those sources, are inherently flawed and incomplete. Drunk History breaks the pretense of scholarly authority that tomes and “American Experience” documentaries find hard to avoid without one or two shots of vodka, forcing even passive viewers to question the accuracy of what they are seeing.
Sheumaker suggests that Drunk History forces students to be critical learners, and the show’s creators hope that the stories can whet viewers’ curiosity to find out more. While her students were upper-level history students at the University of Miami, Ohio, Callison Stratton has written about Drunk History’s ability to engage public discussions about episodes on online forums, suggesting that the show’s format engages non-students in similar ways.
This leveling function of alcohol has been analyzed by historians as well. In his 1995 book, In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts, historian David Conroy examines the role that alcohol regulation played in the emergence of a Revolutionary political culture in Massachusetts inns and taverns. Part of his book examines alcohol, and intoxication, as a social-leveler in public houses during the period, looking at the way that alcohol consumption created a crisis of authority among British and American colonial officials in their efforts to regulate alcohol consumption in the colony. It would do well for historians to consider this pattern, which seems to be reflected in the popularity of non-academic pop history, compared to the level of public recognition commanded by putatively more authoritative academic historians.
There are problems with the Drunk History format, and the medium through which it is disseminated. To be sure, the narrators engage in what might be categorized as problematic drinking behaviors, and some of the episodes feature some of the unpleasant consequences of that kind of drinking. The topics covered by the show tend to focus on unknown aspects of more well-known historical stories, but the emphasis on comedic tone limits the topics available as producers recognize the inability to confront particularly tragic and controversial issues through that filter.
Lastly, the scenes of interaction between Waters, the crew and the binge-drinking narrator, especially when female narrators appear on the show, put the power dynamics of the #MeToo movement on full display. In light of the recent AHA Report on Sexual Harassment which was introduced in a recent edition of Perspectives on History, this is (and should be) of keen interest to historians. The show’s producers and staff seem aware of these power dynamics and interviews about the show outline the various protocols put in place to prevent problematic instances. And while it’s difficult to assess the efficacy of those protocols through the filter of promotional interviews about the show, Drunk History‘s show runners have nonetheless garnered some critical praise in this realm. Critics like Emily Nussbaum have applauded the show as a “safe space” which “at times…seems to be as much about the delicacy of talking to a near-stranger as it is about anything else.”
The show was conceived during an episode between friends (Waters and Jake Johnson), probably not unfamiliar to historians who choose to imbibe alcohol: an evening of sitting around, drinking, and talking about history. And while I would not recommend pre-gaming with a bottle of scotch before your next class or public talk, it is worth thinking about the relationship between the authoritative narrators of historical knowledge and the consumers of that knowledge. Historians in non-academic settings need to find ways to balance their unblemished expertise with the need to foster the critical thinking of their audience rather than the passive consumption of history as truth.