'Slightly Altered' Past: A Comedy Cocktail From Derek Waters

Jul 13, 2013
Originally published on July 13, 2013 6:39 pm

When Derek Waters went out with a buddy for a few beers one night, little did he know his friend's drunken storytelling would turn into a years-long project, and now TV show on Comedy Central.

"Jake was telling me this story that Otis Redding knew he was going to die, and before he left that day he had this long conversation with his wife," remembers Waters. "The whole time secretly I was just picturing Otis Redding looking at Jake and saying, 'Shut up, man, that didn't happen!'"

That gave Waters the idea for his popular weekly series, Drunk History (Warning: The videos contain language that some may find offensive). Give a narrator — usually one of Waters' friends — a few drinks, and have him or her recount a favorite historical event. Then, have well known actors in period costumes lip-sync and act out the completely wrong history.

Waters has no problem getting people on board for the project, either. "As an actor, you have so much in your head when you're thinking about delivering a line ... so you actually get to do more because you don't have to worry about how to deliver a line, because it's already done."

Sometimes, narrators forget the story line, make up ridiculous dialogue, or even vomit or fall asleep while describing Abraham Lincoln's assassination, for example. But, says Waters, "They're trying as hard as they can to make a history show; it just happens to be slightly altered."

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

This summer is the 150th anniversary of some of the key battles of the Civil War, like Gettysburg, which might inspire a lot of you to brush up on your American history. In which case, you probably don't want to be taking notes from "Drunk History."

The popular YouTube series has been picked up as a TV show now on Comedy Central, and the first episode aired this week. The show involves a pixilated narrator retelling - usually pretty badly - a true historical event, like Watergate, for example.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Woodward meets with Mark Felt. And he says: Put the pieces together, you little (bleep). It's all in front of you. Do the work.

LYDEN: While well-known actors play out the narration, lip-syncing the sloshy dialogue, you are left, I want to say, in stitches. Derek Waters is the mastermind behind "Drunk History," and he joins me now for an extremely sober and realistic interview about his hilarious series. Derek Waters, welcome to the program.

DEREK WATERS: Thank you very much, Jacki. Thank you very much.

LYDEN: You know...

WATERS: I'm a little offended that you - you said in the introduction that the narrators aren't telling it well. They're all real stories, and they're trying as hard as they can, Jacki.

LYDEN: Yeah. Well, if they tell it really, really well, I don't know how funny it would be.

WATERS: Well, that's true.

LYDEN: Hey, but that brings up this whole question, Derek, which is, how on Earth did you come up with this idea?

WATERS: Yeah. Well, you probably figured alcohol was involved in the discovery of this, and it was. I was drinking with a very dear friend of mine. We were talking about the great Otis Redding and how young he was when he died in the plane crash.

And Jake was telling me this story that Otis Redding knew he was going to die. And before he left that day, he had this long conversation with his wife. And it went something to the extent of: Now, you take care of yourself, baby, because I got to go. And his wife was like: I will, Otis. You take care of yourself. He's like: No. You take care of yourself, baby. Otis has to go. And Jake was having such a hard time trying to tell that story. And the whole time, secretly, I was just picturing Otis Redding looking at Jake and just saying: Shut up, man. That didn't happen.

LYDEN: Now, some of these people are so passionate about their topics. Let me tell you one of my favorite bits, Mary Dryer. And Mary is a Puritan woman who showed compassion to prisoners.


JEN KIRKMAN: But you'll never hear about it anywhere but here.

WATERS: Well, now...

KIRKMAN: She's in a unmarked grave on the Boston Common. And you know who's grave is marked? (Bleep) Jim Morrison. And he wrote horrible music.


WATERS: That's Jen Kirkman. Isn't she great?

LYDEN: Yeah. Well, you know what's so great about it? People take this very seriously. I mean, yes, okay, I mean, over there, you know, six scotches or whatever it is you plod them with but nobody is being dismissive, at least the folks you've chosen, of the historical episode they want to tell. It's like, you have to hear this. You have to believe me.

Do you get people, though, who say, this is just terrible, what you're doing. I mean, you're ruining history, and you're getting all these people drunk and sick and silly and everything.

WATERS: Thank God, no. No one's ever said: This is - you're destroying history. It's been the opposite. My dear history teacher Mr. Stang(ph), he emailed and said: You're putting history out to more people that need to know about it and putting laughter in there so more people can learn.

LYDEN: We have a clip from your first episode, which tells the story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, their famous duel, and Alexander Hamilton is played here by the actor Michael Cera.


MICHAEL CERA: (as Alexander Hamilton) Here's the thing about Hamilton. George Hamilton - Alexander Hamilton - George Hamilton is an actor. Alexander Hamilton calls his family. He says" I love you. I'm going to miss you. He calls his parents. He says: I'm going to love you. I'm going to miss you. He says...

LYDEN: I love Alexander Hamilton on his smartphone. Is it difficult to get well-known actors to perform this with you? I mean, other episodes of this have been Jack Black, Winona Ryder, Adam Scott. How do you get these folks on board?

WATERS: I think once Michael Cera was in it, you know, Jack Black saw it and likes it. And he goes, oh, that looks fun.

LYDEN: Yeah.

WATERS: And as an actor, you have so much in your head when you're thinking about how you're going to deliver a line, you know, how you're going to say it. And so when you're acting in "Drunk History," you're actually getting to do more because you don't have to worry about how you're going to deliver a line because it's already done.

LYDEN: How do you pick your narrators?

WATERS: They're all my friends, but some of them are more well known. And they've seen what we've done in the past, and they know it's not a show about exploiting someone. It's not a show about, yeah, let's get drunk and talk about history. They're trying as hard as they can to make a history show. It just happens to be slightly altered.

LYDEN: Well, it has been wonderful bending an elbow with you. And I can't wait to see the next episode. And I'm just sitting here thinking what I want to see.

WATERS: Bless your heart. Thank you so much for having me.

LYDEN: That's Derek Waters, creator of "Drunk History," a series now on Comedy Central.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.