This is an essay I wrote for a class called "Consuming History" during my stint in the Public History and Cultural Heritage M.Phil program at Trinity College Dublin. I was extremely surprised to learn that I received honors for this particular piece, despite the somewhat low-brow subject matter. I guess if the writing is bland enough, you can make anything academic!
(Just kidding, academics. I love you. I just have a problem with authority.)
Anyways, I hope you enjoy it. It made me giggle a time or two while I was writing it.
Drunk History: Audience, Accuracy and the Limits of “Edu-tainment”
by Callison Stratton
Historical documentaries are a visual format with which popular culture consumers are extremely familiar. Viewers have certain expectations about the type of programme that delivers quality history: a dignified professor commenting eloquently on the subject while sitting in an office full of books; dramatic, realistic reenactments filmed through a misty lens. Although widely trusted sources of information, documentaries are limited in their scope and are subject to the same scrutiny as any historiographical medium. The consulted experts and filmmakers are laden with their own biases, which creates a double-edged sword by which a documentary can be criticised, either for taking too strong a political stand or not enough of one, being too entertaining or too dry. Derek Waters’ comedic enterprise Drunk History plays upon the familiar tropes of documentary while challenging the expectation that the purveyors of historical narrative must be historians. Despite sporting a title that implies an inherent lack of scholarship, the series makes every attempt at making its subject matter accurate as well as entertaining. Drunk History is part of a popular culture movement to make history more accessible to those who may not consume it in traditional ways (such as monographs, academic institutions, and documentaries). Yet, even though the series covers historical events, and interprets them accurately, does it qualify as “history” in the traditional sense?
A satirical take on the “talking heads” of traditional documentaries, Drunk History began as a series on the website Funny Or Die in 2007, and debuted as a half-hour television series on Comedy Central in the summer season of 2013. Each episode is hosted by a different comedian or actor, who drinks to the point of intoxication, then retells their favorite moment in American history. The resulting monologue becomes the script for a reenactment by various celebrities, who lip-sync with perfect comic timing to the slurred speech of the storyteller. The original webseries would feature one story per episode, which ran approximately five to six minutes. In the TV show, which requires a longer, twenty-two minute format, each episode focuses around three stories from one American city, usually in different time periods. The segments generally follow a focused theme, such as the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, or Elvis Presley’s 1970 meeting with Richard Nixon. Although many of the historical figures discussed would be highly recognizable to an American audience, more obscure characters often appear, like George Washington’s escaped slave Oney Judge, or John Wilkes Booth’s lesser known brother Edwin. Waters wanted the subject matter to be “something that the audience is fairly familiar with so that when the inevitable inaccuracies happen, it’ll be clear.” Unlike many historical programmes, as Bell and Gray point out in History on Television, these stories are not chosen based on their relevance to current affairs, upcoming centenaries or anniversaries. As opposed to guiding public interest, the show attempts to answer public interest, providing oft unheard facts to color tired narratives.
In its television incarnation, Drunk History employs many elements that would be familiar to watchers of historical documentaries. The logo for the Comedy Central programme reflects a common trope of older history films: an old, dusty book with golden engraved lettering. The opening sequence flashes various clips from newspapers, yellowed pamphlets, photographs and drawings that illustrate key moments in American history, from Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The images conclude in the iconic closing of the book, which is titled “Drunk History,” and lands on a wooden desk that is stained with ring marks, supposedly from the bottles of liquor in the background. Animated in this way, this collection of images could be easily mistaken for the opening sequence of any other broad-scope television documentary. It rings strikingly similar to the opening of American Experience, which is perhaps the most critically-acclaimed history series in the United States, produced since 1988 by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
One of the added aspects of the television show that was not present in the webseries is that the filmmakers will occasionally visit bars in the chosen city and interview locals on the subject of the episode, particularly on recognizable people like Richard Nixon or Abraham Lincoln. Some will comment on the city itself, moments that are interspersed between stories to paint a picture of the city and its inhabitants for those unfamiliar. By incorporating the comments of average people, who are seemingly chosen at random from a crowded bar, the ambience of Drunk History is enhanced even further, fostering a sense that history is something to be enjoyed and shared, rather than studied.
“The tone [of Drunk History] is,” creator Derek Waters explained in an interview with the New York Times, “these are guys who are trying as hard as they can to make a history show, but it’s just not going that well.” In the original webseries, this tone was apparent in the “homemade” quality of the sets and costumes. “The tone of taking something ridiculous and making it serious” is a key element of the show, according to Waters. “Also, the bad wigs.” Although the quality improved as a result of receiving a larger budget when the show moved to Comedy Central, this aspect of the show remains a priority of the filmmakers. There is little attempt to shield the viewers from anachronistic set pieces, such as the car that drives through the background of an episode set in seventeenth century Boston. In the first “webisode,” comedian Mike Gagliardi makes mention of Alexander Hamilton “calling” his family before his infamous 1804 duel with Aaron Burr, at which point Hamilton (portrayed by actor Michael Cera) pulls out a cell phone and calls someone on speed-dial. These moments demonstrate the power that the storyteller has over the story, humorously encouraging the audience to always be skeptical of the narrator’s authority.
Drunk History is what Jerome de Groot would call "personality based programming," a programme wholly reliant on the narrator to convey the story and maintain the interest of the viewer. According to Waters, the stories are never scripted, as the narrator is asked to speak on a subject they are already well-versed in and would be able to recall while intoxicated:
The goal has always been to ask people about the moment of history that they’re most passionate about... Then, they’re genuinely excited because when you’re around someone that’s been drinking… they get very, very excited to tell you, like, “You’ve got to hear this!” We like to use people that are genuinely intrigued by the story and know it well. And we’ll always give them documentaries or films to look up little specific things, but we never want to make it feel like homework for anybody.
In their state of lowered inhibitions, the narrators present a story that is influenced more by their own emotional connection to it than is tethered to a desire to tell the "truth." Rather, their obligation is to their own truth, their own uncensored perceptions of how events in the past transpired. Very little analysis is required to uncover a Drunk History narrator's bias, whereas a talking head in a more formal documentary, attempting to reach a wide audience, might cloak their own opinions slightly, avoiding directly opinionated phraseology. The narrator’s drunken condition allows for the story to be told without a focused agenda, piecing together the facts from their muddled mind. In essence, these narrators do subconsciously what popular historians do consciously: they sift through the details to form an account of the most essential information they want conveyed.
The most crucial personality to Drunk History is Derek Waters himself. In the webseries Waters would be behind the camera during the interviews, but would appear as a minor character in each re-enactment. He still acts in every skit, but Waters now plays the role of the host in his series, shown on camera interacting with the storytellers, asking questions and ensuring that they stay on track. Waters is, if anything, the most serious aspect of the show, perhaps playing the character of the dedicated documentarian whose experts have had too much to drink, but he must make his deadline and tell the story anyway. In the opening sequence, the titles read “Drunk History with Derek Waters,” suggesting that his name carries a weight of legitimacy as it would with a famous host like Simon Schama or David Attenborough. Although the structural and symbolic tropes are the same as the average documentary, the essence of the show is what distinguishes it from the genre. Waters facilitates an environment where the focus is on the storyteller rather than the story, where the success of the episode hinges on whether the guest “expert” is perceived as funny. Normally, a documentary guest would supplement the account with their expertise, providing analysis rather than the story’s structural core. This is one of the key differences between Waters’ project and the medium it satirizes. Due to its lack of complex interpretation, it cannot hope to (nor does it purport to) replace these mediums; it can, however, provide a channel by which perceptions of what defines an historical work -- in the eyes of an audience seeking entertainment -- are re-evaluated, with the assistance of a relatable, un-intimidating host.
What must be understood about Drunk History, particularly in the context of other historically-themed television shows, is that it began as a hobby. It was, initially, a project that was made for no benefit other than Waters’ personal satisfaction, and released on a platform wherein value is determined by the number of views accumulated rather than monetary gain. The intention was purely to entertain, and it was only after the popularity of the webseries had reached its pinnacle that the creators considered pitching the idea to a professional studio. Much of the scholarly criticism of history on television is a reaction to the transformation of a discipline -- which requires arduous work and care to do well -- into a commodity. The simplification of history, the “dumbing down” of complex ideas into easily packaged stories, is often seen as a result of enterprising producers attempting to turn a profit on a dramatic tale, rather than an accurate one.
Even Justin Champion, who allows far more flexibility in historically-themed media than some of his contemporaries (most notably and popularly expressed in Richard J. Evans’ book In Defence of History) hints at a discomfort with sacrificing the centuries of detail-oriented work done by historians for a profitable hour of synthesis. In contrast to this expectation, Drunk History in its initial web-based format was a grassroots effort, and its simplification of history was out of artistic, not financial, necessity. The decision to discuss lesser known tales and brief snapshots into the lives of well-known individuals is in anticipation of the intended audience’s needs. If the aim is to engage a generation with a shrinking attention span in a subject that is popularly deemed boring, the material must be adjusted to ensure their attention. If these decisions are being made regardless of commercial considerations, then perhaps it the nature of popular media to drift towards simplicity, rather than an outside influence from those hoping to use the medium for gain.
Public Reaction, Debate and Misunderstanding
As a work of popular history, Drunk History can be a useful case study for examining audience needs and expectations while they are consuming history. The expectation of the show’s viewership, it would seem, is that the stories are nonsense, the ramblings of an inebriated storyteller without the qualifications of a trustworthy source. In a mostly positive review featured in Entertainment Weekly, TV critic Jeff Jensen makes the assessment that “you won’t learn anything” from the television version of Drunk History. However, each story is fact-checked by an employed researcher to ensure a level of legitimacy to the framework of the narrative; the dialogue is the only aspect of the show purely created by the narrator’s imagination.
Ironically, Drunk History’s viewership seems to be largely unaware of this accuracy, having made the same assumptions as Jensen. Prior to its transfer to television, many YouTube commenters doubted the series’ factuality, but still lauded it for its comedic value. Waters, who appears in each episode and has become the public face of Drunk History, has promoted the Comedy Central incarnation of his project with a series of interviews, from the Huffington Post to The New York Times. In each interview he makes a clear stand that his show is “100% true,” perhaps in an attempt to clarify the widespread misunderstanding amongst his established viewers. He also created a forum of the website Reddit, where his fans can contact him directly about questions they have, stories they would like to see on the show. Many of the stories depicted on Drunk History are chosen specifically for their obscurity and humorousness, intended to bring to light facts that may be unfamiliar to the general public. As a result, the subject matter often seems bizarre, which may contribute to the audience’s unwillingness to immediately accept it as true. This begs the question of which is more important: the accuracy of the product, or whether the audience believes the story being told?
Sifting through internet message boards can be an arduous process, yet informative. The comments on Drunk History’s YouTube channel and individual videos usually reflect the most passionate opinions, and cannot be treated as representative of the opinions of the show’s entire viewership. However, the sample does show the stark divides in reaction, from “Was this supposed to be funny?” to “I officially love history now.” Many commenters explain how their personal interests led them to the series, and a handful even claim that they arrived at the video because a teacher had shown it in school. The comedy is lost on some, while others enthusiastically sing its praises. Overwhelmingly, commenters express a disappointment in the Comedy Central version of the series, more often than not complaining that the narrators “aren’t as drunk” as they were when the show was produced by Funny Or Die. From a legal standpoint, this is clearly a result of the limitations placed on production by the network; to the loyal audience, it detracts from the experience of the show, where the reenactments are more entertaining when the actors have to lip-sync to stammering, rambling, and mispronunciations. To many viewers, the interpretation is more important than the facts, and the comedy overshadows the history.
Separate from the comedy-focused viewers are the history enthusiasts. A surprising number of the arguments that occur on these online discussion platforms have to do with dissecting the video’s historical accuracy or message, debating whether the events shown are facts or drunken misinformation. Some will post links to articles that expand upon the topic, providing legitimated proof of the story’s factuality for the uncertain. A sub-category of these debates are politically charged, and are often instigated by political extremists, and the occasional self-proclaimed White Supremacist. Many people act as “trolls,” using the comment board as a place to attack the filmmakers and other commenters. Throughout 3,333 comments on YouTube’s page for Drunk History Vol. 1, there are dozens of threads debating Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the American economic and political systems, some of which criticise the heroization of Hamilton, with others extolling Hamilton’s virtues as an abolitionist and a key founder of American democracy. Whether people believe Drunk History or not, it seems they will express their views on the subject ardently. The skepticism with which the audience approaches the story encourages more involvement, as they turn to their peers to discern collectively what is true, false, or simply drunk.
Because so many people use the public forum to engage in heated, often offensive debate, it would appear that Drunk History has succeeded in fulfilling at least one requirement for “good history” laid out by Champion:
Good history is history that is honest - it is also history that is critical, informed, engaged and committed. It should expose tyranny, celebrate achievement, condemn crimes, explain prejudice, describe sacrifice, honour victims, commemorate the dead, but most importantly, provoke debate.
It is Champion’s last point that rings truest in Drunk History. As the series began on the internet, where virtual interaction with millions of users is central to the experience of anything consumed therein, debate is inherent to the format. While it may not be the critically engaged, tyranny-exposing history that Champion so dramatically describes, the series does tackle issues of social oppression more often than any other theme, and serves as an effective fuel for fiery debates about these issues. The quality of the argument is difficult to measure in the chaotic depths of YouTube, but it is clear that it often devolves into name-calling and personal attacks, a side effect of internet anonymity. However, if the material can spark any passion from a usually passive audience, it has succeeded as effective history.
As a promotional stunt for Drunk History’s transfer to television, in June 2013 Waters launched a “game” for his audience to create their own reenactments, using freely downloadable soundclips of drunkenly-told stories as the script. This takes what Simon Schama referred to as the falling of “usual hierarchies of authority” to an unprecedented level, an unmediated participation of the audience in the creation of historical media. Although the script is provided (most likely to discourage overeager viewers from mimicking the risky drinking habits of the storytellers), participators are given free-reign over the direction, locations, costumes, acting choices, and all creative aspects of the video. As of yet, none of these videos have been released, and it is possible that the audience did not, in fact, answer the call to participate. Whether or not the exercise succeeded is beside the point; rather, the fact that this was a goal at all illustrates that Drunk History takes its audience seriously -- if not its own cast and crew -- as consumers and participants of history.
Democratisation or Distraction?
Waters has stated that his guest narrators are guided by the question, “What moment in history do you think people need to know more about?” This awareness of audience involvement is, perhaps unintentionally, a reflection on the growing desire for a democratisation of history in the mainstream media. The barrier between the “expert” and the “student” in the traditional documentary style is, here, torn down by the narrator’s inebriation. The viewers are shown a vulnerable, relatable storyteller with no apparent authority to comment on the events depicted, demonstrating Waters’ belief that history is not the sole property of historians. Jerome de Groot, although a seeming skeptic of whether the democratisation of history is an attainable goal, does argue that “the involvement of the ‘audience’ in historical programming encourages a sense of common ownership of heritage and the history of nation rather than a history told to a passive audience.” The importance of this aspect of historical television, which is the subject of de Groot’s argument, is that “common ownership” serves as a foil to passive consumption of history. A “passive audience” is not as likely to come away from the material with a substantial investment in it. Comedy relies on the participation of the audience; for example, how TV sitcoms use a “laugh track” to highlight the funniest moments in the script. If the piece garners no laughs, it has not succeeded as comedy. Drunk History asks its audience to trust a traditionally untrustworthy source, and maintains their connection by means of laughter.
Several studies have pointed to comedy as an extremely effective method of teaching. “The anxiety, tension, stress and irregularity that we experience in academe can be decreased by using humor in and out of the classroom,” explains Ronald A. Berk, author of several books on uses of humor in teaching practices. Berk goes on to say, however, that it is important for humor to simply aid in the learning process, and not distract from it. The question is, then, whether Drunk History places too much emphasis on the humor, thus distracting from any educational value it may potentially have. As we can see from the YouTube responses, this is the case for many viewers of the show. Many others note that the humor is what makes the subject matter interesting, several claiming that they would like history much more “if the historians got wasted.” These variant reactions are inconclusive in regards to whether the humor detracts from or enhances the learning experience, and ultimately, it depends on the individual. Based on Berk’s studies and the positive public response, Drunk History could be -- and is, apparently, by some -- used as an effective means of getting uninterested students to look at history from a nontraditional angle.
Most historical documentaries aim to convey a sense of truth and reality, to bring the modern audience into a past that often feels unreachable and distant from their own world, a “bygone, foreign country.” Drunk History directly contradicts this effort by highlighting the limits of our ability to understand the past and capitalizing on the humor in human error. The series takes what documentary critics have come to understand -- that "truth is insubstantial" and subjective to the experiences of the person constructing the narrative and the person receiving it -- and uses this limitation as a benefit to its entertainment value. For an audience of (mostly) Americans for whom history must be usable and available to be relevant, history used as entertainment is an immediate assurance that history has value to them personally. If History is defined as a constructed narrative based on the knowable evidence of the past, then Drunk History fulfills those requirements. But if we require History to include analysis and depth from reputable, trained interpreters, then these are only stories that happen to be based on real events, just another form of entertainment.
What Drunk History is most successful at is demonstrating to an engaged public that history can excite the intellect of people outside the academic historical field. As Champion put it, “for history to work in the broader community it must engage, entice, entrance, intrigue and fire the imagination… Historians have an intellectual responsibility to to make every effort to connect the past to the public.” The support and interest of the public in historical work, according to Champion, should be a central goal of historians who have “retreated into the increasingly dark corners of the academic community.” It is the elusive answer to the ever-asked question of “who owns history?” that determines whether Drunk History deserves any attention in a discussion of televised history. If people of all levels of understanding are freely able to interpret the past and call it History, then Drunk History is aptly titled. The essential question is whether the public is willing to allow average people to take possession of these stories and interpret them in their own voice. Drunk History makes no claims to be the final word on the events it portrays, and emphasizes the role of the host in shaping these events by putting their slurred words directly into the mouths of historical figures (albeit portrayed by poorly costumed celebrities). Evidently, the popularity of the series, as demonstrated by its rise from a low budget YouTube sensation to a fully funded series on Comedy Central, is a testament in itself to the public's willingness to consume history in this way.
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