The untold truth of Drunk History

Since 2013, Drunk History's been one of Comedy Central's most popular, original, and hilarious shows. Co-creator Derek Waters eggs on comedians as they tell fascinating and little-known stories from history … while they get incredibly drunk. You can actually learn something from this show, be it a forgotten war hero, or how one shouldn't mix tequila with wine. And in the spirit of our favorite show about spirits, let's teach you some stuff you likely didn't know about the show.

How it started

Drunk History was co-created by Jeremy Konner and Derek Waters, who's also the de facto host of the show, frequently seen drinking a tequila shot with a narrator, or donning a tri-corner hat for a re-enactment. The whole thing stemmed from a conversation Waters had in 2007 with actor Jake Johnson. Waters and Johnson were — duh — drunk, and Johnson was passionately, furiously, and sadly trying to explain to Waters how Otis Redding died.

How hilarious and awesome it would be, thought Waters, to tape drunk people telling a rambling drunk-person story about a historical event, and then get actors to re-enact the drunk-person story. Waters had the idea for months, but didn't do anything about it because he didn't think it would work. Plus, he didn't have any clout. Fortunately, one of his best friends was Juno and Arrested Development star Michael Cera, who kept encouraging him to do it, and promised to be in the show if he ever made it. Clout granted.

In August 2007, the first Drunk History premiered, narrated by Mark Gagliardi and starring Michael Cera in the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr's 1804 duel to the death (which was a good decade before Lin-Manuel Miranda did it with beats, and without booze).

It's in its third iteration

Few shows premiere with a perfectly-formed premise and sensibility right out of the gate. It takes most a while to get going—even The Simpsons wasn't any good until Season 3 or so. Drunk History, however, is just as good and consistent after four seasons as it was after a single episode. That's probably because it had a couple of less high-profile "trial" runs (pre-gaming, if you will) before it debuted on Comedy Central in 2013. It started as a web-only series on Funny or Die in 2007, and then it became part of Funny or Die Presents, HBO's short-lived attempt to bring Funny or Die videos to the masses who could afford HBO, but didn't know how to watch videos on the internet.

The initial idea for the show was a lot different

Drunk History has a concept so simple and so delightful, it seems like it must have emerged fully-formed from the possibly booze-addled minds of its creators. But in its first incarnation, it was a completely different animal. Waters' first pitch for the show wasn't the talk-sketch-school play hybrid it became—it was a reality show. (Something we've got enough of, anyway.)

The concept was that Waters, a 30-year-old American, somehow got to adulthood knowing nothing about American history. So rented a bus and would drive across the country, popping into bars and parties in major cities, where drunk locals would tell him ribald and unfiltered tales of local history. While the show's concept changed into something a bit more manageable, and a whole lot funnier (professional comedians are usually better at the jokes than Some Guy at the Bar), this original concept was retained in the early seasons of the show as a framing device. Episodes were themed around the history of a certain city, and Waters taped segments in bars, where local boozehounds rambled on and on about how their city is great.

It's incredibly accurate

While a brain on booze isn't the most reliable, or consistent, conduit of information, the cast and staff of Drunk History ensure that the show's narration segments (and by extension, the re-enactments) come out scarily accurate, albeit in a tipsy way.

Producer Seth Weitberg oversees a group of history doctoral students from UCLA, who compile 500 or so potential Drunk History stories before each season begins taping. It's then paired down to 39 (three stories for each of 13 episodes), and each one is matched up to the comedians who've signed up to narrate, based on their historical interests Waters ascertained through a sober pre-interview. When taping actually happens, Waters just lets the narrators ramble on—stopping them only if they get a date, name, or some other fact wrong. And if they pass out, presumably.

People really learn from Drunk History

Drunk History is both extremely accurate and deeply entertaining, which would probably make it an effective educational aid in history classes—were it not for all the unbridled drinking and bleeped profanity. Some teachers have definitely thought it was a good idea to show Drunk History to their class, even if it wasn't a good idea. Take Derek Waters' cousin, a high school history teacher who showed carefully selected and relevant clips of the show to her class … and got into a bit of trouble with her local school board. Apparently, even if you don't show the drunk part of a show called Drunk History, people still get perturbed.

Waters says he's also heard from high school and college history students, who let him know that Drunk History helped them pass tests. Many only remembered a fact, or knew one at all, because they'd seen it on the TV show starring soused comedians. Don't expect this to become part of your class's curriculum, though.

Derek Waters worked hard to nail down the premise

Before it became a series, Waters says he was offered the chance to do Drunk History as a bunch of sketches that would be edited together into a feature film. It would've been a sketch movie, joining the ranks of Kentucky Fried Movie, Amazon Women on the Moon … and literally no other films of note.

While a company throwing money at you to make your movie seems pretty awesome by any metric, Waters actually turned it down, because he knew the concept of a drunk person describing a historical event acted out by people in period garb is something that would only work in small doses. Further down the line in the production process, the History Channel showed interest in putting Drunk History on the air … but wondered if the word "Drunk" had to be in the title, or if the narrators had to be drunk. So, it'd just be History? That … kind of kills everything special about the show.

Not just anyone can handle working on the show

He's got a hot show that looks like a lot of fun (not just for the drinking, but for the history!), so Waters is naturally beset by requests from agents of big-time Hollywood big-shots who want to be on the show. And he's happy to have them, provided they aren't going to be pretentious prima donnas about the whole thing (which eliminates, oh, 98% of them right off the bat).

Fortunately, there are certain fail-safes that weed out a lot of potential human buzzkills. The fact that the re-enactments take all day or more can turn off actors, as does the fact that the show is so low-budget, it only pays $600. You can't be a prima-donna for that little money, it's impossible. Nevertheless, some far more humble stars are still down, like Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, who guest-starred as Harriet Tubman. Waters exclaimed that she was a delight to work with. (She's always seemed cool, you know?)

Drunk people lead to technical difficulties

The show is something of a technical marvel. For the actors to get their lip-synching of the drunk narrators' tales just so, the sets of the historical re-enactments are outfitted with gigantic speakers that bellow out the drunk narrations, a few lines at a time on loop. But the real technical problems come when shooting the drunk portions. Oddly enough, drunk people + expensive filmmaking equipment = potential disaster.

Co-creator Jeremy Konner says problems with audios are almost a given, and that the drunker the comedians get, the less they seem to care about keeping the expensive microphones safe. (Or they're just unable to because they're, you know, drunk as skunks.) "They scratch them. Some people grab the boom mic from above," Konner says.

Another problem: The narrators sometimes get so drunk, they wind up laying face down on the ground or on a couch, and try to tell their stories that way. Unfortunately, microphones can't pick up audio when it's drunkenly mumbled into a couch cushion or throw rug. At least the narrators usually keep their clothes on … usually.

Just how drunk ARE the narrators?

Waters likes his narrators good and hammered for real — the show's called Drunk History, not A Couple of Light Beers History or Tipsy History, after all. This explains why, according to him, every single one of them pukes at some point during their taping (but there's a house rule on the show that they will only depict it on screen once per segment).

He's even worked up a little drinking routine, to deliver maximum drunk narrator potential. Waters encourages the comedians to have one drink (okay, two) before the crew arrives, to get them warm and loose. But not too many—Waters has said he's had to reschedule when he's shown up at a narrator's house and they're already five or six sheets to the wind. Then, to loosen them up further, and to get them comfortable with losing all their inhibitions on national TV, Waters shares a drink with the narrator. Shortly thereafter, taping of the narration segment begins, and it lasts around six hours — drinking continues throughout, so people get pretty plowed.

The process takes so long because, like any other filmed entity, multiple takes are required, from which the best can be selected later on. Hint: On Drunk History, it's usually the one where the narrator is the drunkest … but not necessarily one where the comedian is trying to be funny. Waters says it's because people naturally try to be funny when they're drunk—and many just plain aren't. Even professionals forget how to craft a joke when the world's spinning all around them.

To ensure that nobody dies of alcohol poisoning in pursuit of a funny shot for a basic-cable TV show, the Drunk History production crew includes a medic to prevent anyone from choking on their own vomit. Oxygen is also frequently administered, since it's apparently really good for drunks to get that little hit of oxygen. It doesn't make them less drunk or anything, it just wakes them up a little, so they can keep making good, boofy-blitzed TV.

Okay, but who got the drunkest?

Drunk History is a show that films actual drunk people being drunk, and then getting more drunk. Some have gotten more drunk than others, but co-creator Jeremy Konner says that two narrators stand out as the true champions of Drunkball.

The first was comedian Duncan Trussell, who somehow managed to tell the story of Thomas Edison's destruction of rival Nikola Tesla from the floor of his bathroom, surrounded by his own pizza vomit. (Trussell's, not Edison's.) The other drunkest drunk in Drunk History history was Natasha Leggero, who boozed so hard, the taping of her segment was the first in show history that had to be rescheduled. During the first season of the show, the Another Period star drank an entire bottle of white wine. That doesn't sound like too much, but it is when you chase it with a bunch of tequila shots. Because she was wearing a swimsuit for some reason, Leggero then decided she wanted to film from her bathtub, but she filled it up with moisturizer instead of soap. She was thus unable to narrate the story of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and Waters and Konner put her to bed, still in her swimsuit, still soaking wet.

She called the duo the next day, honestly unable to remember if they'd finished taping or not. They hadn't, so they had to return to Leggero's house. This time, she got the Hearst story taped, sticking to the relatively safe tipple of champagne, straight out of the bottle. You know you've partied hard when that's "taking it easy."