Since 2007, Drunk History has stumbled from a Funny or Die web series to an acclaimed Comedy Central show to one of the first five comedies to score an Outstanding Variety Sketch Series Emmy nomination, and tonight it returns with an all new season featuring Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Dan Harmon, Taran Killam, and many more. Ahead of the premiere, I spoke with creator, executive producer, and master drunk person handler Derek Waters about his Emmy nom, what we can expect in season 3, why drunken honesty makes for great storytellers, and which type which alcohol makes him feel the smartest.
First off, I thought I’d tell you that after we ran our Drunk History interview with you last year, we got a lot of emails from people who thought we made the show, and they were begging to be featured in it.
Yeah, yeah! I’ve seen those emails. I know those emails.
I can’t imagine how many of those you get.
Oh it’s all fine. It would be a lot different if people were like “Screw that show!” but it’s people who are saying “Oh, I wanna do it!” So I mean, their heart’s in the right place.
That seems to be a big key to the show’s success – the concept is so approachable to pretty much everyone, so in turn, everyone thinks they’d do a great job.
Yeah, it’s a simple idea, and then the execution is what really makes it, I think. But yeah, when people make videos of them doing them, so far no one knows the secret key they’re missing, and I’ll never give it up. [laughs]
Lip Sync Battle has been a big hit over on Spike this year. Would you like to take any credit for its success, considering Drunk History make funny lip syncing on TV popular first?
I would say no. I don’t feel responsible for that being successful – I wish! I wish I could’ve created lip syncing. I still always think it would be great to do a history of Milli Vanilli, but I feel like that’s too inside.
Too inside? It would be a very meta Drunk History segment.
Yeah. Probably too meta. But yeah, so was there something specifically you think did well in the last article, or do you think it was just because people saw “Drunk History” and they wanted to do it?
I think they just saw “Drunk History” and wanted to do it. I don’t think they understood it was just an interview. It’s like getting an email from your aunt or something.
Oh yeah. That’s a perfect way of putting it.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination, by the way. Did you ever have any expectations that a show like this would be recognized on this level?
Thank you! And no. I mean, you put it perfectly, because every time I get asked about it and every time I think about it, it’s like, any human being with humility’s gonna say it’s crazy – and it is. But what’s crazier to me is that is also takes a lot of guts to acknowledge a show with a word in the title that is usually a negative word – “drunk” can be recognized by the highest grade of people in television! So I’m just honored. And secretly, I want to make a show where you’re learning, you know? I try not to ever be preachy in any stories, I never like to portray one side as better than the other – I just want to say “This is the story. This is what happened, and that’s all I’m saying.” So the goal has always been to tell stories that I would want more people to know about, and it’s just cool that this feels like a sign that that’s working.
It’s interesting you say “drunk” is a negative word.
I mean, it can be negative, but it also can often be a way – as far as me and the experience of the show – it’s not like “Oh, look how fucked up they are!” but “Look how honest they are.” It’s cutting out the intellect where you’re just thinking off the top of your head of how you feel instead of being analytical about everything and overthinking stuff. I think “drunk” is a state of mind that just cuts out the bullshit and just says how you feel, you know? …but I don’t encourage getting drunk at all.
[laughs] It seems like it’s much easier to get those candid, drunk moments with comedians and writers, since they know not to get too self-aware or hammy about it. They know it’ll be funnier if they just let the alcohol do the talking.
Oh yeah. When you think of comedians and you think of alcohol and you think of TV shows it’s like “Oh, they’re gonna try to be funny!” and that’s the thing I work on to make sure no one’s trying to be funny – that they’re trying to tell the story and while doing that funny things happen. But when you force comedy, in my opinion, I always say the only thing worse than trying to be funny is watching someone trying to be funny.
So there’s a mix of cities and themed episodes this season, right?
Yep, there’s gonna be eight cities and five themes. One of the things I’m really excited about is doing more themed episodes. I love the cities, but themes, to me, make me excited because the stories can be from anywhere and also because I like the diversity of splitting up cities and themes. One of my favorites, one I directed, was the history of spies – or at least these three specific spies. Harriet Tubman was a spy, which is amazing, and she is played by Octavia Spencer, which is pretty cool. And then Will Ferrell plays Roald Dahl, the children’s author who was also a British spy. And then Alia Shawkat – she was Frances Cleveland last year – she plays this amazing woman named Virginia Hall, who was a spy and only had one leg. It’s a really cool story.
Were there certain narrators you were excited to bring on this year?
As far as the narrators, obviously I’m in love with Jenny Slate, so every time I get Jenny Slate it makes me very, very happy. And there’s a lot of new faces – I love Tess Lynch. She tells the story of the The Balloon Corps in the New Jersey episode. I mean, really, there isn’t anyone in there who I’m not excited about. The queen of Drunk History, Jen Kirkman, is returning too, which makes me very happy.
Dan Harmon’s in there too, right?
Yep, Dan Harmon is the big new one. He tells the story of Griselda Blanco – that’s a great one. And then I’m also excited about an episode we have all about journalism, and in between those stories is me and David Simon drinking tequila, eating Maryland crabs, talking about journalism…which was a dream come true.
Are there certain elements to making the show that were difficult back in the beginning but much easier now?
Condensing the stories has become a lot easier. I think the stories are tighter now than they were in the previous seasons and the edits have become a little easier – figuring out what’s important and what isn’t.
Since you have a lot of experience coaching drunk people to give you the material you need, do you have any good tips for manipulating drunk people in general?
Yeah but I can’t give them away! [laughs] But here’s an example: If someone is drunk and telling you a story…like in our show, if someone was like “…and then John F. Kennedy got shot,” I’ll say “Well, wait. What did John F. Kennedy say in the car before he got shot to his wife?” Or they’ll go “All right, so John F. Kennedy was born in..” and I’ll say “No no no, just go back one second,” and a drunk brain cannot go backwards that slow – it has to start all the way over. So my tip is that if someone drunk is telling a story and you didn’t hear what they said, just wait until they’re finished the whole story. Don’t cut them off. Let them keep going – let them get it all out. Or get up and walk away.
Watching the show, I do wonder sometimes how often you have to remind the narrators to include dialogue for the reenactments.
Well now, the people who are doing it know the show, so it’s almost like sometimes it’s a little too much dialogue where I’ll have them just tell the story so it’s natural and doesn’t seem orchestrated. The only lines I’ll ever feed to any narrator is if they mess up a date or someone’s name – I want all that stuff to be 100%. If someone says 1989 and we’re talking about 1889 I’ll still keep them saying 1989 but make sure that they go back and remember it was 1889.
Last question: Obviously everyone handles alcohol differently, but in general, what kind of narrator behavior can you expect from people based on their alcohol of choice?
For me, I feel like whiskey or bourbon is the go-to of calm, collected, and feeling intellectual. Wine makes me sleepy. As long as you eat before you have any drink, you’re gonna be a little better. But yeah: Tequila makes you crazy, whiskey makes you think you’re smart, wine makes you fall asleep while you’re talking, and beer, you just get too damn reminiscent.
What about vodka?
Ooh, that makes you dance! I think that makes you dance? Tequila makes you dance but then throw the table you’re dancing on.
Tequila, in my experience, always leads to trouble.
Yeah, I’ve never heard a good story about tequila.
Season 3 of Drunk History premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30pm.