What Makes Historical Comedy Tick?

Comedy based around history is having a moment. Podcasts, sitcoms, web series and sketches are looking backwards, sometimes hundreds of years backwards, for inspiration. While performers have often mined the history books for laughs, this new wave has seen some of the most established comedians out there use clever, hilarious ways to reconsider the past.

The Dead Authors Podcast has Paul F. Tompkins play foil to a host of lunatic versions of famous writers. Documentary Now! inserts Bill Hader and Fred Armisen into scarily accurate spoofs of classic films like The Thin Blue Line and Nanook of the North. Comedy Central’s Another Period casts Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindholme as bratty turn-of-the-20th-century society divas, Dunk History filters real events through a booze-soaked lens, and the songs of Trevor Moore and Epic Rap Battles of History often make substantive points about famous figures on top of catchy tunes. This year, the History Channel even got its own comedy programming, Night Class, which at this point is arguably one of the less ridiculous things that channel’s aired.

With all of this in our cultural bloodstream, it poses the question of how good historical comedy works, and why there’s so much of it around in 2016. It’s certainly easier to gobble up information now than it’s ever been, making it a snap to look up any obscure references you don’t get. But there’s more to good historical comedy than just jokes in old-fashioned costumes. The best examples today help us see exactly how relative our understanding of history can be.

There’s a long tradition of using comedy to criticize the past and the present all at once. Stan Freberg’s United States of America made parallels between the American Revolution and Cold War Communist paranoia, with Ben Franklin fearing the wrath of the “Un-British Activities Committee.” Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian had average citizens voice how absurd life in Medieval England or Roman-occupied Judea really was with the 20/20 vision of postmodern history nerds in good ol’ monarchical Britain (the famous “What have the Romans ever done for us?” bit recently got a Brexit-themed update featuring Patrick Stewart). Though not a comedy, the Broadway behemoth Hamilton has some moments like this as well, with lines clearly meant as a wink to a savvy 21st Century audience: George III being baffled at the prospect of “replacing whoever’s in charge” of the U.S. says a lot about the way Americans measure themselves up against their parent country.

That critical spirit is very much alive today. In the pilot of Another Period, Leggero’s character reacts to women’s suffrage by saying “Haven’t women suffered enough? I mean, we’re already inferior to men in every way.” On Dead Authors,  Matt Gourley’s gloriously unhinged Ian Fleming gleefully elaborates on his own misogyny before revealing that he is, in fact, a woman. Documentary Now’s Nanook parody episode, “Kunuk Uncovered,” has a native man go from reluctant subject to creative tyrant, hijacking his own movie and inventing such conveniences as “craft services” in the process.

Sometimes jokes like this can seem like cheap shots to make us feel secure that at least things today aren’t as bad as they used to be, but that’s not quite what’s happening here. Another Period’s core concept plays off of modern day problematic class nostalgia just as much as its setting, and Gourley’s Fleming is so impossibly horrible he brings the enduring popularity of his James Bond into question. Likewise, “Kunuk” is a sophisticated satire of both the 1920’s showmen that exoticized indigenous people and the way behind-the-scenes documentaries can let those filmmakers off the hook.

Another important function of historical comedy is the chance to create new, sometimes necessary conversations with long-gone figures. This can be as easy as dropping them in the present to see how they’d react to a modern world. In previous years, Bill & Ted let Freud, Joan of Arc, and Beethoven run loose in an 80s mall, and Bob Newhart’s PR call to Abraham Lincoln satirized both ad firms and the folksy, populist image of that particular president.

There’s also the opportunity to pit characters from different eras against each other. The best Epic Rap Battles do this well, with one of the more recent examples being “Frederick Douglass vs Thomas Jefferson.” It’s kind of exhilarating to watch Douglass (J.B. Smoove), who criticized the hypocrisy of the U.S.’s use of slavery in real life, contrast his own self-education with Jefferson’s privileged lifestyle. In response, Jefferson (Peter Shukoff, a.k.a. Nice Peter) doesn’t deny his use of slaves but says he “participated in a broken system which [he] hated” and asks for a fist-bump of forgiveness (which he doesn’t get). In moments like this, the show almost drops the comedy completely to dodge easy answers and get us to rethink accepted narratives. Not bad for goofy videos that often run shorter than four minutes.

One of the Night Class shows, Great Minds With Dan Harmon, gives us similar examples of this. The premise sees Harmon playing an assholish, ratings-obsessed version of himself bringing famous people to temporary (and, initially, nude) life in 2016. We get Matt Walsh as a surprisingly sincere Harry S. Truman coming to accept the gay community, Gillian Jacobs showing how Ada Lovelace would adapt to modern technology, and Jason Sudeikis’ Thomas Edison, who has a meltdown when he discovers the car he’s riding in is a Tesla.

Perhaps one of the best things about historical comedy is its freedom to play loose with accuracy. Plenty of humorous YouTube channels try to entertain and inform at the same time, but the underlying goal is always education. When the comedy comes first, though, the viewer no longer gets to make safe assumptions about what “really happened.” In an interview with the AV Club last year, Paul F. Tompkins said that he “learned early on not to take [Dead Authors] too seriously. It’s a comedy show, it’s not a college course. It’s supposed to be silly.”

That silliness is a wonderful tool in the right hands. It allows Tymberlee Hill’s Maya Angelou to go on an instant classic riff about Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre and confuse LeVar Burton with Ben Vereen, Ron Funches to give us a ridiculously cheerful Idi Amin on Great Minds, and Another Period to show Helen Keller’s tutor Anne Sullivan releasing her second-fiddle frustrations after getting hopped up on “cocaine wine.”

Comedians seem to instinctively know that you can get away with bending the facts if there’s a big laugh to be had, and sometimes they manage get at some bigger point as a result. And when the facts don’t support the jokes of Epic Rap Battles or Great Minds or even Hamilton completely, the attempt alone can be enough to challenge what we take for granted. We know from the start not to trust Drunk History, which allows the show to reach delirious heights as it tries to take its wasted narrators at their increasingly slurred words.

Just as Jon Stewart and John Oliver urge us not to compare them to “real” reporters, it’s probably wise not to get all of your historical knowledge from comedy sketches. Instead, comedians are showing us how malleable our understanding of the past really is. And that’s the real gift this tiny Renaissance is giving us.

When most people’s knowledge of history comes from easily edited pages online, when the notion of objective reality seems deader than the T-Rex, when political candidates can fudge facts left and right on national television and not get penalized for it, it pays to think twice about the information we take for granted.

What Makes Historical Comedy Tick?