With ‘Drunk History’, the More Shots You Have, the More You Learn

This isn't so much a comedy classic as it is passively amusing, but Drunk History's formula works damn well... especially after you've had a few of your own.

Gary Sanchez Productions had a rough start.

Naturally, the production company founded by Will Ferrell and his frequent direction/writing/producing partner Adam McKay seems like a powerhouse idea, having backed the cult HBO series Eastbound & Down as well as the website Funny Or Die, which as of late 2014 had a rough valuation of $100 million to $300 million dollars. Yet outside of those ventures, Gary Sanchez Productions has had a hard time creating anything of note, save for those things that Ferrell himself starred in. From The Virginity Hit to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to a variety of failed TV programs, including the quickly-canceled new fall TV show Bad Judge, Ferrell and McKay’s production venture has had to bank on Ferrell’s box-office clout to secure big pay days. O utside of the 2014 Melissa McCarthy pet project Tammy, Gary Sanchez Productions hasn’t made as big of a mark as it would like.

Save, of course, for Drunk History.

The concept, pioneered on Funny Or Die before creator Derek Waters hopped it over to Comedy Central for full half-hour episodes, is simple: a cult celebrity of some sort gets highly inebriated with Waters. These people include the likes of director David Wain, Breaking Bad‘s Matt Jones, Paget Brewster, and Jenny Slate. After this, the celebrity then recounts, to the best of her abilities, a historical event. Often filled with only mostly-correct information and countless casual swears, these slurred narrations are used as the audio for high-grade reenactments, often featuring well-known actors embodying historical figures and lip-synching along to the slurred, repeated, and vulgarity-peppered dialogue. For instance, see the video below:

The premise itself lends itself to easy comedy, and even the narrations, although heavily edited, sometimes work as standalone comedy bits, with enough I-can’t-believe-they-said-that-moments to warrant a few good memes. For the high-end recreations, though, an immediate comic effect is achieved from the sheer contrast of these high-brow production values married to these low-brow retellings. That each one is filled with bunches of extras, period costumes, elaborate sets, and even an occasional big-budget special effect adds to the comedic punch of the humor.

Seeing actors like Jack Black, John Lithgow, Winona Ryder, Laura Dern, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Kristen Wiig all play these historical figures only amps up the fun factor to be had. Their performances create a surreal, often quite funny series of events that have the additional perk of often focusing on niche aspects of history. These range from Claudette Colvin’s refusal to leave her bus seat for a white person (and thereby setting the stage for Rosa Park’s eventual protest) to the real mastermind that created Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks.

Some of the humor in the show comes from just how disoriented the narrator is when retelling their story, while some of it comes from the absurd performances that the actors all have committed to. Best of all, however, is when unexpected moments in the narration translate into the reenactments, treating off-comments, belches, and a dog barking into the narrative itself create glorious bits of surreal humor. The dog barking incident comes in the form of the episode “Atlanta”, easily one of the best episodes across the first two seasons: in it, the bartender to the Bill Hader-led story of Coca-Cola inventor John Pemberton barks for no reason. As an added bonus to this, the audience is treated to a shimmy dance by Hader’s Pemberton, used to fill one of narrator Jenny Slate’s infectious laughs. This uproarious bit is worth the price of admission alone.

Even with all of the stars and sets the show features, sometimes a well-placed sight gag adds the most to the charm of the sketches. For an example, check the perspective-bent shot of a toy helicopter standing in for a real one when Kris Kristofferson (Jon Daly) lands in Johnny Cash’s (Johnny Knoxville) yard to deliver a new song.

Also of note? The standby cast the showrunners hired to fill in occasional roles here and there. The clear ace in the hole in this respect is Maria Blasucci, who is able to nail every punchline with grace, energy, and humor to spare. Because she consistently buys in to the absurdity of each sketch’s premise, she is easily the program’s secret weapon.

While some episodes (“American Music”) are definitely funnier than others (“Hawaii”), the show’s formula still manages to deliver with surprising consistency. It is that very consistency, however, which makes the over two hours of DVD bonus features seem so dry and bland by contrast. Some of the “extended” scenes with the drunk narrators actually end up dampening the images of those tellings of the stories. In these cases, the more charming moments made it into the show that aired, while the pants-dropping, “corporate sellout”-shouting antics deservedly ended up on the cutting room dustbin, presumably to be burned.

Some of the added/extended scenes earn a few chuckles. The rare times Waters (soberly) watches an episode with a previous participant, however, prove to be the most helpful and informing bonus insights here. The interactions and stories rounded up by clearly embarrassed notables Phil Hendrie and Jen Kirkman further the show’s charm offensive. Kirkman proves especially potent with her story about meeting Winona Ryder at the wrap party (having played Mary Dyer in Kirkman’s retelling) and wanting to leave until they both ran into each other and formed a quick and potent bond.

Overall, Drunk History proves to be more of a “fun show” than an outright comedy classic, but with a third season already slated and an already-solid batting average behind it, it’s hard to deny Drunk History‘s more entertaining elements. While the stories and reenactments are a great sight to behold, it’s clear that the cast and crew have a lot of fun making this show. The only thing more fun than watching it? Getting drunk right along with it.

RATING 7 / 10