The Diversity of Drunk History
Comedy Central’s Drunk History just finished its winter season. Though it won’t return until June 19th, now is the perfect time to catch up on what might be one of television’s most educational and inclusive shows.
Drunk History began with a drunken conversation about, well, history. Waters’ friend, Jake Johnson (of New Girl fame), stumbled through the story of how Otis Redding knew he would die on the plane that would ultimately crash and take his life. Waters was inspired—how funny would it be to record actors performing to a drunken, slurring storyteller? He mentioned the idea to another friend, Arrested Development’s Michael Cera, who encouraged Waters to pursue it and volunteered to perform. In 2007, Waters gathered a cast—Johnson, Cera, actress Ashley Johnson, and Waters himself—to reenact the story of Alexander Hamilton’s 1804 duel with Aaron Burr, as told by a drunk Mark Gagliardi. Funny or Die picked it up as a web series, and Drunk History was born.
Comedy has always had the reputation of being a (White) boy’s club, and for a time, Drunk History was little different. In 2016, Kelsey McKinney ran the numbers, and they weren’t inspiring. Of the first three seasons, White men were the predominant storytellers by a staggering degree. (She admits the numbers are a little skewed; each season has been progressively longer.) So, how has the show changed over the next two seasons?
Despite the ratios, the show has always made an effort to highlight both women in history and as inebriated storytellers. Jen Kirkman broke down in tears when she revealed the fate of Mary Dyer, buried in an unmarked mass grave. Another Period co-creator Natasha Leggero rambled through the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Amber Ruffin burped out the story of Claudette Coleman, raising her glass to one of the most underappreciated figures of the Civil Rights movement. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Octavia Spencer as Harriet Tubman leading an “army of bad bitches.” The second season finale was dedicated to First Ladies through American history, giving the spotlight to the women who stood behind the presidency—and sometimes led it.
Recently, Drunk History’s hosts have been markedly more diverse than in the past. Season four featured Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton special, bringing the series full circle to its earliest origins. Season five generated segments and episodes about Civil Rights and women’s liberation; “Game Changers” featured all African-American hosts and stories, including Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols’ importance to bringing women into America’s space program. Indeed, this season has focused largely on women and people of color. Tiffany Haddish slurred her way through the story of Rose Valland, the art historian who aided the French Resistance and the Monuments Men. Questlove gave a stirring account of the birth of hip-hop, and My Favorite Murder’s Georgia Hardstark punctuated the unsolved mystery of the infamous Circleville Letters with the occasional belch.
However, perhaps most striking was this season’s feature on the 504 sit-in, the disability rights protest that gave the US the American Disability Act. Told by Suzi Barrett, the bulk of the performers were disabled—a rarity for film and television (and that diversity and inclusivity is important). History is written by the victors, which means stories often fall through the cracks. Stories like Mary Ellen Pleasant, businesswoman and abolitionist; Sybil Ludington, who outrode Paul Revere to warn the colonies; and Edith Wilson, who ran the country in secret while Woodrow Wilson fell ill. Whether in response to critics like McKinney or not, the show has shown an effort to mix things up and provide ample representation.
Hollywood as of late is filled with calls for inclusion in the industry (particularly on Oscar night), and that extends to every corner of entertainment—especially comedy. When figures like Louis C.K. fail us and even Dave Chappelle punches down, what should be the most inviting arena for performers becomes unwelcoming and insular at best, and it turns unsafe and dangerous at worst. Drunk History might seem like an unlikely source, but its library of feminist and activist stories provide a platform and space that’s rarely seen in the comedy world.
Are there still White dudes stumbling through history? Of course. Promos for the show’s return feature recurring storyteller/drunk Rich Fulcher and 30 Rock’s John Lutz. Also, the episodes don’t always focus on important events—one episode is literally titled “Shit Shows.” But history’s filled with stories of the undersung, and Drunk History, for all the burps and jokes, aims to inspire.
Seasons 1–4 are streaming though Hulu, and the entire series is available through Comedy Central’s website and app. If you haven’t yet, check it out. You might learn something.