“Pretty standard Drunk History.”
Isn’t it weird that you probably all know what I mean? Before watching even a second of Comedy Central’s adaptation of the popular Funny Or Die web series, I already had a preconceived notion of what I thought a Drunk History episode was going to look like. There would be slurry recounts of obscure historical figures, like the plight of John Wilkes Booth’s brother. The accompanying footage, in which famous actors dramatize the story verbatim, would be sloppy enough so you know the storyteller’s basically on the verge of vomiting, and in one case does (pay cable, ladies and gentlemen). It’s a formula with limited failure rate: Everyone loves watching people make fools of themselves publicly, and now Adam Scott and Stephen Merchant can heighten the joke.
As a consumer of Internet media, I know it well, and my affinity for the lightning-in-a-bottle that created this show is right there with me. Comedy Central capitalizes on the concept’s inherent familiarity, and wisely gets the fuck out of its way. Yes, this is standard Drunk History, and it’s pretty much failsafe. The worst it can be is an enjoyable exercise in watching professional actors like Bob Odenkirk try their best to mimic exactly the slurry cadence of the story. But much like any Internet series making the jump to television, the first episode of Drunk History can’t quite find its footing. It’s not like a wild drunk who starts fights with people on the streets and regales late night diner patrons with tales of adventure. It’s like a calm drunk, completely wasted and placing great intention and weight on its words. Less entertaining, more sad. The show has become a guy with a major drinking problem.
The première mirrors a binge-viewing of the web series, which might have something to do with the fatigue. There are three stories back-to-back, broken up only by a stray commercial break or a five-second interview with another drunk person. The rest is in the hands of the storytellers themselves to provide interesting and salient details to make the reenactments sparkle, and in this case, it’s unfortunately very hit-or-miss. Drunk History uses comedic pals of its creator Derek Waters who are vaguely familiar to the keen TV viewer, like Eric Edelstein—the guy who played Elvis in that one New Girl episode (he was also in Hotel For Dogs), telling a story about Elvis. I’ve been told by Comedy Central that Waters chose these folks because comedians and actors are capable of telling a succinct story with a beginning, middle, and end.
The three chosen for the Drunk History première wax and wane in brevity. There are lots of times when the storytellers drunkenly meander off topic, which isn’t wholly surprising. I mean, they’re wasted. In the web series, they kept those moments tight. But with room to breathe on the show, those moments majorly disrupt the comedic flow. The episode opens with the story of Watergate, with Nathan Fielder as Bob Woodward and Fred Willard playing “Deep Throat.” It takes a hell of a long time to get to the meat of the story, which would be fine if the distractions were more than conversations being held between people.
That kind of thing doesn’t make for the most enticing of reenactments, nor does the fact that the storytellers are so completely gone, they speak very softly and slowly. Drunk History’s whole thing is that the series treats the words of these lushes as if they are regal decrees—Masterpiece Theater-lite. Without the jolt of adrenaline powering the retelling, that hoity-toity tone makes the story feel like it’s trying to escape a jar of molasses. Drunk History takes few creative liberties with the pace and tone set up by the drunk people. So the stories draaaaaaaaaag.
The worlds of Drunk History are still enjoyable to take in. The costuming and props-ing are affably low-budget. With little more than a big wig and a pair of fake sideburns, Jack Black transforms into Elvis. Same goes for a Bob Odenkirk shoulder hunch and Richard Nixon. The Lincoln story takes place long before the other two, obviously, and the cinematography matches the era by making shots grainy, but still pop. (Will Forte has never looked better in sepia.) The problem is that we all know what Drunk History looks like at this point. As much as a web series can have laurels, Comedy Central’s version rests on them. And even though the formula behind the show is relatively foolproof, in the Biggie-sized version, the surprises are fewer and further between.