Drunk History still doesn’t really work as a full-length show. Yeah, there’s a half hour of funny stuff happening, but as Steve Heisler noted in his review of the première, watching the show still feels like binging on the web series in a way that causes all of the stories to blur together without letting any moment in particular jump out. The last seven episodes haven’t done much to counter that original assessment of Drunk History as shots that might be fine by themselves, but just make you sick or, worse still, black out if you down too many at once. It’s telling that the Comedy Central incarnation of Drunk History has still been successful mostly for spawning Internet-ready moments and performances ripe for plucking from a scattered whole. Some of the storytellers are particularly effective (Kyle Kinane is the greatest drunk in the world), and some of the actors do an especially good job with their characters (Ken Marino’s Harry Houdini), but the show has yet to really produce a good “episode of television.”
Thankfully, tonight’s installment makes the best argument so far that the show will get there eventually. Mostly that’s because “Wild West” is unusually cohesive for an episode of Drunk History. Where most of the earlier installments (named after cities) have used those locations as a loose jumping off point for “retellings,” “Wild West” takes a very drunk person’s idea of the Wild West very seriously and uses it as the framework for the least sloppy episode of the show yet. Everyone wears the same silly cowboy costumes, struts around similar dusty ghost town sets, and the on-screen font changes to mimic spaghetti western posters. The usually tacked-on interludes are primarily host Derek Waters smirking as he learns about guns from people with names like Pistol Packin’ Paula, so at least they’re consistent in tone and focus. Waters keeps dropping Pistol Packin’ Paula’s pistol and drifts through his lesson with a shotgun, suggesting something along the lines of the world’s most apathetic, inaccurate travel show.
Beyond better framing for the stories, Drunk History is dependent on at least three different things working in unison to be funny: The retelling itself, the actors’ lip-syncing, and the editing to highlight the contrast between “history” and the dude vomiting on the couch. Tonight’s three stories succeed as well as the show ever has at balancing those things. Mark Gagliardi’s delivery in the tale of the Rough Riders channels the way drunk people (at least the ones I know) use wildly inappropriate, awesome slang to distill important stuff. As told by Gagliardi, Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t try to recruit cowboys by persuading them, he just says, “Guys, what’s up, I need your help, Spain sucks, the U.S. needs to go to war with Spain, let’s do this,” and damned if both Gagliardi’s faith in Roosevelt’s badassery and Andy Daly’s macho posturing as T.R. don’t sell the story as hilarious. The disproportionate excitement of drunk people is a powerful, dark force of nature mostly used to sell things at sporting events, and the Rough Riders story is Drunk History’s strongest attempt yet to tap into it.
In the third segment, Matt Gourley returns to the show (he led off the première with Watergate) to tell the story of the Alamo while holding a gun in his hands the whole time (it never goes off, and considering how plastered Gourley is, that’s probably a good thing). The star power really gets turned on for this one, highlighting the importance of the reenactors as Jake Johnson, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz throw themselves into their roles as William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Santa Anna, respectively. (Waters saves Davy Crockett for himself.) Johnson as skeevy William Travis in particular highlights one of the big problems with the Drunk History format—he’s so energetic that it’s hard not to want him to just perform Gourley’s drunk script and yell about how screwed everyone holed up in the Alamo is.
For all of “Wild West” that is successful, Drunk History still has a ways to go if it wants to be more than a longer, glorified version of the web series. Beyond Johnson’s too-winning performance, Preston Flagg’s middle story of Billy The Kid (the ballad of Billy The Kid, if you will) has fun parts, but on the whole is more the sad, meandering type of drunken story where the teller falls asleep halfway through. Though Rob Huebel is good, he doesn’t quite save the sequence as Pat Garrett. The shifts from the retelling to the plastered storyteller falling off a chair or vomiting are supposed to be funny, but almost always kill the story’s comic momentum.
There’s no way of knowing whether the show will build on the improvement of “Wild West.” With a formula this well established, Drunk History had even less reason to change over the course of its first season than most comedies. Hopefully “Wild West” is an indication it will age well instead of just going stale.