After a few too many drinks, one friend told another friend a story about soul singer Otis Redding. Redding, the friend, passionately insisted, knew he was going to die before he boarded the plane that crashed and killed him. The friend told the tale with full gusto, voices and all, even as he slurred his words and messed up some of the details.
The storyteller was Jake Johnson, now on Fox's "New Girl," and his audience was Derek Waters, a self proclaimed comedy nerd, who realized the moment was prime for comedy. How hilarious, Waters thought, would it be to tape not only the drunk story teller, but also, to have his inebriated telling amateurishly re-enacted by other comic actors?
"People always get drunk and talk about music. What's something people don't get drunk and talk about that you could do this joke to?" Waters says. And thus "Drunk History," which premiered on Comedy Central this week, was born.
But before it made it to the silver screen, "Drunk History" got its start – as has become ever more common – as a viral internet video series. Waters brought on friend Jeremy Konner, who served as production jack of all trades, as well as friend Mark Gagliardi, who with a particular enthusiasm for Alexander Hamilton, played the first "Drunk History" storyteller, with Michael Cera playing Hamilton in the video.
After premiering the video at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, they posted it to YouTube where it quickly earned over a million views. It also caught the attention of Funny or Die, the comedy video website founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. As they continued to make videos, their subjects ranged from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison to Frederick Douglass, with stars that included Jack Black, Zooey Deschanel and Don Cheadle. An episode showcased on HBO for its 2010 series "Funny or Die Presents" even won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
"It was a huge surprise and that was the first moment we thought, 'Oh man, maybe we should be doing something else with this,'" Konner says.
The brilliance of "Drunk History" is not just its hilarious but all-too-familiar premise – your sloshed best friend recounting his favorite story from high school history – but its silly execution. The actors are forced to stick to whatever narration their storyteller has given them – garbled dialogue and all. That could even mean that, playing Bob Woodward, one must spontaneously pretend to vomit because his narrator did in his retelling of the Watergate scandal, as happens in the Comedy Central pilot. Though there are plenty of wigs, costuming and sets, "Drunk History" never tries too hard to recreate the moment.
For the most part, "Drunk History" tries to continue the tradition of the viral videos, letting the narrators – still a rotating crew of Konner's and Water's semi-famous friends – pick the story they would like to tell. But the new setup, in which each episode tells three stories set in a single city, requires the narrator's subjects to be specific to the location, which at times requires the storytellers do a little extra research.
But one thing hasn't changed: The narrators are actually drunk.
"We just say, 'Whatever you would like, you go and get it and have a few drinks before we get there.' We definitely are never trying to get people sick or passing out. We're not 'Jackass'" says Konner, adding that the narrator's delirium also comes from exhaustion, as filming typically last until the early morning.
"If nothing ever happened with this show in the future, I could be a therapist for anyone that's been drinking," Waters says.
They hope the show serves as a source of entertainment, an educational lesson and a cautionary tale:
"If somebody can walk away having interest in any of these stories, that would be great. If they learn something, that would be better. And if the thing that they learn is that booze makes smart people really stupid, then that's good," Konner says.