NEW YORK –To hear comedian Derek Waters tell it, the idea for “Drunk History” came about when “New Girl” actor Jake Johnson had a few drinks and was trying to tell him a passionate anecdote about the late singer Otis Redding.
“He was trying to tell me that Otis Redding knew he was gonna die. I didn’t really buy the story,” Waters said in a recent interview, “but he was so passionate about it and he wasn’t able to articulate everything. I just kept picturing Otis Redding reacting to this guy (Johnson) telling a story about how he knew he was gonna die and I thought, ‘That would be cool to re-enact.’ ” (Redding was killed in a plane crash in 1967.)
Soon after, Waters and director Jeremy Konner were making Internet shorts. They filmed actor Mark Gagliardi getting drunk and reciting a historical story that was a bit messy because of the alcohol. A celebrity would then act out the story, complete with hiccups, slurring or other signs of an inebriated storyteller.
The videos were posted to the website FunnyorDie.com in late 2007. Celebrity participants included Johnson, Michael Cera, Nick Offerman and Ryan Gosling.
Now “Drunk History,” based on the Web series, is in its first season on Comedy Central, airing Tuesdays (10 p.m.). Each half-hour episode focuses on one U.S. city, with three historical re-enactments from various time periods in the same location. Celebrity guests include Bill Hader and Kevin Nealon.
Konner said that while it can be amusing to film a drunken friend telling a story, it’s “far and away” more entertaining to direct the celebrity re-enactments.
“Drunk people can be very funny, but they also can get very repetitive, very apologetic, very sad, angry, depressed and physically ill,” he said. “Those aren’t particularly wonderful things to be around all the time. Not to mention it takes four to five hours to record one of these five-minute stories. A person can tell the story quickly but we need to get them drunk enough to mess up.”
Yes, the show finds the funny in drinking and storytelling, but the stories shared on “Drunk History” are fact-based and researched before filming.
“We would never do stories that are completely made up, and obviously the facts or events are changed a little bit but when they’re not real, we point that out. Overall the stories are true,” Waters said.
“I’ll have notes, and sometimes the person who is telling the story will give me their notes and say, ‘Hey, here’s all the stuff I want to hit tonight.’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Can you just remember to tell me 1836? I always forget it’s 1836,’ ” Konner added.
If the show is picked up for a second season, they have collected more material they’re ready to share.
“There’s so many things about it that I get incredibly excited about. These are true stories, told in a way you’ve never heard, literally and figuratively,” Konner said. “Do we take liberties once in a while with dialogue? Maybe here and there. But if somebody’s got to get totally wasted to teach America, God bless.”