As Drunk History continues its second season on Comedy Central (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET), viewers keep learning fascinating stories of America’s lesser-known past—and how far co-creator/interviewer Derek Waters will go to both get his inebriated friends to tell them and actors to reenact them. Here, we discuss some of season two’s early highlights (like “Weird Al” Yankovic as Hitler).
As for what lies ahead, the July 15 “American Music” episode features Johnny Knoxville as Johnny Cash and Jon Daly as Kris Kristofferson, as well as Jack McBrayer as DJ Alan Freed. “He doesn’t scream DJ, but he does scream 1950s DJ, am I wrong?” Waters says. “David Wain of the State and other things narrates that. It’s gonna be a wild one.”
The July 22 “Baltimore” episode, which Waters directed, boasts Charlie Day (detective Allan Pinkerton) and Friday Night Lights alum Adrianne Palicki (detective Kate Warne), along with FNL’s Jesse Plemons (Edgar Allan Poe). “It’s more Todd from Breaking Bad than it is Landry,” Waters promises.
EW: Let’s start with you climbing in the bathtub with JD Ryznar as he told you the story of journalist Nellie Bly (Laura Dern) going undercover at Blackwell’s Island in last week’s “New York” episode. Was there a moment of hesitation?
DEREK WATERS: Great question. I definitely did not think that would happen. I don’t have any ideas of like, “Oh, I want to try to make them do this. I want to try to make them do that.” When JD’s like, “I got two bathing suits, but I don’t think you have the balls to get into the bathtub with m,” we may have cut, like, “Yeah, I don’t want to get into the bathtub.” And then I was like, “All right, Nellie Bly did it with all these other people’s filth, the least I can do—and I bet it will be funny—is get in the bathtub with him.” Other things were cut out, like, “This is definitely not goin’ in my mom’s church bulletin.” I remember saying that.
JD and I are old friends. I’m glad things like that happen [naturally]—when it’s forced, you can see that. And in a story that’s so serious, like covering mental health, it’s nice taking a little break. Nellie Bly is amazing. You should definitely read Ten Days in a Mad-House, if you haven’t.
Laura Dern was fantastic in the reenactment, especially when she was miming barking because JD’s dog, Fancy Ray, interrupted his story. Did I see you tweet that Fancy Ray passed away?
Unfortunately. I was gonna put it in the episode, but then I thought it would look like a joke. He passed away about four months after we filmed, but he lived a good life. I told JD, “I’d like to put a little tribute up for him, if that’s okay.” And he said, “Ah, I would like that.” Fancy Ray did a good job, and now he’ll live on.
The eating of Play-Doh was also fun last week.
I’m not one to brag, but when I was a kid, I did love eating Play-Doh. I also loved eating Play-Doh and paste, but homemade Play-Doh is just flour and salt, and like some color. I don’t know. But I would eat a little bit of it and get yelled at by my mom. But this stuff was like the corporate Play-Doh and it was so bad. It did not taste like my mom’s Play-Doh, which was delicious.
Have people ever wanted to do something so crazy when drunk that you had to shut them down?
Someone last year got very drunk and threw up and then got in the bathtub and thought it would be funny to do the rest of the story in a bikini in the bathtub, and I had to tell her, “There’s a difference between comedy and sad, and that’s just sad, I promise you.” You learn a lot about what alcohol does to the brain, and one of the things, if consumed excessively, you think you can do anything. “We’re gonna go to my friend’s house.” “No, we’re not doing that. No.”
In some ways, I’m interviewing them, while drinking as well, and I’m also doctoring trying to calm them down… We’ve had to reshoot people, go back to their house because they got too drunk. When you have adrenaline being excited for something and drink—”I’m about to be on TV, I’ve got to be funny, I’ve got to drink!”—the cameras go on and you’re completely hammered and you can’t talk. That’s why this year, I’m like, “Have [only] a drink or two before I get there, just so we can at least have a beginning, middle, and end of our story—and then we can get drunk.” I don’t like puke. I don’t like out-of-control. What I like is frustrated passion, where they’re so passionate but they just cannot get this story out.
You like the stories to be factually correct. Have you had someone embellish a story, and you were sad you couldn’t use something they said?
Oh yeah, many times that has happened. That’s why we try to research as many details as we can. We try to get at least three to four sources to make sure that the story is factual. The first goal is to make people laugh. The second is to make them learn. And the third is to make them look it up and go, “Oh, shit, that thing that made me laugh is actually true.”
I learned about Nellie Bly from the researchers here, and I got obsessed with her. I mean, Laura Dern got the part because she’s just the best actress, but in reality, Nellie was . I always say, “We’re on Comedy Central because the narrators are drunk, but I really like secretly teaching.” I wanted to be a teacher, I just never thought I’d teach like this. My mom was a teacher, my grandma was a teacher. My favorite teacher I ever had was Mr. Stange. He was my history teacher, and what I loved about him is he wouldn’t teach, he would talk. You know what I mean? It’s almost like a preacher—don’t preach down to me, talk to me. “This is what you’re supposed to know. This is what you’re supposed to believe in.” It’s almost peer pressure.
The editing of this show is so key.
Well, we shoot five or six hours for every narrator, for five or six minutes of air time. So the amount of edits that we have to go through to make the story have a beginning, middle, and end, you have to cut a lot of jokes that you love because they just don’t forward the story—it teaches you a lot of what’s important in stories. The one thing that almost got cut was the Burning Man/Birmingham joke in Claudette Colvin, I think that was one of our best jokes in there. I’m like, “You can’t take out, even though we need to continue the story. You gotta keep some jokes in there.”
Give me an example of another debate you’ve had in editing.
I directed the Baltimore episode, it’s my hometown. This is gonna have some graphic words in it, sorry. The editor loved this joke: When we were doing the Edgar Allan Poe story, I told Duncan, the narrator, that’s how the Baltimore Ravens got their name. I still want to look up how many other professional teams have been named after a poet. I’m guessing not that many. He goes, “F–king Baltimore. You name a f–king football team after a poet that just dies in a gutter in this city. That’s like having L.A. have a football team called the Elliott Smith Knives.” That was a debate. Actually, it wasn’t. I was like, “I’m not gonna put that in there.” The Edgar Allan Poe story is already dark, so it’s not like, “Oh, that’s too dark.” It’s like, “No, don’t rip on Baltimore.”
How do you decide what roles you yourself will take in reenactments?
Whenever famous people say no. [Laughs] No. Though I will say last year, I really wanted to be Davy Crockett, and I’m glad Adam Sandler said no. Most of the time, you have your two or three main players, and then I choose whatever one seems like a small enough part that I’ll be able to work behind the scenes. The more in front of the camera I am, the less I get to help behind the scenes. My favorite character I play this year is Fidel Castro. I won’t tell you where he’s gonna show up, but playing a bad guy like Fidel Castro was pretty cool.
That’s a nice segue into Weird Al playing Hitler in the season-two premiere. That was amazing. Was he your first choice?
He was the first choice for Hitler. And he was the first person to sign on to the show. He sent me an email from his agent saying, “Are you sure you wanna do this, Al?” And it said, “Yeah.” And what’s really beautiful about Weird Al is that he made a promise that he never would swear, ever. He said that includes lip-synching. He said, “I know that might mess up the odds of me being on the show, but I don’t swear.” I looked at the script, and somehow our Hitler didn’t swear. So we didn’t change one thing, and it just worked out naturally. The worst thing he says is, “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-Os.” Just like Johnny Knoxville playing Johnny Cash was a dream come true, this was like, “Is this real life?”