The History Channel — which apparently rebranded itself, confusingly, as simply “History” in 2008 — didn’t always have a tone problem. Before 2008, when its name still made sense, the network aired documentaries that consulted historians and cultural critics. It was, all at once, a great channel for hungover teachers to show their public school classes, and a great network to leave on when falling asleep. Most specials explored either Jesus or Hitler, and all was right with the world.
Post-2008, History began airing reality television programs completely untied to history. Though Pawn Stars arguably made sense for the network when it began — often delving into the cultural background behind the pawn shop’s vintage toys and war memorabilia — the show focused increasingly on the family of men running the store. Suddenly, History was airing documentaries that sensationalized unsubstantiated conspiracies and pseudo-science, like Ancient Aliens, UFO Hunters, and The Nostradamus Effect.
History is reinventing itself yet again, this time, by paying particular attention to what millennial audiences enjoy. The cord-cutting demographic everybody is trying to grab doesn’t watch reality TV the way our parents did, and we tend to have a genuine interest in history and other soft sciences like sociology and anthropology. We’re an extremely over-educated demographic, remember? We also adore irony.
Cue Night Class, History’s new programming block devoted to edgy comedy shows that address historical events and figures, while satirizing archaic norms. Elizabeth Shapiro’s Crossroads of History puts actors from The Office into historical contexts. Dan Harmon, of Rick and Morty fame, writes and performs in the crown jewel of the new comedy block: Great Minds with Dan Harmon. The show is a breath of fresh air rushing through the History Channel’s musty old library.
Why not give a historical comedy show to a man who has, in his previous work, treated the concept of time like a play thing? Harmon’s shows, Rick and Morty and Community, are kaleidoscopes of recurring jokes, Easter eggs, and plot lines that beg to be seen from every angle. The conceit of Great Minds is so simple it hurts; Harmon really wants to meet Rosa Parks, and has commissioned a time machine (of sorts) to retrieve random figures from the past — all in the hopes that he and his partner will stumble upon Parks. Their first guest was Beethoven (played by Jack Black) and their second was Ernest Hemingway, who beat the shit out of Harmon and tried to kill himself.
With Night Class, History has achieved a rare thing: revitalizing its brand as relevant and lively, and it pulling it off with the right comedic voices. Great Minds and Crossroads of History suggest that something exciting is happening at the network, and we’d all do well to tune in.