'Drunk History' Outdrinks the Competition

Dissecting the improbable hit's charm.

I was drunk when I watched last night’s Drunk History. I don’t think being drunk is a necessary part of the experience — God forbid — but I admit it did help illuminate a few key aspects of one of the most-low-key-consistent comedy programs on TV right now.

When Drunk History first surfaced online, it was as a riotous, but kind of hit-and-miss, Funny or Die series. Its Comedy Central version, which is now in its second season on the channel and in its third overall, is far superior. Though the general premise seems kind of thin at first glance — get comedians or writers wasted, and then have them relay a somewhat complicated historical story that they almost certainly just learned, while actors re-enact their account — the battery of irreverent cameos and improvisational moments makes the series better than it ever has any right to be. It’s harmless and generally not the expense of anyone, and it is fun.

Season Two was jammed with notable comedians playing either to or against type; a typical casting is Nick Kroll as Ronald Reagan, or Stephen Merchant as Abe Lincoln. Every segment is like a quilt of goofy moments, and it’s hard not to appreciate the charm of all these folks (Tony Hale, Winona Ryder, Greg Kinnear, the list goes on forever) hamming it up, dressed like extras from an AMC period piece.

Derek Waters, the series’ creator, and host, sets the stage and always seems to find the sweet spot of how best to make his narrators give him the good shit. Sometimes it means getting drunk alongside them — last night’s Season Three premiere led to an awkward moment where Waters cradled former Grantland editor Tess Lynch — but behind an on-the-surface messy TV show is a deliberate mind which pulls together the chaos. This isn’t exactly a show whose principles are going to be spending the rest of their lives patting their own backs for their participation, but it’s refreshing to watch something so purely fun-seeking in an era of overworked dramas sucking up all the recap oxygen. It’s hard to imagine a premise so simple being so repeatable, but that’s what Drunk History has accomplished. I’ll drink to that.

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