In the canon of YouTube successes, Drunk History is nearly unparalleled. When Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner created the show, in 2007, YouTube had only been around for two years. There was no roadmap. The platform was the new frontier of digital media. How to game it was anybody's guess.
It began with a drunken story. Waters and his friend, Jake Johnson (The New Girl), were drinking one night when the actor, then relatively unknown, started recounting the tale of Otis Redding's demise. It wasn't true, but Waters found his inebriated friend's storytelling uniquely compelling—not to mention hilarious. He wondered what would happen if he filmed it next time.
"I want to tell the history, but I also want to keep your attention. The best way of keeping someone's attention, I feel, is making them laugh."
The debut episode of Drunk History starred Michael Cera, Johnson, Waters, and Ashley Johnson, and told the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s 1804 duel. Though rough in production value—it was made cheaply and quickly—it bore all of the trademarks of the beloved series: an impossibly sloshed narrator, slurring his words while telling a detailed historical narrative with intoxicating fervor for the material. Once in a while, as drunk people are wont to do, the narrator loses his train of thought, and the journey back to the story becomes just as entertaining as the story itself. By the end of the episode, the narrator is passed out on the couch. (Cera, fresh off recent success at the box office, embodies the flashbacks with his singularly awkward poise.)
The episode went viral. Comedy Central quickly caught wind of it and provided funds for the second episode, which starred Jack Black (Konner was previously his assistant), Will Ferrell, and Danny McBride, and premiered on Funny or Die. The show then enjoyed a brief stint at HBO before returning to Comedy Central with an increased production budget and a spot on the network's lineup in 2013. Season 6 premieres tonight.
No Film School caught up with Waters to discuss the show's improbable DIY beginnings, how he learns from his own failures, the rigorous art of "lion taming" drunk storytellers, and more.
No Film School: What were you doing when you conceived of Drunk History?
Derek Waters: I was doing a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, called Derek Waters Presents LOL. I was very anti-internet comedy and very pro—well, just because you got a million hits doesn't mean it's funny. I hated that everything was based on hits and not content. I wanted to make a show where you could shoot shorts and then have a screening for them to see if they were funny before they went online.
The first episode of Drunk History was just a one-time idea. It came to me when I was with my dear friend Jake Johnson, and he was very drunk, telling me about Otis Redding. We were both unemployed actors then. He was trying to convince me that Otis Redding knew he was gonna die when he got on the plane that unfortunately crashed. I just kept picturing Otis Redding having to reenact what my friend was saying, but also looking at me, shaking his head like, "This never happened. Don't believe me." I was like, what if I did that, but with a story that I knew was true, and a subject that people rarely discuss after drinks? What if we do history?
"I still don't know how I got a show with 'drunk' in the title on TV."
I asked my pal, Mark [Agliarti], "What's a moment in history you feel like more people need to know about?" It was Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. I told Michael Cera, who was my friend, the idea, and he was like, "Oh, well, if you'd shoot that, I would love to be in it." He played Hamilton, and Jake Johnson, who put the idea in my head, played Aaron Burr. It was just for UCB. It was never on the internet.
Then, one time in Baltimore, I was bored during the holidays. I thought, what if I posted the video so that people could watch when they were bored during the holidays, too? Jack Black saw it and said he wanted to be Ben Franklin [for the next video]. I'm not gonna say no to that!
[Jack Black's] video won the Jury Prize at Sundance 2010, and I was like, well, that's the best it's gonna do. It's not gonna go past that.
Then it became a show. It's gone through many stages, and somehow it's still growing.
'Drunk History'Credit: Comedy CentralNFS: What happened between Sundance and it becoming a show?
Waters: Comedy Central was interested. I was hesitant. I was wondering, "How is it not just gonna be a funny comedian drunk while a famous person moves their lips? How can it be a show?" So I thought, what if I traveled across American to learn history and each episode was about history that happened in that city? So, they said, "Sure," and I said, "You sure?" They said, "We're real sure," and I was like, "Okay. Sure."
Then we surely did it. I still don't know how I got a show with "drunk" in the title on TV.
NFS: You said you were performing at UCB before Drunk History. Before that, did you have any formal training in acting for filmmaking?
Waters: No, I graduated high school in 1998, and then I went to Toronto in 1999 to study sketch comedy and improv at Second City in Toronto. Then I moved to Los Angeles when I was 20 to do the same thing, but never went to school. I asked my parents to make Second City my college.
NFS: What do you think you got out of Second City that you might not have gotten out of college?
Waters: I would say finding the group of people that I want to be around. I think school is very important, but to me, finding my crew was more important. And you have to find people on your level, so you can all figure it out together.
"It all comes from failing. That's the best way to learn ... I think when you're doing what makes you laugh, it's very hard for other people not to see that."
NFS: Speaking of figuring it out together, I can imagine there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to translating sketch to the camera, in terms of the mechanics of filmmaking.
Waters: It's hard, because it's totally different. No matter what job you have, the more you do it, the more confidence you have of understanding what works and what doesn't. When you're doing a live show, you know where the laughs are because you have the audience. But when you're shooting something, you don't have an audience. You have your own instincts. So it's about trusting your own instincts and finding your voice in terms of knowing what's funny.
I failed a lot. I made a little sketch pilot when I first moved [to LA], just with some friends, and it was really terrible, but I'm glad I made that to learn. It's just about educating yourself on what you find funny. I think when you're doing what makes you laugh, it's very hard for other people not to see that.
Shooting 'Drunk History'NFS: What about the nuts and bolts of production? How did you learn that on the fly?
Waters: I don't know. I think I had a lot of help from a really great crew. Jeremy Konner, who I started the show with, definitely had more filmmaking background than I did. I knew him as an editor for an HBO pilot I did called Derek and Simon with Bob Odenkirk, so I learned a lot from him.
The thing that's always made this show what it is now is it's a really hard-working crew that I'm just lucky to be part of. At the beginning, I was trying to organize how to make a great show. But through having a great crew, I'm just following them. I have this idea. I read stories. I read narrations, and then I give it to this crew, and it just blossoms in its own way that it wants to.
But I'm still figuring it out. Nobody's figured it out. It's constant learning. Trial and error. "Okay, I learned from that. I failed from that. What can I do to make it better?" It all comes from failing. That's the best way to learn.
NFS: Was there ever an episode that you shot where you were just thinking, "This just isn't gonna work, and I might just have to cut my losses and scrap it"?
Waters: It happens a lot, and I scrap it! I've never gone as far as to cut a reenactment. But I've done it with someone telling a story. It just may not fit the episode anymore, or it's too long, or maybe the subject wasn't a subject I really think more people need to know about, or the narrator didn't get drunk enough. That happens, too.
"It has become more official, but it's still the same premise. The narrator is still getting drunk. That's never gonna be fake. They're passionate about the story."
There's a lot of elements to deciding which ones to keep. The main thing is that someone's gonna learn from this and someone's gonna laugh at this. That's really my goal.
NFS: For every episode, you sit down with a narrator who talks about a historical event while getting drunk? Then you have an actor come in and lip sync with set pieces. Has that process remained constant throughout the evolution of the show?
Waters: Well, it used to be me asking someone, "What's a moment in history that you feel more people need to know about?" I would just trust that they would know what they were talking about. Now that I have a show, it's a research team that pitches stories, and I pick which stories I want to do, and then I assign them to a narrator that I know has some interest in it. I pitch these stories to the actors that I want in the show. I'm like, "Is this something that you'd be really excited to learn?"
So it has become more official like that, but it's still the same premise. The narrator is still getting drunk. That's never gonna be fake. They're passionate about the story, and they know about it. This is a history show on a comedy network. All the facts, all the dates, and all the names are true.
'Drunk History'Credit: Comedy Central
NFS: Is it difficult to keep people within the realm of facts when you're also hiring them to go off on their own drunk tangents?
Waters: Yeah. I've become sort of a lion tamer in that way. But I think history is best when you find out how you can relate to it. The same goes for any kind of story—it's best when you can relate to it, and when you're humanizing people.
When people go on these rants, I love it because it's them feeling free. Whether someone says something that you believe in or not, when you're watching someone talk about something they're passionate about, it's impossible not to be captivated by it. It's my favorite part of the job: watching people get captivated, and then bringing them back to, "All right, let's tell the story."
"It's a really nice, intimate night with a bunch of cameras and six hours of shooting history."
NFS: How much footage do wind up with?
Waters: About six hours. They tell the story a bunch of times. We edit that to about six minutes.
They keep telling the story a bunch of different ways, and throughout the night, there's food. We have a medic there. Everybody's safe. It's a really nice, intimate night with a bunch of cameras and six hours of shooting history.
NFS: How do you shave off five hours and 54 minutes?
Waters: Anytime any human being has alcohol in them and is in front of a camera, they're gonna try to be funny. That's when it feels like a job—when I gotta sit there through that. I don't want them to try to be funny. So we edit that stuff out.
NFS: And the editors take what's left and make it digestible?
Waters: The editors make a 15-minute story cut. It's not anything funny. It's just, "Well, here's the story." They cut out the fat, and then when it's getting a little too serious, they add in the jokes in between moments of that story.
NFS: I can imagine a lot of the humor comes organically from mistakes the narrators make while drunk.
Waters: [The narrators] make mistakes throughout the night, but my whole goal is I want the audience to feel dumb. I don't want the narrators to look dumb. I want them to appear as if they are at first, and then they prove to the audience that they're actually smarter than you and they're teaching you something.
I want to tell the history, but I also want to keep your attention. The best way of keeping someone's attention, I feel, is making them laugh.
'Drunk History'Credit: Comedy CentralNFS: What about the process of eventually lip syncing with the actors?
Waters: It's much like a music video. When we're shooting, there's no audio on set. It's just playing back on a big speaker while we're shooting, on a loop. They're lip-syncing as they hear it.
NFS: That sounds fun to watch.
Waters: Oh, it's so much fun. It's so much fun to watch.
"I'm a comedy snob, and I hate when I watch a show just deteriorate. I refuse to allow that to happen with this."
NFS: What's something that still challenges you on a daily basis now that you've done this for six seasons and counting?
Waters: How to make the show not get old. I've always been worried about this becoming just a funny person, drunk, telling a story, and a famous person moving their lips to it. How do you evolve it?
That's why, this season, our first episode is Are You Afraid of the Drunk, in the mindset of Are You Afraid of the Dark, a great '90s show. I wanted to do a story of the creation of Frankenstein, and broaden the world of history so it's not just white wig stories. The world of history is very big. That's the constant thing on my shoulder—just making sure that, if I was watching this show, I would be like, "Okay, they're still evolving."
I'm a comedy snob, and I hate when I watch a show just deteriorate. I refuse to allow that to happen with this.
NFS: Can you tell me a little bit more about what new approaches you're doing in this season?
Waters: Usually there's three stories per episode. This season, there's just one story for that episode. Then some episodes have three, some episodes have two, which we've never done two stories per episode.
Also, we're doing a Drunk Mystery episode where it's in the vein of a show I loved, Unsolved Mysteries. That's very exciting to me.
"You just don't want to keep it all one tone. Nothing should ever be all serious or all funny. It should be a mix of both."
NFS: So you're changing the tone a bit, as well as making the show more dynamic.
Waters: Yeah. Well, I think if I don't, it's just gonna be a history show. It still is, but I want it to be this is a really unique way of storytelling. I want to embrace the technique of storytelling. I think the more you break up the episodes of fun subjects, the easier it is to do more serious subjects, you know? You just don't want to keep it all one tone. Nothing should ever be all serious or all funny. It should be a mix of both.
NFS: Say a young comedy writer comes to you and says, "I've got this great idea for a sketch show, and I want to release it online." What would you tell them, given your experience and the way the landscape has changed since you launched Drunk History?
Waters: I'm sad to say that I don't know the internet landscape as much as I did when I started. I know the TV landscape. But I think one thing remains the same, and more so than it did when I started: you should be making your own stuff.
Now, anyone can read that and be like, "Well, I don't have the money. I don't have famous friends." Well, I didn't either. It's just about creating stuff that you like and that you're inspired by and not trying to be like anyone else. Just trust your instincts.
The worst thing that can happen is you worked really hard on something that you believed in, and it didn't become a show. But you just made something that you really believed in, and you learned from your mistakes. You learned what worked and what didn't. That's the worst thing that can happen in making your own stuff, and that's pretty damn good.