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Taking ‘Drunk History’ formula from Web to TV

Bob Odenkirk as President Nixon and Jack Black as Elvis Presley in an episode of “Drunk History.”

Ron Batzdorff

Bob Odenkirk as President Nixon and Jack Black as Elvis Presley in an episode of “Drunk History.”

In the world of “Drunk History,” Nixon’s response to Watergate follows the actual history — to a point. “I am not a crook,” he says, his voice slurred. “Hand me some cookies.”

The star-studded new show, which premieres Tuesday on Comedy Central, is based on the popular Internet series of the same name. Comedian Derek Waters and filmmaker Jeremy Konner began making the five-minute online videos on a lark in 2007. “It was immediately on the front page of YouTube,” Konner said. “By the end of the week, we had a million views.”

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The transition from Web shorts to the half-hour TV format posed a formidable challenge. “We spent countless hours and days and weeks experimenting with how to make this a half-hour show,” said Konner. “What we found is that keeping as close as possible to the Web series seemed the most effective.”

Other than improved production values, the new show does not stray far from the formula that made Drunk History popular in the first place: Heavily inebriated narrators relate well-known historical incidents, and famous actors in period costume portray the events exactly as told, lip-synching the words.

One important innovation differentiates the half-hour version: Each episode focuses on a particular place. “To fill out the longer episodes, we went from city to city, and each episode has three segments that are specific to that city,” said series producer Owen Burke, former artistic director of the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

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The first episode focuses on three moments in Washington, D.C.’s past: the Watergate scandal, the assassination of Lincoln, and Nixon’s unlikely meeting with Elvis Presley. In both Nixon stories, Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”) portrays the disgraced president, with Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”) as his “top adviser.” Jack Black plays Elvis, and Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl plays a member of Elvis’s entourage.

From the beginning, “Drunk History” has relied upon enthusiastic celebrity participation, with big stars sinking their teeth into tiny roles. “Every episode feels like a special,” said Burke. And the drunkenness is not an act. According to Burke, a medic is always available on set to make sure the narrators stay safe. (They are subject to Breathalyzer tests to monitor their alcohol levels.)

The fourth episode, filmed as the intended pilot, takes place in Boston. Guest stars include Winona Ryder, Michael Cera, Nick Offerman, and comedian Jen Kirkman, a Needham native.

“Boston was the first place we shot because we wanted to be there for Patriots Day,” said Burke of the 2012 filming. “We couldn’t have chosen a better city on a better day.” Because it came first, the Boston episode is the only episode in the series to contain one story told by locals rather than professionals.

“Boston was very much part of figuring out what the show was,” said Konner. “We found two people in the Baseball Tavern near Fenway, and they ended up telling us the story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner [Museum] art heist.” In subsequent locations, the creators decided to stop seeking narrators in bars. “That’s a testament to Boston,” said Burke. “You can always find someone who will tell you a story.”

The Boston episode also includes the stories of a notorious arsonist and of Mary Dyer’s fatal struggle against the 17th-century Puritan establishment.

While each installment contains multiple segments, the creators want them to feel unified, and not just by place. “We struggled to find through lines for each story, tying all three stories together,” said Waters.

Although the telling is addled, the most surprising fact about the show for many viewers will be that all the stories are based on true history.

“I don’t think ‘Drunk History’ should ever be used as a primary source,” said Konner. “We’re telling real stories, but we may or may not have taken liberties with some of the dialogue.”

Benjamin Soloway can be reached at benjamin.soloway@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsoloway.
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