Television Review

‘Drunk History’ mocks docu-dramas

Adam Scott as John Wilkes Booth and Stephen Merchant as President Lincoln in the premiere episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.’’
Adam Scott as John Wilkes Booth and Stephen Merchant as President Lincoln in the premiere episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.’’

The warped-history comedy “Drunk History” began in 2007 as a Web-only series on the site Funny or Die. Now, like other Web series including Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy,” Rob Corddry’s “Childrens Hospital,” and Ben Stiller’s “Burning Love,” it has been picked up by a TV channel — Comedy Central — and, starting this Tuesday, it will air every Tuesday night at 10.

Online, “Drunk History” is moderately funny, as it cuts back and forth between a plastered narrator slurringly describing a famous historical event and a re-creation of his or her distorted version of that event. Does the show survive the transition to TV? Or is it somehow too small to hold its own outside of the Internet?

In a way, the distinction between an online series and a TV series is losing relevance. Our TVs are merging with our computers, as millions of viewers watch TV “content” online, often streaming it on their TV hardware. You could have been watching “Drunk History” on your TV screen as far back as the classic first episode, when Michael Cera played Alexander Hamilton and Jake Johnson was Aaron Burr.


But still, the two genres remain quite different. Generally speaking, series made for the Web are geared toward viewers who’ll inevitably be distracted by e-mail, or Facebook, or iTunes, while watching. The episodes run short, from five to 15 minutes apiece, they are more cheaply made, and they don’t usually require full concentration or commitment. Television series, on the other hand, tend to be made with higher expectations of the viewers — that we’ll lose ourselves, to some extent, in the story, that we’ll take note of the production values, and that we may well be watching with others. While our computers are our private havens, our TVs tend to be public property in the home.

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“Drunk History,” created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, straddles the line between genres nicely. The wit of the historical re-creations, along with the excellence of the many guest actors in them (including, this season, Connie Britton, Kristen Wiig, Aubrey Plaza, Owen Wilson, and Jack McBrayer) helps to overcome the repetitiveness and slightness of the formula. It works about as well on the TV screen as it does online, which is to say that it works medium well.

There are only occasional laughs to be had as the inebriated unknown comics tell the tales, which are, shall we say, not entirely accurate. Watching a person get willfully drunk can be decidedly unfunny to everyone except him or her, so it’s spotty territory. But then there are more laughs to be had during the twisted re-creations, not least of all from the likes of Stephen Merchant as Abraham Lincoln and Bob Odenkirk as Richard Nixon. The show gleefully subverts the whole historical documentary format, as it mocks the kind of re-creations we see on the History Channel, complete with cheesy wigs and costumes and an over-dramatic soundtrack. It’s a long ride from the History Channel to watching these derelicts channeling history.

Perhaps the best part of “Drunk History” is that the actors in the re-creations never speak; they lip-synch the drunken comic’s dialogue, including all slurs, pauses, swear words, and hiccups. Adam Scott and Will Forte, in the premiere, have a great time silently hamming it up as John Wilkes Booth and his brother, Edwin, while the intoxicated narrator Allan McLeod mumbles and giggles out their dialogue. Also in the premiere: Jack Black and Dave Grohl in a bizarre vignette about Elvis meeting Nixon.

“Drunk History” also works on TV because it is in the right home, Comedy Central. The network is putting three segments into each episode, so that the show is an anthology of bits. That fits in with the network’s general approach to programming, which, with “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Tosh.0,” and “The Jeselnik Offensive,” is to deliver fragments rather than a sustained half-hour narrative. In a way, “Drunk History” is a fake news series on the order of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” except that in this case, the news is very old and very pickled.

Matthew Gilbert can be
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