The Sober Reality of 'Drunk History'

A behind-the-scenes look at how the drunkest show on television keeps it together.

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It’s early May, the fringe of summer, and Santa Clarita’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch is bone dry. The sun bakes dusty hills littered with the twisted, burnt-out metal carcasses of cars, vans, trucks, and a helicopter that Clint Eastwood used to simulate war in Afghanistan a year earlier while filming American Sniper. But today the arid country feels a different kind of dry.

Drunk History, Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner’s Comedy Central series where an inebriated narrator tells a historical story, which famous actors then reenact and lip-synch along to, is using the pockmarked Afghan village set to tell the story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s famous 1889-1890 race to circumnavigate the world faster than each other and Phileas Fogg, the protagonist in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days. Despite the show’s title, there is not a tequila shot or tallboy in sight. Other than the voice of comedian narrator Cameron Esposito, which booms out of speakers on a loop so Ellie Kemper, who’s playing Bly, can study her tipsy cadence, there’s nothing wobbly about the endeavor. (Natasha Leggero, who Konner recently directed on her Comedy Central show Another Period, is playing Bisland.) Esposito doesn’t sound completely sloshed, but she’s certainly enthusiastic about the story of the pioneering female journalist celebrities, and her frequent use of “like,” and the way “can you” becomes “c’you” in her mouth suggests she was at least several drinks deep during recording.

Kemper, somehow not fainting from heat exhaustion while dressed for the period in a black bodice, skirt, and petticoat, is preparing to shoot a scene at the New York World newspaper offices, where Bly attempts to get a green light from her editor, played by Drunk History ensemble player Tim Baltz, who explains that such a voyage is impossible for a woman because she’ll be weighed down by “curling irons, or a lot of trunks of stuff.”

“We’re not making this in our backyard anymore. This
s**t got real.”
—Derek Waters, co-creator

Waters and Konner created Drunk History in 2007, inspired by a drunken conversation Waters had with his friend Jake Johnson, in which the then-relatively-unknown actor (who’s now famous for New Girl) attempted to explain that R&B legend Otis Redding knew he was going to die in the plane crash that took his life before he boarded his Beechcraft H18 in 1967. Waters thought it would be funny to record somebody passionately stumbling through a story and to have actors reenact whatever came out of their mouth. He told his friend Michael Cera about the idea and the Arrested Development star not only encouraged him to make the video but said he wanted to appear in it. The debut webisode launched on Aug. 6, 2007, starred Cera, Johnson, Waters, and Ashley Johnson, and told the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s 1804 duel to the death. It featured several slightly askew white wigs and lace, as well as charmingly anachronistic details like Cera’s Hamilton wearing Vans and using a flip phone. The concept was recognizably strong but it didn’t hurt that Cera was just then blowing up with Superbad and Juno. The video, which to date has over 6.7 million views, helped get the ball rolling, and soon other famous people wanted to get down.

Made cheaply with the help of celebrity friends such as Jack Black (Konner was previously his assistant), Will Ferrell, and Danny McBride, the series ran on Funny or Die online and briefly on HBO until 2010, before landing an increased production budget at Comedy Central, where its first official season on TV debuted on July 9, 2013. “It’s just gotten better and better,” says Black. “They’ve got great comedians every year who want to be a part of it because it’s super creative and sexy cool and legit hilarious.”

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The Bly-Bisland story marks the 36th of 39 segments being filmed over as many days for the series’ third season, which premieres Sept. 1. This one day, with all of its packed-in international locations (New York, England, France, Hong Kong, Egypt) and costumes, requires a steady, sober pace that simply doesn’t allow for the boozy atmosphere that once was a part of the production.

“We’re not making this in our backyard anymore,” says Waters, who plays Jules Verne in the segment. “This shit got real.”

But just because production is ramped up doesn’t mean Drunk History takes itself too seriously or looks too slick—and that’s intentional. Later in the day, production plops down a bunch of chairs and tables in an exterior with a window to look like the interior of Jules Verne’s home in Amiens, France, which Bly visited on her voyage. Kemper, now dressed for travel with an additional civilian cap with a gingham plaid and velvet traveling coat, stands tall as wind whips through the set crazily and knocks over props while the journalist gets the author’s blessing. (It’s safe to say that the words Esposito puts in Verne’s mouth aren’t verbatim: “Nellie, I hope you make it around the world in less than 80 days. Here’s a bunch of high fives. My wife and I are chill for you.”)

“It looked kind of terrible, but who cares? It’s Drunk History,” says Konner, who directs. “That’s the great thing about our show: At worst it looks bad and when it looks bad usually we’re really happy about it.”

In the early days, wanting passionate storytelling, Waters and Konner let narrators submit their own story ideas. Now though, with the responsibility of a full-scale television show, each season’s 13 episodes requiring three segments plus interstitials, they have a dedicated research team that considers as many as 500 stories per season before pitching 90 of them to Waters and Konner. Co-executive producer Seth Weitberg, who runs the research team but has a background in comedy writing, not history, employs UCLA PhD students who work in a writers’ room environment for a couple months. “Honestly, without them, the show would be completely impossible at this point,” he says.

The process can be arduous; some stories are discarded after days of research. There need to be lead characters that celebrities can play, rooms in which they talk, and a generally celebratory air. The show purposefully avoids polarizing political stories that could alienate the audience. “Bummer” stories are also a no-no. “There’s a lot of race riots and Native American stories that all the drunk stumbles in the world aren’t gonna make funny,” says Weitberg.

This season, Drunk History continues to tie segments together with city themes, but also has episodes focused on journalism (see: Bly v. Bisland), space, spies, and games. “Building the whole season is a little bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle while doing the 100-yard dash,” says Weitberg. “We want to have these great stories that we love, but they also have to fit into categories.”

Before Waters approaches narrators with story options, he sits down to get a better sense of who they are and what they’re passionate about.

“I’m pretty humble about most things, except for knowing people,” says Waters. “I’m pretty good at knowing what someone’s gonna like to talk about and what someone isn’t gonna talk about. I meet with everyone and get a vibe. Do you like stories about the underdog? What kind of stories do you like? I always let them know that whatever I send them, [it] doesn’t mean they have to do it.”

“It has to feel so organic. It has to feel like such a perfect marriage when they’re telling the story,” says Weitberg. “[The audience] should feel like nobody else in the world could have told the story but this person.”

To help narrators make stories their own, the research team provides a basic outline with beats that are vital to the narrative arc, as well as suggestions for additional reading and viewing they might do. But it’s up to the narrator to put meat on the bones. (Weitberg and co. furiously fact-check both the meat and the bones during shooting and editing—it’s not Drunk Fantasy, after all.)

Every step of the Drunk History process is important, but none is more crucial and delicate than the actual filming of the narration. The narrator has to be drunk enough to struggle but not be a safety risk—hence advanced clearance by a doctor and check-ups before and after the shoot by a nurse. Narrators have to blow a safe number on a Breathalyzer before the production team is allowed to leave them, so Konner typically films Waters hanging out with the narrators as they sober up.

Shooting typically takes place in the person’s home so they feel safe and comfortable. Esposito prefers to maintain the privacy of her home, and instead films at an Air BnB in Hollywood. “People are going to watch and assume I live in a home with a giant horse head statue,” she jokes. Esposito settles in nicely with two vodkas and two shots. In the spirit of the Bly-Bisland story, Waters convinces her it is a good idea to race through the shots. “He knew I’m very competitive,” she says, retroactively recognizing his trickery.

“Derek has an unnatural gift with drunk people. They become looser while also feeling like they really wanna explain things to him.”
—Jeremy Konner, co-creator

The funniest narrator moments on Drunk History are the result of their inability to recall or regurgitate all of the information they have bouncing around inside their head. (“It’s like the weirdest test you’re ever going to take,” says Esposito.) As a result, the intimate and sober crew (Konner, Weitberg, line producer Melissa Wylie, the nurse, cameramen, and a soundman), stays silent while Derek drinks with the narrator, and doesn’t feed them any facts, at least to start. If at all possible, they avoid putting words in the narrator’s mouth. With beats to hit, the difficult job of extracting the story from the drunk person falls to Waters. He’s developed a reputation as a “drunk whisperer.”

“Derek has an unnatural gift with drunk people,” says Konner. “He’s very disarming. They become more natural. They become looser while also feeling like they really wanna explain things to him. There are times where I will step in for a second [from behind the camera] and I’ll ask them questions and I can tell the way they answer me is different. It’s possible it’s because I’m not drinking with them but they will act like I’m someone who’s supposed to know the answer already. Whereas with Derek they feel like they’re telling him for the first time and they are convincing him of things. He’s good at being extremely patient with them and playing confused even though he knows what’s going on.”

Story beats aside, the reliance on a drunk narrator for the majority of a segment’s audio can cause additional headaches. “During the narration, there are a lot of audio issues,” says Konner. “People do not care about their lavalier mics anymore. They scratch them. Some people grab the boom mic from above or just lay on their stomach [cutting off sound to their mic].”

Depending upon how far gone somebody is, a narration shoot can take up to eight hours, footage which then needs to be edited down to a roughly six- to eight-minute story. Esposito’s only takes three. “I took a screenshot of the time and texted my fiancé a text saying, ‘I’m done and I’m not even drunk!’” she says proudly, but then adding, “The word ‘zorked’ got into the text because I was, in fact, hammered.”

Konner, who stepped out from behind the camera this season to narrate the story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the water theft from the Owens Valley (see the movie Chinatown), cannot claim such expediency.

“I was a fucking real mess,” says Konner, who transitioned from Manhattans, to straight whiskey, to shots of tequila.

“It proves that alcohol does the same thing to every human being,” says Waters, who directed him. “Jeremy has been doin’ this with me since the beginning. I couldn’t get him to say his fucking name: ‘Hello, I’m Jeremy Konner and today….’ He couldn’t do it. Alcohol makes you stupid.”

Still, it wasn’t as bad as the time when Duncan Trussell chased a six-pack with absinthe on the web series and ended up narrating the story of Nikola Tesla’s working relationship with Thomas Edison on the floor of his bathroom, in a pile of his own chunky pineapple pizza vomit.

“That was definitely the most fucked up I’ve ever seen anyone,” says Konner. “It was really gross and I was stuck in the bathroom filming. You can see me holding him, my arm reaching around and holding him in front of the toilet. It was just awful and he was blocking the door, so nobody could get in or out.”

“They put me to bed
wet from the tub. I still
had my swimsuit on.”
—Natasha Leggero, Narrator & Actor

On the rarest of occasions, filming has had to be rescheduled entirely because Drunk History got too drunk. While preparing to narrate the Patty Hearst kidnapping story in Season 1, Leggero drank a whole bottle of white wine before taking tequila shots with Waters. Already wearing a swimsuit, she decided she wanted to film in the bathtub, which she accidentally pumped full of moisturizer instead of bath soap.

“It was just this white, oily, goopy mess, and she was so drunk,” says Konner.

“There is a fine line between funny and sad, because just to hear it, that sounds funny,” says Waters. “Natasha, I believe in a one-piece, cheetah-style swimsuit, telling the Patty Hearst story in a bathtub sounds funny, but when you saw it, it didn’t look funny—you just felt bad for her. And I don’t want anyone to feel bad for her.”

“They put me to bed wet from the tub. I still had my swimsuit on,” says Leggero. “I woke up the next morning to a big wet spot on my bed and Derek called me, like, ‘Are you OK?’ And I was like, ‘We got it though, right?’ And then they had to come back over and I had to get drunk again.” (The next time, she drank champagne. Straight out of the bottle. And nailed it.)

As is the case with most drunken nights, seemingly everyone has regrets the next day. “At the end of every narration,” says Waters, “I get an apology email, or a very long text that should’ve been an email: ‘You hate me. You’ll never use this.’” What they may not realize is that his main objective is that, no matter how drunk the narrator gets, the audience’s sympathy always lies with them.

“You have to like them,” says Waters of his narrators. ”I don’t care how funny someone is, if they come over like, ‘I’m this dick, I’m too cool,’ first of all, they would never be on the show, and second of all, who would want to watch that? You tell me you’re gonna cure cancer, I don’t think I can even listen to you tell me that, ’cause you’re an asshole.”

In Santa Clarita, Kemper and Leggero take turns standing in front of a backdrop painted to look like an ocean and cloudy skies, on a ship façade with partial mast and extras that swap out to represent various legs of Bly and Bisland’s travels. The daylong shoot is on the home stretch, just as the two journalists are in their race.

Moments like these, where you feel like the façade could tip over to reveal actors standing on step ladders like some elementary school production, remain a key attraction of Drunk History, but it can’t be discounted the immense amount of work that the costume, set design, and hair and makeup departments put into all the many scenes that span centuries and the globe, aiming for the perfect mixture of accuracy and nods to the drunk narrator and audience. “It’s really like filming 39 short films in 39 days,” says Weitberg. “There’s no continuity from one to the next.” And yet all the creatives behind the scenes try to repurpose what they can for the overwhelming effort. Production designer Rachel Robb Kondrath describes her art department, which trucks in completely new furniture every day, as a “travelling company of minstrels.” Costume director Christina Mongini says it’s “community theater-esque with a rough edge.”

“It’s truly impressive the amount that they tackle,” says Colin Hanks, who plays co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America Ernest Thompson Seton and “chill” astronaut Gordon Cooper in Season 3. “You take it for granted as a viewer just how much work is put into a single story, never mind an episode or an entire season. My biggest takeaway is just how much these people work their asses off.”

Relative to the crew, the visiting celebrities are on vacation. Yes, they put in a full day and have to synch their lines, but it’s a quick break from the lengthier commitments of most of their projects. “The beauty of Drunk History is you say yes, you show up in the morning, you shoot all day, you do the entire story,” says Johnson, who has New Girl on his plate and has been reluctant to devote eight weeks of his life to anything. He returned this season to work with his friends and play the Russian chess-playing bad guy Boris Spassky opposite Taran Killam’s Bobby Fisher. ”It’s fun and wild and you’re done by the end of the day, and then you’re part of Drunk History.”

“Of course, it limits what you're doing in a way,” says Michael Cera of lip-synching, “but on the other hand it frees you up from thinking about how you're going to deliver a line, how fast you're going to say it, and all of that, so that you can just focus on the rhythm of it and your expression, like a human puppet or something.”

Hanks agrees: “It’s a fun balance of trying to decide, just how present are we trying to be while I’m trying to mouth this [drunken] stuff? Are we aware that this is ridiculous, and when do we acknowledge that? Or do we not play that card and try to play it straight? It’s really trying to find the best rhythm. You don’t want to play everything at 11 all the time.”

For actors used to the demands of audio and the basic need to shoot over-the-shoulder shots of all dialogue, the audio-less recording, in which everyone simply faces the camera and mouths the words is light work. It’s some rule-breaking shit. Or, as Black puts it, “It’s punk rock, man!”

Less so for the editing department, which chops up the footage from both shoots, as well as interstitial footage from Waters and Konner’s thematic road trips. “Last season, we did a count, and for every one minute of footage that aired we shot 120 minutes of footage,” says co-producer Jason Keller, whose team reportedly spends almost a full year in post-production on the show. “Ideally, if we’re doing all our jobs right,” says Weitberg, “people watch the show and they should feel like Derek got together with his buds at their house, sat down, and got wasted, and they talked for 30 minutes and he got this story.” 

It’s only after peeking behind the curtain that one realizes the amount of work that goes into Drunk History still feeling like a backyard production on its grand current scale, and just how truly historic that is.

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