Derek Waters has made a career out of being a damn good drinking buddy.
The filmmaker, who, with Jeremy Konner, created Comedy Central’s wildly popular Drunk History series, has spent the past five years embodying TV’s version of “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with” by hosting a show that asks comedians to recount an event in history entirely sh*t-faced and high-profile actors to then reenact and lip-sync those inebriated re-tellings.
It sounds like a pretty fun job, a dream job even, and it is for Waters. He filmed the first episode of the show, which started as a Funny or Die web series, in his backyard with pals Michael Cera and Jake Johnson. He gets to have a glass of bourbon – his go-to drink – with his professionally funny friends, and share incredibly fascinating stories with them. Really, not a bad day’s work.
But while getting celebrities drunk on TV is the hook to bring in viewers, it’s the highly refined, subversive storytelling Waters and his crew are doing that’s truly inventive.
Of course, you probably didn’t come here for that. You came to hear which comedian is the most fun to have a beer with or who can hold their liquor best. I get it. Waters does too.
We chatted with the guy about a little of both – his tricks for recognizing specific “stages of drunk” and how he took the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade and made it funny; the worst cocktail he’s ever had courtesy of Dan Harmon, and how the Trump presidency is just a reminder of why our history is so important.
In keeping with the theme of the show, I have to ask, have you had any drinks before this interview?
You know, when God decided to have my mom and dad have a kid, He said, “I want people to think he’s stoned and drunk for the rest of his life.” When I was young, I sounded like my mom. I remember praying to God for a deeper voice. I just didn’t know he was going to go this deep.
At this point, how much of your life is lived intoxicated?
This season took 63 weeks to make. I would say three months of that is drinking. Not every day, but that’s when we do the narrations. They take about three months. I scope out the schedule where it’ll be three [narrations] in a row.
You gotta give your body time to recuperate.
I know. My body’s been very nice to me.
The show’s made a point of highlighting history we don’t know, does that continue this season?
Definitely. Since the beginning, the main goal has been, what are stories that make me go “Why weren’t we taught that in school?” Those are things that get me really excited, and this season it was still that goal of finding stories like that. However, we also did really fun stuff. It’s been five seasons so we let the show expand. Let it have fun and break rules. The premise stays the same, but I wanted to do a drunk, unsolved, mysteries parody, and so we did an episode called “Drunk Mystery” and all three stories are about mysteries, which I really love.
I feel like this could be a spin-off.
I can’t say that without sounding like a dick, but I would do “Drunk Mystery” every day. That’s all I want to do, is do a show where you can do those really bad reenactments. Like that show, Snapped.
How do you go about pairing the narrator with the story, because I look at some of these comedians thinking, “Not all of them look like they’d be history buffs.”
Yeah I love that it feels like that, because these comedians are people that I love, and that I’ve talked to about what types of stories that are very important to them. Now, I already know what stories we’re going to do, I’ll send them two or three with the same type of tone [as what they’re interested in] and then they can choose. But then on the flip-side it’s like Questlove, and wanting to do the birth of hip-hop. That’s a no-brainer.
I humbly say “There’s nothing that happens in the show that hasn’t been thought out.” It’s not like “Oh, I think Tiffany Haddish would be funny doing that, because she’d be funny at saying anything,” which is true. She’d be funny saying anything, but when we pitched her [a heroine story for the season premiere] she really liked it, and got obsessed with trying to find more information. That’s what I love; these people aren’t just trying to be on TV. They really do love history.
A lot of fans want to know how drunk these comedians really are. I’m interested in how drunk you have to be to deal with them?
I’d say respectfully buzzed. If you are drinking alone, and someone is filming you, you feel exploited, and so it’s not like “Oh I’m giving back to the needy by drinking with them.” No, I’m a filmmaker. I know they’ll perform better. I like having drinks with people I like, and it is fun having a drink listening and talking about history. Sorry, it is.
Do you have any tricks for recognizing the stages of how drunk your friends are?
I notice that the first thing that happens is a story is repeated, and you, as the less drunk person, have to act like you haven’t heard it. For me, then I know it’s working. Now I know they’re at a place where I can be like “All right, let’s tell another version.” I used to say all the time there’s a “Yeah, you’re my best friend,” level and then the last stage, the one you just don’t want to get to is “You hate me. You’ll never use this.”
The following day I get either an email apology or a text apology, them thinking that they didn’t do a good job, when, in fact, I start every night with the storytellers, and say “No matter what, at the end of the night, you’ll never believe me that we have the story, but I promise I’ll never leave here until we have the story.”
Since it seems like these things called “facts” and “history” are taking a backseat right now, did Trump’s presidency change anything about how you approach the show?
I won’t let all that shit change me but I think it’s a reminder. I couldn’t concentrate in school. My favorite teacher was my history teacher. I think the best way of getting someone’s attention is not knowing what you’re doing. I’m not saying tricking people, but going into the show you think it’s a comedy show. Then you’re secretly learning something, and my dream is some drunk, frat guy, going “Dude, that’s so fucked up. Oh shit, I just learned something.” That’s my goal. No matter who [is] in the White House, we should all be paying attention to [these stories]. You want to be educated, or uneducated? It sounds obvious to you and me, but not everyone.
Is there a story you were really excited to share this season?
We did a story about this little kid named Willie Hitler, who is Hitler’s nephew, and went up against him during the war. I want to know more about that, don’t you?
There’s an episode called “Civil Rights,” which is really heavy. I tell everyone “Let’s not worry about comedy. Let’s just worry about telling the story.” One of the stories is about the Birmingham Children’s March, where Martin Luther King Jr. wanted other black men to do what he was doing, and get arrested to get people talking about this. All the men were saying “We want to support you but we have jobs and we gotta provide for our families.” This beautiful little girl named Gwendolyn Sanders, 14 years old, and her friend decided to march. Hundreds of kids were arrested. I hate it, but it’s history — the hoses and the dogs and [the brutality] — so you don’t make that funny. What you make funny is these kids lip-synching these really important lines that changed history.
What’s the worst thing you’ve had to drink during your recording?
I can’t remember what Dan Harmon had, but it was the worst thing. I think my brain has made a point to block out what it was called, but people drink it and say “It’s good for your stomach.” I can’t think of what it’s called, but I have a really bad stomach, so I was like “Oh, I’ll try it.” “Oh shit, I can’t see anything right now.’ That was the worst thing, and now I don’t do that. If they’re excited to make me a drink, I’ll have that drink, and then switch to bourbon, but luckily no one has craved Mad Dog 20/20. I always say “Let’s drink something that you’ve never had a bad experience with.” We don’t need to relive Cancun.