I think it’s time to throw a little more credit Derek Waters’ way as the secret ingredient sustaining Drunk History’s otherwise one-note premise. And that’s saying something after an episode featuring Patton Oswalt as a guest star.
It’d be easy for Drunk History to be solely a point-and-laugh show. Ha, that guy burped! And he’s not making any sense! Because he’s drunk! And there’s certainly plenty of that. But those moments are offset by the smartly affectionate interstitials in the featured city, such as this week’s look at Waters harvesting oysters with an old man named Goat who knows a good oyster when he sees one. And in the real-life sections of each segment, it’s clear Waters genuinely cares about each of his storytellers. When someone is a good three sheets to the wind, the bemused expression on Waters’ face is not a mocking one. He’s not there to make anyone look foolish. Everyone is in on the joke, and that warmth, fostered by Waters, gives the rest of us permission to laugh.
And laugh we shall! “Charleston” is another solid outing, boozing it up big time over stories about a city that clings to its history more than just about any other in America. First, Seth Weitberg gives an impassioned lesson about the caning of Charles Sumner. And who better to play impassioned than Oswalt, who brings an angry-comic vibe to Sumner’s anti-slavery rant against the state of South Carolina. Portraying Sumner’s attacker, Preston Brooks, Johnny Knoxville has much more to work with here than in his earlier appearance as Johnny Cash. He matches Oswalt’s energy and commitment, and they both benefit from Weitberg’s rousing interpretation of each historical man’s respective viewpoints. As a co-executive producer of Drunk History, Weitberg knows what works, and he delivers it with a big, shiny, inebriated bow.
In another case where Drunk History has introduced me to a name from history I had never heard before, Dave Ross tells the story of Waties Waring, a Charleston judge who became central to the civil rights movement. The Mighty Boosh’s Rich Fulcher gives Waring the right amount of both historical and comic gravitas, especially in his cheerful, matter-of-fact delivery of racist attitudes. Busy Phillips is kinda always going to be Busy Phillips, but that’s kinda okay because Busy Phillips is always super fun and charming, and she adds both qualities to the segment as Waring’s wife. The highlight here is absolutely when the re-enactment incorporates a side conversation between Ross and Waters about Ross’ experience in his previous neighborhood that involved a hand job and a stabbing…as part of the same event. (“Yeah, that happened.”) It’s a laugh-out-loud escalation of the in-character belches and babbling that Drunk History more typically plays for laughs.
Mark Gagliardi starts his segment by lobbing a softball to Waters, promising he’ll “stay alert,” only to end up telling half his story lying flat on the floor. He’s recounting the truly inspirational story of Robert Smalls (Brandon T. Jackson), a former slave who leads a takeover of a Confederate ship and later enlists thousands of black soldiers for the Union army. (Waters: “Robert Smalls. You like him?” Gagliardi: “I love him.”) For the most part, the facts are presented as the facts, with funny touches like toy boats representing war ships and Abraham Lincoln struggling to think of the word “soldiers.” This might be the drunkest a storyteller has been, to the point that Gagliardi’s incoherence doesn’t even need to be incorporated into the re-enactment to get a huge laugh. Waters’ simple, deadpan “What?” does the job instead. Word to the wise: Jägerbombs don’t help you stay alert.
Next up: Jack Black as Orson Welles, John Lithgow as William Randolph Hearst and Nick Kroll as Ronald Reagan in “Hollywood.” Yeah, just THOSE guys. I guess Waters will have to find a way to make it work.