It all started with a story. Back in 2007, comedians and friends Derek Waters and Jake Johnson were having a conversation over drinks. The latter, now known to many as Nick Miller on New Girl, was passionately defending the finer points of Otis Redding’s tragic end with a fervor that can only be fueled by stubbornness and alcohol. Through the booze-filled haze, the two decided that their present circumstances could fuel some pretty great entertainment. Funny or Die agreed with them, and gave them a platform to share historical events such as the Burr-Hamilton duel, the friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the death of William Henry Harrison and many other takes…through the drunken words of friends and fellow comedians.
Now in its second season on Comedy Central, Drunk History is garnering increasing attention for its ability to balance historical accuracy with silliness and spirits. But something else really cool is happening that few have noticed: Drunk History may be one of the best places on TV for women right now.
Stay with me.
When you think about women you see drunk on TV, what do you typically see?
Danger (being drunk = getting drugged, taken advantage of, and in extreme cases killed). Ridicule (Think Bad Girls Club or Jersey Shore…little else needs to be said there). The butt of jokes, as with Jeff Richards’ SNL “Drunk Girl”:
But the regard that Drunk History holds for the women it employs as storytellers, as well as the women that it covers in their stories, is an altogether different story.
Instead of being dangerous, it’s (comparatively) safe. There are moments on the show where it is clear that the storyteller is severely inebriated. Consider, for example, Bob Woodward (Nathan Fielder) vomiting upon arrival to his covert meeting with Deep Throat (Bob Odenkirk), a moment dictated by the narrator’s own vomiting. However, the filming of each story, which can take five to six hours, is highly supervised. Medics are on set for the duration of the tale; breathalyzers, oxygen and water are always available; and storytellers are always interviewed in their own homes so they don’t have to travel after their marathon story hour. While other programs do supervise those who are drunk “on set,” those programs typically see inebriation as a driver of the story in its own right. Drunk History sees things a little differently, and the end product shows: alcohol is a means to get to the story, not the story in itself.
Instead of being ridiculed, women are authorities. Even in 2014, there is always pressure for women to “dumb down” their affect or overall persona, a directive borne from the fear that seeming too smart or knowledgeable will be a turn-off for men. Drunk History has never encouraged that of anyone on the program. Several of the featured female narrators are extremely passionate about the history they share. Jen Kirkman, who has narrated on the show several times, comes to mind. Well-versed in the history of lesser-known female figures, she has shared the stories of Mary Dyer and Oney Judge, while also sharing the history of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ friendship. By the same token, stories on the show are not gendered; although the story of Patty Hearst’s capture is told by a woman, so is the story about the pair of matches between Joe Louis and German boxer Max Schmeling. All narrators, according to Waters, are selected for their likeability and excitement about the story they’re about to tell. The show has featured several men who fit these credentials, but it has also selected some exceptional women to do the same. The result? Women are allowed and encouraged to be smart in a space that doesn’t typically allow for it.
Instead of being the butt of jokes, women are revered. As some of the names I may have shared previously might imply, some of these stories aren’t the mainstream tales that you’ll recall from your history notebooks or lectures. And Drunk History not only gives us new insight into stories we know, it also finds ways to share stories that we might not know as well. Females in history have benefitted a great deal from this method. For example, the season 2 premiere featured the story of Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year old girl in Montgomery, Alabama who refused to give up her seat on a bus months before the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. Waters was made aware of the story, and knew it had to be told. Similar illumination has been placed on the stories of Sybil Luddington (who took a ride twice as long as Paul Revere’s to warn of a British invasion) and Mary Ellen Pleasant (pictured above, a black woman in San Francisco who became a millionaire). In an environment where the same old stories could continue to be told, Drunk History is finding ways to tell us all the time that women’s history can and should be revered as well.
I may never get the chance to tell a story on TV- as a writer, as an actress, as an interview subject. But if I were ever given the choice of where I would go on TV to tell a story? Drunk History has made a compelling case to be my destination of choice. From a silly idea and a heated conversation came a place where women are protected, listened to, and revered. I’m always on board with that.
And in case you’re wondering what story I would tell? I’ve thought it out, and here you go.