Heading into its fourth season, Comedy Central's Drunk History has become a cultural icon. Starting with its early roots as a Funny or Die web series, Comedy Central picked up the show, debuting in in 2013 where it has grown more popular each year. As we head into Season 4, I recently had the chance to speak with the show's creator and star, Derek Waters, and after our conversation, it seems clear that Drunk History Season 4 will be the biggest and best yet.
The show has never had a shortage of all-star comedic talent, but this year, Derek Waters announced perhaps the show's most anticipated narrator at Comic-Con. The beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the Broadway sensation Hamilton, will narrate the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr while inebriated. That's just the tip of this comedic iceberg, though.
Paget Brewster will narrate the relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Busy Phillips) and Soviet soldier Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Mae Whitman) and their quest for women's rights, while another episode breaks down the rivalry between British actor William Macready (Jack McBrayer) or American actor Edwin Forrest (David Koechner). Other guest stars this season include Billie Joe Armstrong, Steve Berg, Rachel Bilson, Michael Cera, Josh Charles, Kat Dennings, Ben Folds, Dave Grohl, Tony Hale, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Aubrey Plaza, Ronda Rousey, Liev Schreiber, Alia Shawkat, Duncan Trussell and many more.
Like many comedy superstars, Derek Waters has a background in improv comedy, performing at Los Angeles clubs such as Upright Citizens Brigade and Improv Olympic. During our recent chat, we discuss how this improv background helps or hinders the show, how each episode is produced, and much more. Take a look at our full chat below about this beloved Comedy Central series.
We actually have some mutual friends. I hang out at iO West a lot.
Derek Waters: Oh yeah?
Yeah, like Mike Hughes. I was asking around, I wasn't sure who the people I know from iO knew you, and someone said Mike Hughes, so I talked to him a bit a few days ago.
Derek Waters: Oh yeah, Top Story. I love that man. I love that man.
I've been a huge fan of this show for awhile now, and it seems like such a no-brainer for a show, like 'How had this never been done before?' Can you take me through the impetus of this show, even when you started with the web series?
Derek Waters: It was a one-time idea. I thought it would be really funny to show - I was doing an Upright Citizen's Brigade show called LOL, where I wanted to show people shorts before they put them online to actually see if people were LOLing, as it were. So it was just an idea. I was drunk with (New Girl star) Jake Johnson, he was telling me a story about Otis Redding, he was trying to convince me that Otis Redding knew he was gonna die in that plane crash, and I just knew it wasn't true. I thought that I wanted to reenact that, and I was picturing Otis Redding looking at me and shaking his head like 'This never happened.' But then maybe it did. Maybe I can do the same joke on a subject you can call bullshit on, so I figured history. I asked my dear friend Mark Gagliardi, 'What is a moment in history that you want more people do know about?' He said Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and I said, 'Would you wanna get drunk and tell that story?' It was just a one-time thing, I didn't put it online. It was like a DVD being passed around, we were trying to get it on The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live, but we never got anything. I decided to put it online during Christmas. I just thought, people are so bored during the holidays, maybe this will be a video people can pass around. Then Jack Black got to see it, and he said he always wanted to be Ben Franklin, and it just kept going. It's been like that ever since. I'd go, 'I think we're done. Oh, they want to do more? OK.' There will always be history, but it spawned into something that I was in control of and now I'm part of. It was a really humbling, crazy feeling.
It sounds a lot like how South Park got started, actually. There was that one tape that got passed around, and it kept growing and growing and growing.
Derek Waters: Crazy. I don't think I could do 20 seasons though.
It must be amazing to almost come full-circle, with Lin-Manuel Miranda doing Hamilton. Was that something that was high on your list for things you wanted to do this season?
Derek Waters: I think it was definitely something I wanted to do, in the sense of, I knew he always wanted to do the show and I wanted him to do Hamilton, but in a way that wasn't like Gagliardi and wasn't like the musical and wasn't like our show. So, it's the only episode we've ever done where it's one story, and not three stories. I mean, this whole season, I was saying that, after Season 3, if we do this again, I think the cities were like a cute and clever way to prove that this isn't a five-minute short, and that it's a show. Now that we've earned that, let's make it all themed episodes, and finding stories that make you go, 'Why weren't we taught this?' Why is so much history thrown under the covers and attempted to be erased?
I remember we ran an exclusive clip from one of the DVD's, I think it was the second season, and it had commentary with you. One of the things you were saying was there was a balance you try to find, about when you can shoot with these guys, meaning they can't be too drunk. Can you talk about if that has turned into a skill throughout the years, learning when to start shooting with them?
Derek Waters: Well, we're always shooting. It's not like, 'Oh, they're drunk, let's start shooting. They don't start drinking until I get over there, and we're filming that whole time. They tell the story many, many, many times throughout the night, so that's something I've learned, make sure to be safe that we have a clear beginning, middle and end. Online, I could do whatever I want, but now with people getting paid, I can't just have somebody pass out and go, 'Oh, that one didn't work out.' So, I've learned that and lots and lots of patience.
Obviously Lin-Manuel is going to be the big draw this year, but can you talk about who else you have coming on this year? What other stories are you telling this season?
Derek Waters: I'm very excited that my hero Bob Odenkirk is a narrator this season. Bob got drunk and discussed the disco demolition in Chicago in 1979. That was a really, really good personal story. Him and our mutual late friend Jim Zulevic had written a movie about it, and I still want Bob to make that movie, so it was like, 'Wanna get drunk and talk about it?' Actually, that's not true. I asked for Bob's blessing, if we could do that story. He was like, 'Well, if you're gonna do it, I've gotta be the one to get drunk.' I'm like, 'Can you do that?' He was like, 'I dunno, I've gotta find out.' But it was really sweet and beautiful, because he doesn't drink, so it was very sweet of him to get drunk for the show. Jenny Slate is back, I love her and Paget Brewster, Duncan Trussell, all the greats are back. The only one who couldn't do it this season is The Queen, Jen Kirkman, but hopefully we'll be able to do it again.
Her episode last season was hilarious.
Derek Waters: So good, so good. Do you know a comedian named Doug Jones? Doug Jones is a dear friend and he's hilarious, and I'm really excited for people to tell his story. He talks about a drunk baker on the Titanic that survives, mostly because he was drunk so the frozen water didn't bother him.
Can you talk a bit about how you shoot the reenactments? Mike Coleman, that's another guy I know fro iO.
Derek Waters: The man! The man!
He's awesome. I started watching (improv troupe) Beer Shark Mice since I moved to L.A., that was the Saturday night ritual.
Derek Waters: Likewise.
When you shoot with your regulars, do you show them the whole thing, or do you just give them audio? Can you talk about how the reenactment process works?
Derek Waters: Yeah, so everybody, the regulars are called "The Ensemble" of the show, they usually get a week to see all five of the ones we'll be doing the following week, and then the actors, the guest stars that we get, when we offer them the part, we send them the script along with the video of the narration. When we shoot, it's like a music video, everything is done on playback, so you're hearing it as you're doing it. It also helps us, to make sure we can tell if the lip sync is working or not.
That must be a unique way to shoot for these actors, it almost has to be an acquired skill.
Derek Waters: Yeah, it's almost like silent filmmaking, and your lips are like part of your body skill, like physical comedy.
Is there anything else you're working on, aside from the new season, that you can talk about?
Derek Waters: I wish, but this show, we're still editing Season 4, so I'm very in love with the show, but it's a 13 months out of the year job. I love it, but I have many projects that I'm excited to do, once this train has gone through its final station.
Has there been talk of an endgame, with Comedy Central?
Derek Waters: Just one day at a time, you know, see what happens with Season 4, and hopefully people will want more.
If you do get another season, is there one narrator you've been always hoping to get that hasn't worked out quite yet?
Derek Waters: Um, Stephen King? No, I don't know... a dream narrator... I don't really have a specific narrator. I love the friends and the comedians and I love, love, love finding new people that haven't been discovered, and giving them an opportunity to get drunk on TV.
Coming from an improv background, how important do you think that is, for both narrating and reenacting? I know there's no improv in the show, but do you think that comes into play, when you're trying to act in an unconventional way?
Derek Waters: I think improv helps you learn how to act, but there are so many good people that do the show that I don't think have done improv. I find improv crucial to comedy, and it's definitely saved my life. Improv is definitely a great skill and it teaches you many things, but we don't improvise.
Is there anything you'd like to say to anyone who, for some reason, are just catching up to the show now, and for fans of Hamilton, about why they should give Season 4 a shot?
Derek Waters: I would say, if you've never heard the show, it's a subject that's rarely entertaining, but I promise that you'll laugh and I'll promise that you'll learn something, so I'm trying to do two things at once. Yeah, the stories this year are my favorite stories we've ever done. I want to make sure everyone might watch it. We're doing a story about the Wright Brothers, and there was a Wright sister that taught them what they needed to know to do what they did. So, finding hidden history is what Season 4 has lots of.
That's my time. Thanks so much, Derek. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Derek Waters: Likewise, Brian. Have a good one.
Drunk History Season 4 will be comprised of 10 half-hour episodes, with Derek Waters and series co-creator Jeremy Konner executive producing alongside Gary Sanchez Productions' Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Owen Burke. It's possible that we could be hearing about a Season 5 renewal for this hit series if the season premiere fares well. Until then, tune in for the Season 4 premiere of Derek Waters' Drunk History on Tuesday, September 27 at 10:30 PM ET on Comedy Central.