“You make life worth living.”
“Wish it was on every night!”
Believe it or not, these are comments about history. Not the latest monograph shaking up the historical narrative, or a popular professor’s seminar, rather these are reactions to the television show Drunk History. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes like this: each episode tells three stories, usually revolving around a city, but sometimes a concept, like their “Sports” episode. An actor/comedian learns a story about a historical character, gets loaded, and recounts the story to the best of their ability. Costumed actors then reenact the retelling, and when the narrator quotes someone, the actors lip-synch the words. It is that simple. But the result is hilarious.
Part of what makes the stories so amusing is the fact that the drunken narrator uses contemporary language to describe people and events. Much of this language is vulgar. When the British take over Washington D.C. in the war of 1812, the narrator, and the costumed actor say, “British assholes are about to come take a giant dump on Washington.” The narrator describing the 19th century, “This is the 1800s. No one has any money. People were, like, sweeping the streets. And maybe you’d find, like, a crust of bacon. And you’d eat it.” African-American entrepreneur and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant is described as the “head bitch in charge.” This language is familiar and not stuffy at all. It is the way friends who are very comfortable around each other talk. Seeing the costumed actors speak in this voice provides the comedy, and also makes the character accessible. It all feels like a drunken friend trying to explain something that happened to them last week.
The stories are always biographical, and are always either about a person you probably haven’t heard of but who has done some amazing things, or about someone familiar who did something surprising. Minorities and women are very often featured, as are gay, Lesbian, and working class people. This show is aimed at an audience educated with textbooks mediated by the state of Texas via the culture wars, and it does a great job highlighting the fact that our history is complex and intersectional. It also humanizes the “great men” of history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are backbiting jerks, and George Washington lives in a “fucked up wooden teethed, white hair powdered wig, goddamn fucking male chauvinist world.”
As for the people most people haven’t heard of, one episode featured an enslaved Robert Smalls who creates an opportunity to flee to the Union during the Civil War, and recruits other African-Americans into the Union army, flying in the face of those who buy the Lost Cause story of loyal Confederate slaves. Another features Sybil Ludington who goes on a midnight ride to round up the militia during the Revolution, outdoing Paul Revere by miles. Baron Von Stueben, gay man, teaches the Continental Army how to fight and become a disciplined force, blowing up the idea that gay men are less than masculine. There are too many stories like this to mention here. Show creator Derek Waters clearly has a mission both to entertain and to teach with this series. So what’s not to love?
Admittedly, this show does not provide the nuanced arguments of which academic historians are so fond. And being mostly biographical, the stories are limited because they can’t really cover wider events and historical processes. But people watch this, and they learn from this, much like they learn from Ken Burns’ miniseries. The difference here is that Drunk History does not claim that its stories happened exactly as they are retold. We are all in on the joke, which is more honest than claiming to know exactly what happened. Have historians not wanted to show a complex history that includes more actors than just the rich white men since the days of the New Social History? Aren’t they suspicious of claims to objective truth? The stories presented are not just made up, they are all fairly solid in the events that happened, timeline, etc. They just don’t claim to be exacting recreations.
Perhaps you object to the drunkenness, but realize that it is the fact that the narrators are drunk that allows them to talk about controversial subjects, and, as in vino veritas, it gives the narrator’s feelings about a subject more weight. Most of the narrators are very passionate about the stories they’re telling.
Does learning history have to be boring to be valuable? I hope none of us believe that. Perhaps we should embrace the show and incorporate it into teaching, as a jumping off point for more nuanced discussion, especially about how people of the past relate to people and power today. And we should be happy that students (and young people in general) are learning history in alternate ways, and finding it delightful.