Film and TV

Reality Bites: Drunk History

There are a millions reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

The premise for Comedy Central's Drunk History is sublime in its simplicity: inebriated people recounting historical events, accompanied by dialogue-accurate reenactments. With that, you get all of the occasional factual inaccuracies and lapses in verbal dexterity one might expect.

Adapted from Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner's Funny or Die web series, the show recently embarked upon its second season. Unlike some (okay, most) of what's covered here on "Reality Bites," this is a not-at-all unpleasant way to kill 30 minutes on a Tuesday evening. Also, "Weird Al" Yankovic as Hitler!

Many episodes focus on events in a particular city, with Waters starting out in a bar and hearing a few inebriated anecdotes before getting to the actual "historical" segment. Most, if not all, of the narrators featured are stand-up comedians, and their ability to work off-material varies significantly. The one common factor: all have been given enough alcohol to make normal perambulation difficult. And in what I assume is an attempt to put his guests at ease (or maybe he's just an alcoholic), Waters drinks as well. Much like I did for Man vs Food's Adam Richman (before he turned out to be an asshole), I kind of fear for Waters' health.

In the Episode I Watched ("New York City, New York"), Eric Falconer starts off by telling us the story of Auguste Bartholdi (Taran Killam) building the Statue of Liberty, and the struggles he faced with a US Congress reluctant to provide funding (for the pedestal). The narrative, of course, is punctuated by debates between Falconer and Waters about the merits of having a penis and whether Play-Doh is edible (my recollection is that it's "non-toxic," which doesn't exactly sound appetizing). Joseph Pulitzer (Brett Gelman) makes his first of two appearances in the episode.

Next up, Suzi Barrett talks about Sybil Ludington's (Juno Temple) not-as-famous-as-Paul-Revere's midnight ride in 1777 to alert residents the British were sacking Danbury, CT. 16 years old and armed only with a stick, she nevertheless roused 400 militiamen and led them to her father (Paul Scheer), the militia commander, while Barrett opines how much easier it would've been if the American militias had Evite. After the battle, George Washington came to thank her for her "spirit of force. Huzzah."

Those may not have been his exact words.

JD Ryznar closes us out with my favorite segment of the show, the story of pioneering journalist Nellie Bly (Laura Dern). Fed up with sexist articles about women, she approaches several New York newspapers before Joseph Pulitzer (making his second appearance, this time played by Matt Walsh to screw with my head) agrees to send Bly to Blackwell's Island, apparently to expose conditions at asylums and not -- as I would've assumed -- make snotty comments about what people are wearing. It's a compelling story on its own, but Dern sells the shit out of it (though I admit, I checked out when Waters and Ryznar unexpectedly got in the tub together). Long story short: Bly increased awareness of how dysfunctional the mental health system was in America, and now everything's hunky dory. Or something.

History can be a pretty dry subject (pun intended), but while the comedic underpinnings are Drunk History's bread and butter, keep in mind that some bombed hack comic's recollections about Billy the Kid or the Haymarket Riot are probably not any more or less full of shit than the guy who stood up in front of a lecture hall repeating the same lesson plan he's been using for 20 years.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar