When Indiewire and Derek Waters, the creator of the Comedy Central series “Drunk History,” discussed doing a sit-down interview, the goal was to do something different from other interviews he’s done in the past: Specifically, making it into a drinking game. If we asked Waters a question he’d been asked before in an interview setting, we had to drink — if the question was new to him, he had to drink.
Waters was game, and so Indiewire met up with him at the El Bar in Studio City, California. The beverage of choice: Bulleit bourbon on the rocks. The topics: The legal issues behind getting someone drunk on television, the show’s transition from the web to HBO before arriving on Comedy Central, and what to expect from tonight’s episode, set in Waters’ hometown of Baltimore. Also discussed: How much the actors get paid and President Obama’s favorite television character. Below is an edited transcript, picking up after we had gotten our first round of drinks.
Okay. Who, to date, has been the drunkest narrator?
I get asked that all the time, so you have to drink. I can’t rat anyone out.
I did read that there’s a medic on set.
Drink — well, that wasn’t really a question, it was something you read but it ended with a question.
I’ll make it into a question — legally, what kind of waivers and contracts do people have to sign before they appear drunk on the show?
OK, drink. There’s a medic on set that checks their blood content level so it doesn’t go to an extreme levels. I don’t want to hurt anyone. The main point of them drinking is, there’s something alcohol does once a certain amount is consumed that takes away their inhibitions, their insecurity and leaves just this overbearing confidence.
We’ve all been out drinking with friends and that one friend comes hammered and they’re like, “I gotta tell you this story.” And whether it’s interesting or not, they are so passionate to tell you that story.
I don’t think you answered my question about what do people sign. Is there a special waiver…
They’re getting drunk at their own will. They’re getting paid a certain amount of money. They’re drinking their own booze. They’re not gonna leave their house. All those funny things.
All of those things are written down?
Yes, yes. Everyone’s always safe. And if someone hits a certain limit, we will not leave until they’re down to a certain limit.
Have you ever felt limited by having the word “Drunk” in the title?
I’ve been asked that, but not that way, so I’ll take a drink. There was a time when [Comedy Central] wanted “Drunk” taken out of the title — a lot of sponsors on that network are, like, alcohol. And if you watch any beer commercial, they never want you to think than if you drank four of these you can get drunk. So there was talk of that. There was also talk of me not being the host due to my low energy. And I said, “Well, the show isn’t gonna be called ‘Party Time History, hosted by Carson Daly.’ That’s not gonna happen.”
But I do think, because we had the online videos, we had a step up where they’re like, well it already has a following. if we change the name, you lose that following. Whether it’s the same show or not. But “Party Time History” — I would have killed myself.
Was that seriously the suggestion?
No, there was no suggestion. There was just like “What If ‘Drunk’ wasn’t in the title?” Like, another good story is pitching it to the History Channel. And they said, “We love it but do they have to be drunk?” Well, yeah. That’s the fucking show.
How key was expanding the setting and the theme, in helping you make the web series into something that could work as long form?
We should just both drink, ’cause like half of that has been asked.
All right, cheers.
I’m a comedy nerd. Comedy snob. So, I believe “Drunk History” is a five-minute idea. And I was offered a movie — different people wanted to do like a movie version of it, and I’m like it’ll get old. A) Five minutes is the perfect amount of time you can take a drunk person before they get annoying; and B) it’s like, oh, they’re moving their lips. A famous person is moving their lips to a drunk comedian. I don’t want that to get old.
So there was the inspiration of Stephen Fry — his show “Stephen Fry Does America.” But it’s different for him because he’s not from America, so he’s genuinely learning. And inspirations like Louis Theroux — he was a big inspiration. In the original pilot presentation, the set up was that at 30 years old, I don’t know anything about my country. So I bought a short bus and I’m driving across America to find out what happened. And that goal was that in each city I would meet locals and learn historical, personal and local history.
But what I learned was normal people, as in not performers and comedians, don’t know how to tell a beginning, a middle and an end. They want to tell you facts, but to be able to tell a story is very hard.
You’ve been able to feature a lot of up-and-coming and alternative comedians as the narrators [including Kyle Kinane, Jenny Slate, Jen Kirkman, Natasha Leggero, JD Ryznar and David Wain]. Was that a part of your original design, or is it just a coincidence that the people you were asking to narrate happen to be comedians?
I’m gonna drink cause that’s a great question. And I’m thirsty. I have a lot of friends that are really funny and people don’t know who they are. And they’re great storytellers. And it’s a hard sell to be able to say, “Hey, buddy, do you mind getting drunk and talk about that story that you love.” Due to the show getting a good response, it’s been easier, but my ultimate goal for anything that I do is showing people that I love, that I don’t think have been featured as much. Someone like Benny Arthur, who’s part of the ensemble. Everyone in the ensemble, I’m like, “Why aren’t you guys working”? I want to pick people who should be working.
I have this amazing opportunity to put people on TV. The celebrity thing is another thing where it’s like, I gotta try to get the best person for the part, like Laura Dern. Last week, she was playing an 18 year old, but she’s the best person for the job of Nellie Bly.
Beyond the fact that “The Wire” shot there, what are the big historical moments that you want to portray in the Baltimore episode?
A “Wire” reference will never get old. I ran into a friend recently and I talked about “The Wire” and he was like, “You know I started it and it’s slow.” And I go, “Okay, it is at the beginning, but can I just let you know that throughout that whole series the scariest man is a homosexual gang banger that walks around with a shotgun and before he kills someone he whistles ‘The Farmer in the Dell.'” Tell me you don’t want to keep watching.
Obama’s favorite television character.
No? That’s not good for him to say that.
He hadn’t even been elected president yet — in his 2008 campaign, he was asked who his favorite television character was, and his answer was Omar from “The Wire.”
That’s a terrible answer. To answer your question for Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe. Played by Jesse Plemons — one of my favorite characters is Landry on “Friday Night Lights,” and Todd from “Breaking Bad.”
Isn’t it funny with “Friday Night Lights,” you’ve got all these attractive young men with real acting chops, and yet the one guy who’s gone on to really do something with his career is Jesse Plemons?
No offense to the other guys in “Friday Night Lights,” but good is good. I met Jesse a few years ago as a fan. And then we became best friends and like, he’s my favorite actor. It’s just rare to see people who are like — It’s a gift, like what they do is a gift. Jesse can be so dark and so light.
[Pause to order a second round of drinks.]
I want to talk about the HBO “Funny or Die” series that happened — I don’t know if it’s an uncomfortable memory…
Yeah, I don’t think it’s good to talk about. I think the good part is we won Sundance. And the bad part is we beat a girl that spent a year with dying kids in Cambodia. We put a wig on Will Ferrell for an hour. But I did respect Sundance for giving an award to something that I humbly say is an original idea, and isn’t about like a dying grandpa or somebody with AIDS, that they get a lot.
I guess the question I have is, when the Comedy Central opportunity came up, what did you learn from the HBO experience that you brought with you?
I guess that I didn’t want to make it a sketch show. That I wanted to make it a show. In the vein that, even though it’s the same premise every week, that there’s a turn, that there’s a through line if you will. Every episode is about a town. Every episode is about a theme.
Oh, sorry, I forgot to drink. No one’s ever asked me that. I’ve been sober for two years — thanks, by the way.
Are you serious!?
No. You know the number one question I get asked? It’s “Are they really drunk?”
They are so drunk!
It’s so insane to me to think that someone could possibly think anything would make a show when people are pretending to be drunk. You can’t fake drunk.
When someone is telling one of the stories, have you ever been tempted to correct them?
You have to drink. I will never correct them until they’re finished. The only thing I will correct is if a name was mispronounced or that a date was wrong. Because in reality the comedy is that they’re drunk, but the show is a history show. I want to make people laugh, but secretly learn, and if you can make them laugh, you can make them learn.
Do you generally feel that you’re exposing the audience to history they might not be aware of?
I’m just gonna drink cause I want to. But that’s the goal. I mean I have this dream I always talk about where it’s a bunch of frat guys watching the show, laughing. And then there’s a guy in the back or the room who’s on his laptop and he Googles it and is like, “Guys, this actually happened.” I think we’re all given a form in life. As in like, OK, I’ve been allowed to be in the comedy world — well, what can I do here that hasn’t been done? And I’m not saying I’m changing the world. All I’m saying is, “What can you do as a creative person, that hasn’t been done before in the form you’ve been given?”
So, if the rest of your life is just spent making “Drunk History”–
No fuckin’ way. No fucking way.
You would not be happy doing that?
I love the show. I also love my body. I don’t mean I have a great body. I mean, I want to be alive. I want to have kids. I want people to learn, but I also have a lot of other ideas and a lot of other shows I want to get out there.
You know, I’ll always love “Drunk History.” I’ll forever — and you can quote me on this — be in debt to Michael Cera. Because Michael Cera was and still is one of my best friends and he encouraged me. I had told him this idea months before we did it. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” And he’s like, “Well if you do it, I would like to be in it.” And if Michael Cera wouldn’t have been in the first “Drunk History” — no matter how good or bad a concept is, people watch because they like Michael Cera. And then they also like the concept.
When people are like, what’s your advice for making a YouTube video or a web series, it’s, “Give them something they’re familiar with, with something they’re not familiar with.”
What do you think is the thing is that really helped the show succeed — the drunk history element or the celebrity guest element?
I think the celebrities help get the audience, and I think the stories keep the audience. But that’s my opinion. I don’t know. I don’t want to put Russell Brand in a fucking story because he’s famous. I want to put the best person in a story because they fit. Like Laura Dern being one of the best actresses, playing an 18-year old.
Is it ever intimidating when you work with an actress like Laura Dern, who is an incredible actress and talent?
Because they’ve said yes to getting paid $600, it isn’t.
Geez. That’s what they get?
Yes. It deletes the assholes. When people are like, “Do you ever work with people who are assholes?,” I’m like, “No, because they’re getting paid $600.” People are always asking who was the hardest person I’ve had to work with. None of them. Because, and this isn’t bragging, they’ve liked the product. They’re not in it for the money.
I hope, at 34, I’ll continue in a career where I only work on things where it’s about the product and not about what will come of it. You know, all this stuff happened yesterday because we weren’t nominated for an Emmy. Like, who gives a fucking shit. We made a great show. I humbly say it’s a show that I’m proud of. Then I think, in any art like mine, it’s like, make stuff that you love, that isn’t self-indulgent, that you truly believe in your heart is giving something. Whether it gets awards or not you gave it your all, and that’s all you can do.
And when you’re dealing with dead people, you want to play them right. Or else you’re gonna get haunted.
Why is it funny? I don’t mean that as “pat me on the back.” I mean that, we just met and sometimes I get it in my head that It’s just the same thing over and over again. Why is it funny to you? Or what makes you want to watch another one?
I think it’s the juxtaposition. The production values on the actual recreations are so good, and then they’re combined with these incredibly informal, and usually really funny and friendly, narrators — genuinely, 90 percent of the time I like the person who is drunk.
That is one quality that you have to have. If you don’t like the narrator, you will tune out.
Have you ever had a mean drunk?
Yeah, but you don’t see it. I’ll edit that one.
You edit out the mean bits?
Has anyone let an ethnic slur, or anything like that, fly out?
Take a drink. The word “mulatto” was used, and I didn’t know how offensive that word was. So that makes me look bad. But someone was half-black, half-white, and she was using that term. And that’s how I know the word. And I learned that it’s very offensive.
It goes back to, I would never make someone look bad. I want, when you’re doing a show called “Drunk History,” I want the drunks to be the smartest people and the people watching to feel dumb.
How did you build up trust with the narrators?
By me drinking with them, me letting them know that like, you’re at your place. You’re safe. I promise you, it’ll be the best reenactment ever. I will get the best person for your story… I think that helped. And I will forever be in debt to every single narrator. Whether we used them or not. There’s a lot we didn’t use.
But that trust is something I never take for granted. Like right now I would hate to be filmed — I am comfortable with you, but I wouldn’t be comfortable being filmed right now. I mean being put on the spot. But if I was prepared, like, hey you’re gonna talk about the history of Pearl Jam. If I was ready to do it, I’d be ready to do it.
I’m trying to imagine what the history of Pearl Jam would look like as a reenactment.
Well, I could tell you but it’d take forever. But note that Pearl Jam is the best band ever. You know they never play the same set, right?
Ever. Every show is completely different. Eddie Vedder makes the set list 30 minutes before the show. And I aspire to be like that. To be keeping things organic. And keeping things real.
Tally: Two bourbons each. “Drunk History” airs Tuesdays at 10:30pm on Comedy Central.