Drunk History: How the Online Show Hit the Basic Cable Big Time
With a terrific concept, A-list guest stars, and hilarious results, Drunk History is a smash hit online video success. And now it's on Comedy Central.
It’s rare to find an idea that everyone grasps and loves immediately. Drunk History is one of the exemplary few. The producers record highly inebriated friends telling stories out of American history. Those rambling stories are then re-enacted by A-list celebs lip-synching the drunken tellers’ own words. Genius.
That’s why Drunk History has gone from stage show to YouTube to Funny or Die to HBO and now to Comedy Central in its own half-hour series.
Along the way, surprisingly little has changed. Why tinker with success? The basic formula is still the same, and the A-list guests still rush to take part. Michael Cera and Jack Black starred in early online videos. The Comedy Central series reads like a who’s who of contemporary comedy -- it has starred Luke and Owen Wilson, Bill Hader, and Aubrey Plaza, to name a few.
To learn how Drunk History has gone from online to cable, we spoke to co-founder and director Jeremy Konner, who’s been with the show since its drunken beginnings.
The Birth of Drunk History
“The show started when my partner Derek Waters came to me to help him make this video for his live show that he did at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood,” Konner said. “He said, ‘I want to film somebody drunk and then let’s re-enact what they said, someone drunk telling a story.’ And I thought that was hilarious and we went ahead and did it.”
That first outing, however, was a flop. It just wasn’t funny. A drunk telling a random story just didn’t work.
“Later that night we went over to a friend’s house named Mark Gagliardi,” Konner continues. “He said to us, ‘I know the story of Alexander Hamilton and the duel between him and Aaron Burr. Can I tell you guys all about this?’ And we just said, ‘Yeah, sure, please.’ And he just started unraveling this tale that was unbelievable. And he was hilarious and crazy, and it was amazing. So history was born and we went home from that day going, ‘Oh, this is going to be funny. This is a good idea.’”
Besides having a terrific drunken story for their first episode, Waters and Konner benefited from their connections: Their friend Michael Cera agreed to star in the first episode (as Hamilton). This was 2007 -- Cera was by then a movie star, and his presence guaranteed the show would get some attention.
“It was a crazy time in history because that was right after Superbad had come out. We had already made it. And while Michael was definitely huge in many ways it was really Superbad that rocketed him to stardom,” Konner says. “So it really helped our little short, that’s for sure.”
Drunk History’s rise to online comedy greatness was helped by getting front page placement on YouTube. But as Konner found out, YouTube viewers are fickle.
Early episodes of Drunk History, including the episode starring Michael Cera that started it all, can still be found on the series’ Funny or Die page.
“This is at a time when there was a real front page to YouTube with the top 10 videos. If you could get in that top 10, if you could get on that front page, you immediately got a million hits,” Konner recalls. “We immediately rose to number one and then quickly lost to a video called ‘Snoring Maggie,’ which was a small Lhasa Apso asleep snoring. It was about 20 seconds, and that got millions. We couldn’t compete with ‘Snoring Maggie.’”
The Growth of Drunk History
While Waters and Konner instantly had a hit on their hands, that doesn’t mean they knew what to do with it. They certainly didn’t milk the idea; as of this writing the Drunk History YouTube channel only has seven videos, while the Funny or Die channel has a few others.
“We both didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into. And we didn’t quite know exactly how it was going to go when we started. It sort of developed a little as it went,” Konner explains. “There was a point where we were calling it the Drunk History Channel. There was a point when it was just going to be a lot smaller and simpler and it just sort of grew legs on its own. After we made that first one, Jack Black saw it and he said that he wanted to do one. And then all of a sudden other celebrities came forward, and they wanted to do one and it became this thing that celebrities did, which we completely had not started with that in mind.”
In the following years, Drunk History found a few other backers and amassed a large online following, all without turning into a payday for its creators. Funny or Die wanted to host the videos, but it didn’t have a financial arrangement with Waters and Konner; it was a promotional arrangement. When Funny or Die put together specials called Funny or Die Presents for HBO, Waters and Konner created a few special Drunk History episodes, but that didn’t last long. For the most part, the pair was still financing the videos themselves.
“Locations were friends’ places. Wigs were borrowed. Costumes were rented from a great place called Adele’s on Hollywood Boulevard. And we split costs, Derek and I,” Konner says.
Drunk History Goes to Basic Cable
Despite the popularity of Drunk History, it took a while for Waters and Konner to get serious about selling it. After they did two videos for the HBO series and then a Christmas special for Funny or Die, they finally decided to shop around a series. Partnering with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, they started approaching cable channels. But which would be the better fit? It turned out that while everyone loves the show online, not everyone wanted it on their network.
“There’s definitely been people who were squeamish about it,” Konner says. “One of our pitches was to the History channel, and we sat in and the first thing they said was, ‘So how do you do it without drinking?’ And we’re like oh...”
There were a few obstacles, but luckily only a few: Comedy Central quickly signed the series. Since the show’s simple formula still worked, Waters and Konner didn’t change much for television. They decided to introduce a geographical element, to give a theme to each episode. Each is named after a U.S. city, with local drunken storytellers relating parts of their city’s history. The first episode, “Washington, D.C.,” starred Bob Odenkirk as Richard Nixon, Fred Willard as Deep Throat, and Jack Black as Elvis.