Drunk History

After a wobbly start, Drunk History has found its footing again with “Legends.” The theme is broad enough to really go in any direction. And indeed, Derek Waters and his team have found three tonally disparate stories about three very different kinds of legends. The fact that this episode outshines the season premiere really boils down to the episode titles. “Great Escapes” describes an action, and last week’s stories were, accordingly, plot-driven, relying on action to keep the momentum going. They were about historical events, and the people they involved weren’t fleshed out enough to really hook. But “Legends” describes the people themselves. Obviously, Drunk History gets into specific historical events with these three stories, but they’re also about who these three legends are, not just what they did. Whenever Drunk History delves into the humanity of its stories, it transcends its goofy premise. And that’s exactly what happens in “Legends,” especially in its second beat.

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I won’t go so far to say things start off lightly with the story of Sam Patch, the first famous daredevil in America. After all, it ends with Patch free-falling into the Genesee River to his death. But with the very dry Nick Rutherford telling the story and the very weird Kyle Mooney playing Patch, the story feels playful and cinematic. Patch is a legend in the borderline mythical sense. Surviving a plunge into the Niagara Falls doesn’t even sound possible. He had a pet bear (played masterfully by Waters himself). It all seems slightly detached from reality, like a work of folklore, and that actually works to the story’s advantage, building this slightly mystical world around a nonetheless true story. And indeed, Rutherford attempts to revise history with a happier, more fantastical ending where Patch and his pet bear (who Rutherford names Bombsy and then immediately regrets) cheerfully play beer pong after the Genesee plunge. In reality, Patch’s frozen corpse was discovered months later.

But both the seemingly far-fetched details of Patch’s life and the signature reality-bending “special effects” of Drunk History (shout out to the art department for that doll replica of Mooney) contribute to the show’s overall strong sense of storytelling. I’ve often said that kids should learn from Drunk History and not from textbooks, and I’m obviously mostly joking. Don’t drink and history, kids! But unlike most textbooks, Drunk History shatters the myth that history is objective. History is controlled by the people who are telling it, and Drunk History’s entire premise is based on this idea. If the three narrators of this episode were shaken up and given each other’s stories, they would surely tell them differently, focus on different details, convey different tones and ideas. This isn’t just the story of Sam Patch. It’s the story of Sam Patch as told by Nick Rutherford. Drunk History deals in facts, but it does so in a way that remains self-aware of history’s elasticity.

And it does so while still being hilarious. The end of Rutherford’s segment provides the best drunk misunderstanding of the episode.

Waters: He stood out.
Rutherford: He also was in No Doubt. Is that what you said? No Doubt?
Waters: He stood out.
Rutherford: He stood out. And I love No Doubt.
Waters: Don’t speak.
Rutherford: I know just what you’re saying.

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But the best segment of the episode comes in the middle, with Tymberlee Hill retelling the story of Ella Fitzgerald’s friendship with Marilyn Monroe. This might be one of my favorite stories in Drunk History history, which isn’t surprising. According to family lore, my first word was “louinella,” a portmanteau my baby brain invented for Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. My grandma would play me “Louis and Ella” records, and one day, I started requesting them for myself. So needless to say, Ella Fitzgerald is an important figure to me, personally. And besides that, I’ve been singing Hill’s praises for a couple years now. She’s one of the most underrated actresses in television comedy right now, and I’m thrilled whenever I see her. And she absolutely slays in her turn as a Drunk History reteller this week. Ultimately, I don’t merely love this segment because of my personal love for Ella Fitzgerald but because of Hill loves Ella Fitzgerald. Every once in a while, Drunk History taps someone who is overwhelming passionate about the story they tell, and it makes for a thrilling experience. She giggles and hiccups and catch breaths her way through the story, but she never once loses her infectious, giddy energy that makes it so damn delightful. She interrupts herself to say she loves these two women and has known the story forever. Her passion for and familiarity with the story makes her a captivating narrator.

Hill’s segment is also the episode’s finest example of how character-driven retellings play the best on Drunk History. Gabourey Sidibe and Juno Temple give heartfelt and truly compelling performances as Fitzgerald and Monroe, having fun with Hill’s drunken, quick dialogue but also bringing genuine emotion to their scenes. Both are hugely popular cultural icons, but by focusing on their friendship, the story humanizes and complicates these two legendary women. The story deals with broad ideas like racism in the music industry, but it does so through the very specific lens of these two women and their beautiful relationship. A famous white woman following through on true, selfless solidarity for a Black woman in her industry by using her own power to elevate a marginalized voice? That’s a story with a lot of present-day relevance—one that famous white women of today should listen to. “These two women, they literally need each other,” Hill says, never once downplaying the intense emotions and complex relationship dynamics that make this an incredible story. She ends it by saying Fitzgerald “loved that lady,” placing an emphasis on “loved” that isn’t mere drunken exaggeration. It’s coming from her heart. And it looks like she says it through tears.

Admittedly, it’s a tough act to follow, but Patrick Walsh does a solid job, imbuing his retelling of the life of Buster Keaton with reverence for the man and his work. And he remains explicit about how Hollywood pioneer D.W. Griffith was a huge white supremacist in a way that’s brutally honest but also funny. But Tony Hale especially boosts the segment, which also bizarrely features Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Chaplin (only on Drunk History!). It’s no secret that the best Drunk History reenactors are physical performers, and the nature of the Buster Keaton story means that Hale doesn’t end up getting much dialogue to work with at all, so it’s especially true here. And few would be better suited than Hale, who folds into roles with his entire body. Seriously, so much of his Emmy award-winning performance on Veep relies on the way he carries himself and moves as Gary Walsh. And he brings specificity to his movements as Keaton as well (when Walsh remarks that Keaton gave a hearty nod, Hale gives a nod that is indeed hearty), which is especially fitting given that Keaton’s work was so tied to his body and physicality.

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And again, even though the story centers on a famed cultural figure, Drunk History gets a little into the legend’s psyche, telling a human and grounded tale that includes Keaton’s alcoholism and how he tenaciously fought to get sober. Drunk History manages to wade into darkness without losing its sharp sense of humor and without diminishing the seriousness either.

Stray observations

  • Rutherford never quite finds the proper pronunciation of Genesee.
  • Rutherford puts Patch’s status as a legend bluntly: “He was a pioneer in dumb stunts.”
  • Even Hill’s intro is full of giddy energy, with her whipping her head around to face the camera.
  • Hill’s drunk scatting is perfection.
  • Temple and Sidibe waiting incredulously for Hill to get “Marilyn Monroe” out makes for a great bit.
  • I found the set design for the Fitzgerald story really flashy and fun, too.
  • “There is no garbage here,” Waters sagely remarks when Walsh becomes worried that he isn’t doing well.

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