Back in August, right before the season three premiere, Complex did a behind-the-scenes feature of Drunk History that specifically looked at the making of tonight’s episode. Ever since I read it, I’ve been looking forward to “Journalism.” Something Derek Waters said for the Complex piece stands out to me: “I’m pretty humble about most things, except for knowing people.” He goes on to explain how he has a knack for knowing what potential narrators will want to talk about and what they won’t want to talk about.
But Waters’ intuition goes well beyond just knowing what kind of stories certain people might gravitate toward. As last week proved, he knows exactly what to do and say to get even the drunkest drunk historians to finish their stories. Occasionally, it’s easy to overlook Waters’ role, especially when the final segment we see on screen doesn’t feature a whole lot of action or dialogue from him. Waters doesn’t do a whole lot in Drew Droege’s “Journalism” segment, but I have no doubt that his presence there was just a crucial as it is when Jen Kirkman needs something to eat at the top of her segment and when she needs a pool buddy at the end. Especially given the fact that some narration segments take upwards of eight hours to shoot, it’s pretty safe to assume Waters is hard at work as the Drunk Whisperer, even if we don’t see him doing his thang in the finished episode.
Waters’ most crucial on-screen contribution in “Journalism” comes in the first segment with narrator Cameron Esposito. Esposito is the type of drunk narrator who doesn’t get too sloppy with her words. Rather, the alcohol heightens her enthusiasm, leading to a high-energy retelling that makes the already exciting story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s “race ’round the globe” even more exciting. But Waters injects some extra fun into the segment by suggesting quite possibly the worst drinking game ever. It helps that Esposito generally has an unrelenting gung-ho attitude. Waters himself says “this is a really bad game I’m gonna pitch,” and she immediately leans in and wants to hear the terrible idea. In the Complex piece, she acknowledges that Waters knew she was competitive. He knew exactly how to pitch a shots race—indeed, a terrible idea—to get her not only to agree to participate but to go for the win. And I don’t think this aspect was planned, but the game actually leads to organic sound bites from Esposito that actually work as additional reenactment dialogue. She’s talking about herself destroying Waters in the second round of the shots race, but it works just as well coming out of Nellie Bly’s mouth to Elizabeth Bisland. Good should never come from a shots race, but on Drunk History, it does.
Esposito’s segment has that special feeling that the story is hers—that no one else could have told it the way she does. She brings her personality to the narration. There’s a specific register Esposito’s voice hits when she gets excited in her stand-up that she unlocks briefly here near the end of the story as she exclaims “She wins it!” about Bly’s victory. But the episode’s first segment also has the most enthralling reenactment, thanks largely to Ellie Kemper’s performance as Bly.
I’ve spent some time this season trying to figure out exactly what makes a strong Drunk History reenactment actor, and I’ve realized the ones I tend to highlight all have something in common: They’re what I describe as “face actors.” Most of the comedy lives in their faces. This is true of Maya Rudolph, Jack McBrayer, Alia Shawkat, and Kemper—some of the season’s best reenactors. Physicality overall is super important to Drunk History reenactments, but it’s the actors who can be funny with little more than a strange or exaggerated facial expression who always seem to stand out. The first segment includes so many global settings that it’s the most intricate of the retellings, but even amid all the colorful sets, the best visuals are in Kemper’s face. And Natasha Leggero is a solid reenactor, too. Her seductive look directly at the camera when Esposito says Bisland was “generally known for being hot” makes it very clear that she was the perfect casting choice for the part.
Overall, the physical comedy in “Journalism” is on point—some of it intentional, like the very Newsies quality Michael Cera brings to the newsboy strike story, adding some musical theater flair through revolution spirit fingers and dramatic poses. But the unplanned physical gags are even more fun, like the way Droege’s hair gets wilder and wilder as the segment progresses and how every time we cut back to Kirkman, she’s in a new lopsided position on her couch with her funky pillow. Bits come about very organically on Drunk History. The kind of comedy it relies on is the same kind of stuff that makes you laugh when you’re just hanging out and drinking with friends.
- Usually, I’m not a huge fan of the little in-between segments with random drunk people that are used to break up the retellings. They can provide nice context for the setting in the city-themed episodes, but overall, they feel exactly like what they are: filler. But Waters having a very candid conversation with The Wire creator David Simon over tequila, hot sauce, and seafood is a definite exception. Brief as it may be, it was actually one of my favorite parts of the episode.
- Droege, on who he would cast in a Newsies remake: “I would cast, oh my God, One Direction?”
- “I’m trying to enjoy my breakfast.”
- I love that Kirkman’s violent sneezes get incorporated in the reenactment.