Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Derek Waters is the Drunk Whisperer on Drunk History

Illustration for article titled Derek Waters is the Drunk Whisperer on Drunk History
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“Oklahoma” tells three action-packed stories that make Oklahoma sound a lot more exciting than I ever imagined. The worlds created for each of these stories, in particular, are really magnificent, which has always been one of the strange contradictions of Drunk History. The sets constructed for Kentucky Daisey’s land runs, Gordon Cooper’s space expedition, and Bass Reeves’s expansive journey look exactly like sets. There’s nothing realistic about it at all. Drunk History’s signature low-budget aesthetics are on full display in “Oklahoma.” At one point, we even see someone’s hand manually creating the “special effect” of Cooper losing control of his spaceship.

And on Drunk History, that shit works. On the one hand, it just follows that a show about fucked up people sloppily recounting historical tales would have aesthetics that are similarly sloppy. But on an even deeper level, the fakeness of the show’s set pieces also just lends to the series’ overall storybook quality. In “Oklahoma,” it looks like reenactors Kat Dennings, Colin Hanks, and Jaleel White have just been dropped into historical dioramas that they then get to play around in. Overall, it’s a very playful episode, thanks especially to playful narration from the first two narrators, Emily Wilson and Laura Steinel. All three stories have a lot of movement to them, which is why the worlds of this episode seem even more dynamic than usual. Just because these are intentionally low-budget effects and sets doesn’t mean that the staging lacks life. Dennings especially fills her world with exciting energy.

Retelling history requires more than just plot: It requires details. And the details drunk people come up with are just the kind of weird specifics that make for engaging storytelling. Drunk History isn’t a show that’s necessarily going to infect my everyday thoughts, but parts of it often do stay with me, especially the specifics—whether they’re real specifics from the story or just spur-of-the-moment additions from the retellers. Steinel includes the real detail of Cooper’s five-dollar wristwatch in her story, and even brings it back at the end, and it’s definitely a small detail that doesn’t necessarily have any impact on the overall plot of the tale, but it does help to ground Gordo Cooper and remind us that he was a real dude with a five-dollar wristwatch and not just a character in a story. And then on the other side of things, we all know very well that Kentucky Daisey and her team of landowning ladies didn’t snack on Fritos, but the fact that Wilson throws that detail in there similarly gives depth to the story. It doesn’t matter that she made it up. History is so often thought of as this fixed field, but Drunk History implicitly acknowledges that history is subjective and depends entirely on who is telling the story. Textbooks have misconstrued far worse things than the type of snacks people eat. At least Drunk History has some heart in its embellishments.

Derek Waters wears many hats for Drunk History—sometimes literally—but in “Oklahoma,” his role as Drunk Whisperer is particularly crucial. For a moment there, I was almost convinced Mark Gagliardi was not going to finish his story. Drunk History needs to feel playful, because if it gets too messy, it can end up dark. No one wants to feel sad while watching this show, something Waters and his team are definitely conscious of when selecting the stories. I never necessarily pitied Gagliardi during the episode, but I was certainly very thankful for Waters’ presence. He knows all the right things to say and do in order to get Gagliardi to continue telling the story. To Gagliardi’s credit, this guy is a trooper. He somehow manages to keep telling Bass Reeves’ story even as he’s sprawled out on the floor with his eyes closed. Drunk History narrators, even the drunkest ones, are fiercely committed to telling the story. When they mess up, they care. When Steinel gets too carried away at one point in her story, she stops herself, realizing that the dialogue she’s doing for Gordo Cooper is out-of-character for the astronaut, who is way more chill than she would ever be about being stuck in space. The best retellers care not only about getting the beats of the story right but doing their protagonists justice.

Gagliardi does manage to finish the story…eventually. But without Waters’ acute skill for dealing with intoxicated people and making them feel comfortable, we never would have gotten past the story’s first beat. Waters is like that friend at the end of the night who keeps you from embarrassing yourself too much. We all need a friend like Waters. It’s no wonder Gagliardi loves him so much.

Stray observations

  • Wilson: “These bitches are fucking rifled up.”
  • Wilson: “Sorry, you can’t go get your Fritos.”
  • Wilson pauses at one point to make the very sincere comment that shooting dudes in the throats “sounds like a blast.”
  • Gagliardi: “I’m gonna grag you.”
  • I love that Steinel doesn’t want to curse because of her mother, but then she ends up cursing a whole lot anyway.