One of the few constants in life is that drunk people will always find themselves hilarious. Whether or not they are actually hilarious is a separate question, and Drunk History doesn’t always have the answer. The show’s very premise makes this inconsistency inevitable. Just as in the first season, Drunk History gets comedians drunk, lets them tell a historical story, and uses their sodden voiceover as a script for a literal reenactment. The results are hit-or-miss. As it turns out, getting drunk is a great equalizer; even seasoned comics can dissolve into giggling idiots after several drinks.
Still, it makes sense that Drunk History is in no rush to change its formula. The success of its original Funny Or Die iteration, after all, was in its simplicity: “Funny people act out drunken history lessons.” When the webseries took a leap into a half-hour format with Comedy Central, the only real discernible differences were an expanded budget and that each episode offered three drunk histories for the price of one. The first season was funny, but the show had the misfortune of premiering right as Comedy Central was hitting its stride with a stunning lineup of comedy series like Key And Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City, all of which are committed to pushing their own boundaries.
So this second season makes a slight, but smart, adjustment. While the first season sprinkled unfamiliar tales in between retellings of Watergate, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and life stories of Al Capone and Mark Twain, the second season places a marked emphasis on telling stories its audience is less likely to know. Throughout all four episodes screened for critics, people whose accomplishments were overshadowed by larger figures or have been dismissed to the footnotes of history get their moments to shine in both sloppy and reverent fashion. The premiere, for example, goes to Alabama and tells three stories that come out of Montgomery’s contentious history with racism. Allan McLeod takes on several shots of liquor and brilliant scientist Percy Julian (Jordan Peele), who met racism at every stage of his career but still managed to change the face of science with his discovery of steroids. Then, Amber Ruffin downs vodka and sheds light on Claudette Colvin (a radiant Mariah Wilson), the 15-year-old schoolgirl who refused to give up her bus seat for a white woman, inspiring Rosa Parks (Lisa Bonet) to do the same. Finally, Morgan Murphy tackles whiskey and the story of how boxer Joe Louis (Terry Crews) gained grudging respect in 1938 when he came back from failure to beat German Max Schmeling. Whether or not the comedians’ drunken asides land, the stories are still compelling by virtue of being unexpected—though making Hitler slur, “uh oh, spaghettios” or describing someone as “one of America’s first pieces of shit” certainly doesn’t hurt.
In that respect, Drunk History has a winking charm that reveals a welcome dose of self-awareness, like when it takes a storyteller’s offhand comment and turns it into a verbatim prop (e.g., a newspaper headline of “THE 1812, UH, WAR”). Everyone involved knows and embraces the show’s absurd premise. Perpetually delighted co-creator and host Derek Waters is so game for anything that leads to him in a tub with one of his storytellers. The historical cosplayers relish their parts, lip-syncing drunken monologues with palpable joy. There is also an undeniable thrill in recognizing unexpected actors as they mouth along to incoherent rambles, like Laura Dern’s delightful Nellie Bly and Jesse Plemons’ petulant Edgar Allen Poe. Repeat storyteller Paget Brewster may benefit the most, though, from the unexpectedly winning combination of Martin Starr, Charlie Day, Adrianne Palicki, and a distracting moth in her living room. The fact is, everyone is thrilled to be there. The one thing about Drunk History that hasn’t changed, and should never change, is its unyielding commitment to having a great time.