“Cleveland” is another solid installment of Drunk History in a strong season of the show, but if there’s anything that makes it stand out above the others, it’s the fantastic performance given by Gaius Charles as Muhammad Ali. I almost feel like Charles is in a completely different show than everyone else, which might sound like a criticism, but it’s not. The fact that Charles appears to have taken this role very seriously makes it all the funnier. The moment when Ali refuses to step forward at his draft induction—or “indeduction,” as the chyron reads thanks to Ashley Barnhill’s sloppy narration—looks almost like it could be a scene in a TV movie about Ali. Charles’s lip quivers as he fights back tears. That’s some powerful shit.
The actors of Drunk History could so easily treat what they’re doing as bullshit, because it is bullshit. They’re mouthing the words of people who are drunk out of their minds. But much like Octavia Spencer does in last week’s episode, Charles doesn’t turn his brilliant acting abilities off just because what he’s doing and saying is silly. The concept behind Drunk History is inherently funny, but it’s details like this that really take the show to the next level and justify its transition from Funny Or Die webseries to full-blown Comedy Central series. Charles is surrounded by a wonderful ensemble of actors including Ron Funches, Veep’s Sam Richardson, Echo Kellum, and George Wallace, and they all appear to be having fun with their reenactment while still giving grounded performances.
The first two narrators, John Levenstein and David Wain, have very similar approaches to storytelling. They both get excited about their stories, which always leads to the best retellings. Both, in fact, refer to their protagonists as “dynamos,” which perfectly encapsulates the energies of the first two segments. They’re both dead-set on doing their stories justice, especially Levenstein who tries to snap himself out of the many giggling fits he devolves into (at one point, he bursts out laughing because he sees two Derek Waterses). There’s something super relatable and earnest about his determination to get back on track. “Okay, okay,” he repeats with a deep breath after struggling more than once to get out “formative event of Wayne Wheeler’s life.” You can practically see the thought bubble over his head saying “pull it together, Levenstein!” That’s a great drunk place to be for Drunk History.
Wain does break one of the rules of good drunk narrating when he does a little bit where he explains who Hitler was “for the history buffs.” If you’re trying to be funny on Drunk History, it usually doesn’t work out. In fact, the more committed you are to just trying to tell the story versus trying to do jokes, the funnier your narration usually turns out. But it’s really only the one bit that slips through. The rest of the time, Wain sticks to the storytelling, and his experience shows. He might not be good with alcohol, as he says, but he’s very good at telling stories. It’s also just fun to watch him contort his body into positions that look uncomfortable but apparently are his drunk preference. Eventually, he ends up on the floor.
And Charles isn’t the only standout part of the final segment. Barnhill brings a ton of personality to her narration. As a narrator, she has a lot of the same strengths as Jenny Slate. She’s often weird and silly in her word choice, and it gives the actors a lot to play with and just makes the story much more engaging. The dialogue she provides for all of the main players in the Ali reenactment is so fun, even when it’s as simple as the way she says “hi, media!” or the cute, high-pitched “byeeee” at the end of an otherwise very serious phone call. Barnhill tells her story like no one else would. She adds her own style to the story but still manages to hit the key beats. She gets it right while barely trying, making her segment the closest to what it feels like to talk to an inebriated person in everyday life.
- Charles reunites with Friday Night Lights co-star Aasha Davis in this, which is enough of a reason on its own to get excited about “Cleveland.”
- Lauren Sivan does an excellent Barbara Walters.
- Wain: “I’m not good with alcohol.”
- I also like that Wain is the type of drunk to say “shut up!” when no one is saying anything.
- Barnhill: “This is me convincing you! I’m convincing you!”
- I’m still laughing about Barnhill’s father calling her squirrel bait.
- “Wayne Wheeler” is a tough name to say quickly even when alcohol isn’t involved, so props to Levenstein on that one.
- Thanks to this episode, I’m going to start saying “dynamo” way more often.
- Wain: “She goes to the Hitler office building.” Hitler office building eventually becomes: