Drunk History

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for, the pride of Drunk History: Here comes Lin-Manuel Miranda narrating the saga of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr while completely shit-faced. Drunk History rides the wave of Hamilton’s popularity with this very special episode, which throws away the usual three-segment format to give complete narrative control to Miranda. But Drunk History isn’t just cashing in on a wildly popular Broadway musical. The episode certainly revisits parts of Hamilton’s story that are very familiar to anyone who listens to Miranda’s catchy original music, but it does so in its own way, looking at the story through a Drunk History lens.

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Simply put, that means a lot more swearing. But excessive “fucks” aren’t the only things Drunk History brings to the table. Whereas Hamilton is meticulous but very minimal about its staging, Drunk History’s “Hamilton” is flashier, with its shoddy but elaborate set pieces and fun action sequences. Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza bring their own twists to their portrayals of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In his narration, Miranda plays up certain parts of these men’s personality even more so than he does in the play, and then Shawkat and Plaza take those characterizations and run with them. Shawkat’s bouncy physicality throughout and her perfect embodiment of Hamilton’s more roguish behavior gives her command over these reenactments. Plaza, meanwhile, swaggers and slinks her way through scenes. Drunk History gender-fucks the narrative, subverting expectations and bending history by switching up gender in the same way the play switches up race. But it doesn’t just do it as a gimmick. Shawkat and Plaza play these figures in a way that will convince you no one else could have done it better. They’re specific. They’re compelling. They’re undeniably sexy. The war scenes are brilliantly staged, Shawkat and Plaza bringing a lot of humor to them.

Miranda also plays up the juvenile nature of these early squabbles between the founding fathers. In the musical, they take the shape of rap battles. On Drunk History, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr all bicker like a bunch of dramatic and immature high school students. Tony Hale, in particular, has a lot of fun with this characterization, playing Monroe as a pissy prick.

Drunk History’s “Hamilton” is uniquely positioned to show some parts of the story that don’t make the cut in Miranda’s stage production, which Miranda points out at the beginning when he mentions the fact that Hamilton’s ship to America caught on fire. As with the musical, Miranda gets to pick and choose what he wants to focus on, presenting a tightly edited version of Alexander Hamilton’s life. At one point during the episode, he hesitates and says he’s “trying to find the straightest line through this story.” But it’s Drunk History: The line can wobble a bit. Indeed, Miranda wanders down some tangents that the musical does not allow for, like a retelling of the party Hamilton and Burr both attended just weeks before their duel. That tangent takes an even sharper turn when Miranda and Waters step outside of 1804 to sing “Closing Time.” Suddenly, Shawkat’s Hamilton is gently serenading Plaza’s Burr with that throwback earworm, and it’s perfect. The strange collision between then and now is, essentially, a drunk version of what Hamilton does by combining history with modern narrative devices like hip-hop and rap. Drunk History isn’t nearly as polished or as nuanced when it comes to that blending, but it doesn’t have to be. Miranda doesn’t have to be precise about the story, doesn’t have to follow the straightest line. The stakes for Drunk History are so much lower, and that allows for more narrative creativity.

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Most importantly, there’s more of a focus on character rather than story. Miranda skips all of the Schuyler sister stuff in this retelling, and he gives a pretty condensed version of Hamilton’s war experience and his political pursuits. Instead, Miranda ends up fixated on who these people really were. He describes Hamilton as the arrogant and somewhat impulsive and self-destructive genius who wrote an eloquent but bizarre confession of his affair that nobody asked for. He describes Burr as the cautious but harmless man ironically perceived as a monster after killing Hamilton in their storied duel. Miranda’s descriptions—which become more and more impassioned and explicit with the help of liquor—work alongside Shawkat and Plaza’s layered performances to create two entirely new portrayals of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

But perhaps the best part of the episode is when Miranda abandons the story to just drunkenly Facetime his good pals Questlove and Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in the musical. Questlove’s unbridled delight about the whole situation cuts through the tangent, reminds us that Drunk History never takes itself too seriously.

Miranda has built a prosperous career on his ability to tell stories, and that ability is just as strong when combined with alcohol, even though it certainly takes a different form. Miranda remains rhythmic and passionate in his storytelling here. He’s nervous at first, a little giddy over how drunk he is. But he knows this story better than anyone, and he cares about it, too. Drunk History ends on Burr silently reflecting on his errors, remembering his friend-turned-enemy at his gravesite, a single tear rolling down Plaza’s cheek. The show earns that final quiet, somber, and reflective moment. Drunk History never takes itself too seriously, but it isn’t just a sloppy drunken romp either. The same passion for history and stories and interpersonal conflict that fueled Miranda to create Hamilton fuels Drunk History. Drunk History just uses slightly different tricks and tools to craft the story. It’s not a diluted version of the story; it’s a version that has been shaken up in a cocktail mixer, full of surprises and uncensored fun.

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Stray observations

  • It took me a while to finish this episode, because every time Miranda said a direct quote from the musical, I had to pause to listen to the corresponding song. I wonder if Miranda was intentionally quoting the musical or if it’s just so ingrained in him that it comes out without him realizing it.
  • “Here comes sick ass Hamilton on a flaming ship. Your ass will never be the same!!!!”
  • The whispers in Congress are a great touch.
  • “The Reynolds Pamphlet is like Dick 101.”
  • Questlove explains that he and his girl got together because of their shared love for Drunk History. This show brings people together.
  • I’m somewhat surprised Miranda never ended up drunkenly freestyling, but I think Drunk History was making a very conscious effort to make this episode something totally different than what one would expect from Miranda.

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