We’re at the time of year when history-based movies start hitting theaters in hopes of garnering attention from various awards bodies. Many words have been written about the problems that are seemingly endemic to biopics, and even more about the myriad inaccuracies in “based on a true story” movies. But where big-budget Hollywood often stumbles, there’s one source for historical edutainment that consistently delivers on both halves of that portmanteau: Comedy Central’s Drunk History.
Yes, a TV show centered on drunk comedians telling stories of the past — with actors reenacting the events in question, lip-syncing to the storyteller’s every slurred syllable — frequently puts the movie industry to shame when it comes to evoking history. And when Drunk History and a film both tackle the same historical event, the advantages of Drunk History’s irreverent approach to material that’s so often treated with extreme reverence become very apparent.
To see what makes Drunk History great, compare how it handled these stories with how they were handled by filmmakers with a lot more money at their disposal.
When Elvis met Nixon
The story: In December 1970, Elvis Presley showed up at the White House demanding to meet President Richard Nixon. Elvis wanted to become an undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The result was an infamously awkward photo op.
The movie: This year’s Elvis & Nixon, which got generally agreeable reviews and achieved about as much cultural penetration as a stone skipping over a pond, failing even to recoup its $4 million budget. Building on a narratively thin premise, it can’t offer much more than the surreal novelty of Michael Shannon playing Elvis and Kevin Spacey playing Nixon.
The Drunk History segment: One great thing about working with roughly seven minutes means that no segment of Drunk History gets a chance to wear out its welcome. Even the most footnote-like of events become substantial, or even expansive, when there’s no space for fat in the storytelling. Relating history as one of the wild and crazy stories a friend tells you when you get blitzed together works perfectly for this kind of “Would you believe this happened?” incident.
The Battle of the Alamo
The story: At the height of the Texas Revolution, a garrison of Texan troops held out for several weeks against a much larger Mexican army at the Alamo Mission. The Texans, which included now-legends Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, were eventually slaughtered nearly to a man.
The movie: 2004’s The Alamo, starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, and Patrick Wilson. It was an extraordinarily expensive flop and reviled by critics, who didn’t cotton to its attempt to Braveheart up the story of the Alamo.
The Drunk History segment: One fun thing about the series is that it subtly, gently, but surely takes the air out of the legends that have accrued around certain historical figures over the ages. The defenders of the Alamo have been heavily romanticized (something The Alamo indulges fully), but Drunk History storyteller Matt Gourley feels free to mock the many mistakes that led to their obliteration.
The visuals back up this irreverence, even in little moments, such as when William Travis’s slave attempts to join in on a celebration, only to be shooed off by frosty glares. Gourley relates the glorious tale of Crockett’s last stand, only to reveal that in truth, he was bayoneted to death while lying sick in bed. Reverence for heroes can often obfuscate the telling of true stories, but it’s hard to be reverent when you’re bashed.
The election of 1800
The story: Fellow Founding Fathers of America and onetime bosom buddies Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were set at odds when Jefferson ran against Adams in the presidential election of 1800. The campaign slander from both sides drove a wedge between them that lasted years, and was eventually mended via letter correspondences.
The movie: In this case, it’s a TV miniseries from 2008: HBO’s John Adams, a seven-part biography of the second president, starring Paul Giamatti as Adams and Stephen Dillane as Jefferson. Their relationship is just one of many subplots as the series tracks the course of Adams’s life through the Revolutionary War, his presidency, and his retirement, but it takes center stage in the final episodes. Unlike other examples in this article, the prestige version of the story is fairly well-liked and successful.
The Drunk History segment: However, I honestly prefer this take on the story, and not just because it’s around a hundredth the length of the HBO version. There’s something refreshing about how Drunk History takes unglamorous comics who are game to look ridiculous and lets them playact as our most sacred cows. HBO’s John Adams is the definition of Hollywood respectability, refined but stodgy; Patrick Walsh’s drunken account of Jefferson publicly accusing Adams of being a secret “hermaphrodite” requires no such solemnity.
The New York City newsboy strike of 1899
The story: Already living lives of deprivation on the streets of New York, the city’s young newspaper sellers felt an even greater financial squeeze due to the unsavory business practices of the print industry’s titans. A strike ensued, which eventually resulted in better compensation for the newsboys.
The movie: Disney correctly believed this was good material for a movie. For some reason, Disney believed said movie should be a musical. The result, 1992’s Newsies, was widely dismissed, and it’s best known today for the curiosity of getting to watch a young Christian Bale sing and dance. The movie was later adapted as a stage play that was much more successful, even though it also isn’t very good.
The Drunk History segment: In the film, Bale plays a fictional newsboy who leads the strike, while the actual leader of the strike, Kid Blink, is relegated to a minor role. Drunk History never feels the need to make such changes for the sake of marketability or focus group appeal. In what other context can you imagine Haley Joel Osment getting to tackle the morally complex role of a union leader turned scab? Nowhere.
The Stonewall riots
The story: The modern LGBTQ rights movement in the US started on June 28, 1969, when a police raid against the queer patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City kicked off a massive protest. Within days afterward, activist groups were mobilizing. The first gay pride parades were held on the one-year anniversary of the riots.
The movie: Hollywood’s go-to disaster artist, Roland Emmerich, brought us 2015’s Stonewall, which was reviled from its first trailer for reducing the Stonewall protestors from a multiracial, multigender mass to a bunch of pretty young white, cisgender men. It was hated by critics and seen by few.
The Drunk History segment: Once again, Drunk History deigns to give proper credit for historical actions to the people who carried them out, rather than bland fictional stand-ins. Its version of Stonewall focuses on Marsha P. Johnson, a beloved black trans activist who was among the first to fight back against the police that night. And she’s even played by an actual trans actor, which shouldn’t be as maddeningly sporadic in film and TV as it is.
In general, Drunk History takes time to tell stories that, had they featured straight white men, would have been no-brainers for biopics long ago. And even if it is about a bunch of soused comedians, that gives the show real educational value.
Drunk History airs Tuesdays at 10:30 pm Eastern on Comedy Central.