Tuesday night on "Drunk History," Lin-Manuel Miranda joins host Derek Waters in a very special all-"Hamilton" episode. Unlike the sold-out-until-the-Cory-Booker-administration Broadway hit, which Miranda wrote and performed in — lately in the news when the presence of vice president-elect Mike Pence caused a clamor — there is no rapping. But there is a performance of Semisonic's "Closing Time."
For those unfamiliar with this singular, strangely educational exercise, "Drunk History" works like this. An informed narrator, recorded across several stages of authentic inebriation, tells stories from history; costumed actors then mime to the narration, which might also provide newspaper headlines ("Hamilton Is Not a Great Dude"), map legends ("Exotic Caribbean”) and such.
The alcohol introduces an element of vernacular looseness and excitement into the telling — at times, including this time, with a lot of anachronistic profanity — that has the effect of bringing history close, making it real by making it contemporary: "Hamilton's just sort of tugging on [George Washington's] sleeve, being, like, 'Can I fight? Can you just give me a bunch of dudes and I promise I'll be so good at this.’" It's funny too, in a weirdly inspiring, even moving, way. That it requires its narrators to get hammered in the process somehow does not seem as unhealthful as it should; there is something innocent and playful and openhearted about the whole business.
The show is reliably good, beautifully shot with production values that vary from the intentionally crude to historically kind-of-right. But there are some especially splendid things in Tuesday's episode, beginning with the casting of Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza as Aaron Burr (who comes off the more sympathetic character here); actors clearly have a good time on this show, but this pair romps through it. Like "Hamilton," "Drunk History" does not worry much about physical resemblances. (George Washington is played here by African American actor Bokeem Woodbine.)
Miranda had studied his Hamilton, obviously, even before Waters came calling, and is a fine and easy narrator; as a drunk, he stays relatively together. (Some wind up on the floor.) There is a delightful, community theater hurricane early in the epsiode. There is a call from Questlove halfway through that brings the 21st century suddenly into the 18th. Food is ordered in. There is that performance of "Closing Time."
"Hamilton," the musical, has been called out for not sticking 100% to the facts. (Unlike, what, "1776"?) One would of course hope, though it is not at all safe to assume, that audiences would regard a Broadway musical as a starting point for historical inquiry rather than as a last word. Similarly, "Drunk History," which needs accuracy to make the comedy work, does inevitably find its own way through the past — every storyteller is an interpreter, a plastered one no less so.
But the show stands up for learning — for knowing the things you need to know in order not to repeat them, and things you need to know in order to do them again. It is the comedy we need.