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Derek Waters' 'Drunk History' looks at the past through a glass, drunkly

Emmy contender Derek Waters explains how Jake Johnson's booze-fueled story about Otis Redding inspired the creation of "Drunk History," which will soon feature Lin-Manuel Miranda drunkenly discussing Alexander Hamilton.

"Drunk History," so simple, so complex, so Emmy-nominated. Briefly put, it is a show in which comedians and writers of comedy get drunk -- eventually really, really drunk -- and tell a story from history, which then becomes the soundtrack for a fully produced re-enactment of that story.

It's funny in both obvious and sneaky ways. On the one hand, there is the inebriation, representations of which humans have found reliably amusing since antiquity; but there is also tension between the high seriousness of the subject and the low comedy of its representation – including the accidental sounds a body makes -- and in the way that great moments of history paradoxically are made more real by being related in the vernacular speech of a drunk, pantomimed by actors playing a combination of the speaker and the various people the speaker is speaking for. (I told you, it's complex.)

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Created by Derek Waters, who takes a host of minor roles in the re-creations, the series is respectful to its subjects in a way that might not seem to jibe with the fact that it will also cut away to show a narrator crawling across the floor or about to be sick. And it's also strangely educational – not the only resource you'd want to study for your midterm, but basically accurate and a spur to further research. It's also about love and trust and – well, I could go on. But here is Waters, who came by the L.A. Times in-house studio on a very hot day recently, to tell you more.

The show, which this year has an Emmy nomination for variety sketch series, began on an incidentally drunken evening, when Waters' friend Jake Johnson (Nick on "New Girl") told him a story about soul singer Otis Redding getting on the plane that would take him to his death in a Wisconsin lake.

"I was picturing Otis having to move his lips to this BS, I felt, story ... Jake was telling me – Otis looked at his girlfriend before he got on the plane, he's like, 'You take care of yourself, baby,' and she was like, 'I will, Otis, you take care of yourself,' and he was like, 'No, baby, I'm serious, you take care of yourself.' … I thought … there's no way in hell this happened and if it did happen there's no way that's what they would be saying to each other. So I thought it would be cool to see Otis Redding come back to life move his lips to that and shake his head" as if to say no.

Emmy contender Derek Waters from "Drunk History."

The next step was to find a subject with legs: "Everyone gets drunk and talks about music," said Walters. "What could I do the same joke with and then be able to prove the parts that are a little messed up because of the intoxication? So I thought: history."

The first "Drunk History," in 2007 – the show lived online at Funny or Die before being brought to television by Comedy Central in 2013 -- told the story of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The new season will also see a Hamilton-themed episode, featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Broadway's "Hamilton," as its hammered narrator.

"Lin-Manuel Miranda has always liked the show and has always been very sweet and open on doing it," said Waters. "So I figured, 'All right, well, why don't you get drunk and we'll do a whole episode -- not three stories, one whole episode – and we'll call it 'Hamilton.' So that's going to be part of Season 4."

Watch the whole interview (which includes an unplanned live demonstration of lip-syncing) here.

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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