Review: ‘Drunk History’ offers amusingly inebriated takes on the past

Derek Waters in Comedy Central's new series "Drunk History."
(Ricardo Tirado, Comedy Central)

“Drunk History,” which has lived on the website Funny or Die in fits and starts since 2007, graduates to television Tuesday, courtesy of Comedy Central. It is a strange business: a show in which people who have had too much to drink, for real, travel to the edge of coherence. There will be vomit.

Some will find it offensive, immoral, irresponsible — a highly defensible position. It’s also very funny, a thing of twisted genius and, for the next eight weeks possibly the most original comedy on television.

The idea is simple and effective, in a way that mere description can’t fully communicate. A person studies up on a historical event (or perhaps knows much about it already), drinks a mess of alcohol and — potted, hammered, sloshed to the gills — tells the story. That monologue then becomes the soundtrack to a full-blown costumed historical reenactment, as narration and as dialogue, which is mouthed by famous actors and comedians, with all the slurring, misstatements and confused pauses intact.

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The debut episode includes inebriated takes on the Watergate scandal (by Matt Gourley), the Lincoln assassination (Allan McCleod) and that time that Elvis met Nixon (Eric Edelstein). We get Bob Odenkirk as Nixon, Jack McBrayer as H.R. Haldeman, Stephen Merchant as Lincoln, Will Forte and Adam Scott as Edwin and John Wilkes Booth and Jack Black as Elvis. (Derek Waters, who created the series with Jeremy Konner, shows up in all of them.) Upcoming episodes feature Kristen Wiig, Winona Ryder, Aubrey Plaza and the Wilson boys, Luke and Owen.

Drunks in comedy are probably as old as comedy. They are found in Plautus and Shakespeare, in Chaplin and Keaton; the “Thin Man” movies; as indisputably wholesome an enterprise as “The Andy Griffith Show” and as disputably wholesome an enterprise as “The Simpsons.” Everybody loved Dean Martin.

Traditionally, however, the person acting drunk is only acting; he is not drunk at the time. Indeed, we admire the artfulness with which a sober actor may accomplish the impression of a person not in control; we laugh with, not at him — as we might laugh at the actual drunks of “The Real World” or “Jersey Shore” or “Jackass.”

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There is a stunt element to “Drunk History,” to be sure, like watching a person trying to carry an egg in a spoon he’s holding between his teeth, but with his feet tied together. But what makes it special is the way it — fancy talk warning — recontextualizes inebriation.

The comedy only works because the speakers are authentically blotto. They need to be at a point past cleverness, where their language goes slightly awry and both their seriousness and their attempts at humor (they’re all comedy professionals) fall short, but where sentiment and excitement get uninhibited reign.

The result, when fully staged, has something of the flavor of avant-garde theater and something of the flavor of an elementary school pageant, offered with a mock solemnity that doesn’t hide a large measure of actual respect.

“Drunk History”

Where: Comedy Central

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)