Drunk History and Displaced Vocality
Lisa Coulthard / University of British Columbia
Starting as a web phenomena, making it onto HBO’s Funny or Die Presents and winning the 2010 Jury Prize for Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival, Derek Waters’ and John Konner’s Drunk History highlights the drama of American history, the convergence and transfer between media in our modern age and the hilarious potential of vocal displacement and incongruity. With six episodes to date, Drunk History consists of a drunk individual telling the story of an historical event that is intercut with filmed re-enactments with major actors and actresses (such as Will Ferrell, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Paul Schneider, Jack Black, Michael Cera, Crispin Glover and Zooey Deschanel) playing the key roles. Filmed after the telling of the event, these historical segments visually recreate the story with actors lip-synching the drunk narrator’s voice. Because this voice is always a drunken one, it frequently slurs, makes mistakes, hiccups and even vomits. It is this contradiction and displacement that renders the short videos so funny and effective. Combining serious history with drunken ramblings, relatively glossy historical re-enactments with low budget interview style cinematography and vocal presence with lip-synched artifice, each episode plays with the central trope of historical re-enactment as a mode of story telling. In this combination of live telling and re-enactment, the videos stress the way that one’s current state of being (drunk, contemporary American) shapes the interpretation and telling of historical events of the past. The teller literally calls the action into being as the historical figures become puppets re-enacting what the narrator describes. This force of the present on the past is most obvious in those moments where the narrator makes mistakes, such as when Jen Kirkman refers to Richard Dreyfuss instead of Frederick Douglass, Bush instead of Washington and Clinton instead of Lincoln.
As one would expect, the historical commentaries of Drunk History are frequently hilarious because of the mode and nature of their telling and the incongruities this suggests: use of profanity and slang; meandering or fractured narration; interference of non-linguistic noises made by the teller (sniffs, hiccups, gagging and heaving). Rendering strange the relationship between visible body and vocality, the ventriloquist voice of the drunk teller is foregrounded as it replaces the known and expected voice of the star, transforms the historical voice into contemporary slang and diction and, as in the episodes narrated by Jen Kirkman, thwarts divisions of gender. It is also noteworthy that in every episode the narrator’s voice appears to be unaware of the re-enacted life it is animating, even though the actors within the stories respond to their own narration in reflexive and interactive ways (pausing during a stutter or looking at the camera quizzically when a mistake is made, for instance). This split between the narrator and the re-enactment reworks any notion of the actors as puppets or ventriloquist dummies: their animation is an afterthought rather than an intended outcome of the narration itself.
This last point is important in considering the appeal of Drunk History. It is not only that viewers enjoy the comedic potentialities made available through witnessing the drunkenness of others, but also that the divide between an inebriated lack of self-awareness and the seriousness and purposefulness of historical narration provides an interesting paradox. In fact, Waters has commented on the importance of the process in creating these short videos: the subjects must be quite drunk and must be allowed to tell the story several times before anything can be filmed. This practice works to help the narrators make the story their own and invest themselves in the telling of it, but more importantly it gives them space to work through the inevitable performativity that comes with being filmed. As Waters notes, he needs to let them get over trying to be funny so that they can tell the story with the appropriate level of unselfconsciousness that is necessary for the effective re-enactment.
The voice of the narrator occupies a different visual and narrational space than the actors and this displacement is an essential part of the acoustic humor in each of the episodes: the actors in the re-enactments play them straight as historical drama, complete with costuming, sepia tones and appropriate musical accompaniment, while they also reveal their awareness of the drunken historian as narrating force and make explicit their own star identities (recognizable actors in bad wigs or bald caps, for example). But more basic than this is the appeal of the displaced voice itself. As psychoanalysts, film scholars and sound theorists have noted, there is an uncanny split between the body and the voice that becomes even more extreme when that voice is recorded and manipulated. As Lacan, Dolar, Chion and Zizek have all noted, the most mundane example of this is the disturbing phenomena of listening to our own voice recorded, as on a telephone answering machine, for example. Whether used for horrific or comedic impact, the voice that does not belong or seems out of place in the visible body is a frequent trope in film and television. From the out of synch comedy of “The Dueling Cavalier” in Singin’ in the Rain to The Exorcist to the Look Who’s Talking franchise, the uncomfortable relationship between voices and bodies is clearly a central and enduring motif and it is one that Drunk History has used expertly to achieve its transmedial success.
Please feel free to comment.
As a big fan of Drunk History, I really enjoy the way you pinpoint the pleasure of watching these videos in the paradoxical relationship between uninhibited drunkenness and serious historical narration. In conversation, the allure of DH is a bit hard to describe due to the important roll the narrator plays in dictating the historical reenactment. However, your analysis really captures the important (and, as you rightly point out, uncomfortable) roles voices and bodies play in making these videos successful historical parodies.
LOVE this piece. Thanks for providing me with a great excuse to check out Drunk History, something that I’ve been meaning to do for some time.
One aspect of Drunk History that I admire is how true it is to the form of historical recreation (as seen on the History Channel and other sources) and just how well it illuminates the cheapness and hastily constructed nature of that venue. I feel that there’s almost something (dare I say) Brechtian about the various bodily interruptions that occur throughout.
Thanks so much for the feedback! I have to say I was a little nervous about the piece because it was just way too fun to write! But I do think there is something both smart and funny to the drunken and dramatic distance toward history and historical re-enactment in these videos, so I am delighted that others think so as well.
As a long-time fan of Drunk History, it was a joy to read an article that began to relate the incongruous humor found in these retellings of history to today’s historical atmosphere. Historians, no matter how objective they strive to be, always have a point of view, and the point of view of a sloppy drunk comedian seems to coincide with a vast majority of America’s student population. With the introduction of social media sites such as Facebook, young people have found themselves with an outlet through which to share their lives. Their Flicker accounts and Facebook albums are pictorial histories of last night’s exploits. Twitter, which has recently been a source of incredible breaking news from the Middle East, provides a means to create a personal historical record. With each 140-character post, the Tweeter contributes to the zeitgeist of today.
The idea that history belongs to the victor is perfectly captured in Drunk History, and can easily be related to the way in which young people record contemporary, “historical” events. As How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson is fond of saying, “This is going to be legendary.” That catchphrase has become a popular cry at the start of a wild night out, and participants (myself included) often believe that the evening will yield at least one moment worth remembering for all time. Websites like TextsFromLastNight.com reaffirm our collective desire to document and share our versions of history with the world, regardless of how skewed and inaccurate they might be. Drunk History successfully capitalizes on this idea, transplanting the blitzed 23 year-old’s exaggerated telling of “the most epic staring contest you’ve ever seen” into a reenactment of the dual between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Each tale intrinsically offers a diluted and unreliable account of actual events that stems from the current state of the storyteller. From these elements comes the comedy, and thus, adoration from the audience.
The exaggerations that work themselves into the stories we tell often get in the way of the facts rather than helping to explain them, but factual plot points are not always what the audience is after. While historians are primarily concerned with facts, storytellers never let the facts get in the way of a good story. College-aged audiences, for both historical retellings and first-person status updates, often enjoy these exaggerations more than they would the actual facts. It appears that they would rather get their history from their Facebook news feed than a textbook. Just like their fellow bloggers, Tweeters and late-night drunk dialers, Drunk History gives the audience a good story, facts be damned. And what better way to get to know your history than through some misquoted hearsay?
Drunk History has become one of the most popular internet video phenomena of the last few years, with its first episode alone generating over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Teaching history and entertaining at the same time is a very difficult task. Alcohol + Academics = Comedy – a very fascinating result.
Usually drunk people don’t talk about anything important and people don’t take drunken people seriously unless they too, are drunk. In this particular case the drunken narrator talks about something that did matter. Drunk History uses this irony very effectively to its advantage. Up to certain extent Drunk History’s humor also relies on self-deprecation.
Drunk series leverages the idea that most of the viewers would be able to imagine themselves as either the narrator or the interviewer or both. Our personal drunken experiences and encounters (frequent slurs, mistakes, hiccups, and vomits) make the style of the series acceptable and relatable.
Historical events used in this series are something that we already know or we might recall from our school days. It’s a great example of the fun you can have with history after actually learning it. I guess it could apply to most of the subjects.
As a big fan of Drunk History, I really appreciate this piece as well as the discussion it has generated. I especially love the way Nick has linked your writing, Lisa, with “the way in which young people record contemporary, ‘historical’ events.”
As R. Colin Tait points out above, DH makes great use of “the form of historical recreation (as seen on the History Channel and other sources) and just how well it illuminates the cheapness and hastily constructed nature of that venue” — I wonder if we can take that illumination further and into the realm of satire and criticism. Lisa, you point out how the videos “stress the way that one’s state of being […] shapes the interpretation and telling of historical events of the past.” How much of the humor comes from the fact that the audience is familiar with at least the televisual history of the individuals playing these historical characters? For instance, when we see Will Ferrell playing Abraham Lincoln, are we supposed to remember his famously spot-on impersonations of W during the second Bush’s administration? Are we supposed to read Ferrell-Lincoln’s general incompetency in handling the “Negro question” as a wink to the audience who remembers him as another bumbling president? Moreover, is this intertextuality supposed to call attention to the content of the DH narrative — specifically, that Lincoln wasn’t actually a perfect man or president, something which certainly isn’t usually pointedly brought up in casual (and presumably especially drunken) conversations about the founding father?
Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment
but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over
again. Anyway, just wanted to say great blog!