Drunk History vs. The History Channel

Thanks to Stephen Colbert and his rabid fan-base, the neo-emotivist doctrine of “Truthiness” is a real word, and has been for nearly a decade now. It has a definition, and here it is, according to Merriam-Webster’s: (noun) “truth that comes from the gut, not books,” and “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” Truth and fact are open for interpretation in the modern world. This is a double-edged sword—pulling at ambiguities in meaning and rooting out inconsistencies and multiple views is productive, but bending facts and figures to meet an agenda can be a dangerous and slippery slope. The directionality of your reading is the key: if you are trying to expand understanding and give a more holistic survey, you are likely on the right track; if you are trying to fit a vast array of information into a narrow worldview, you are not. This second purpose is at the heart of Colbert’s satirical gift to American English.

Perspective and opinion reign supreme in 21st century media. This is the secret subtext of much of how popular culture dissects that which is grounded in “reality” and “fact,” and all that is ostensibly “based on a true story.” Inevitably, we turn our gaze back and exploit the rich and nebulous tapestry of historicity to craft new interpretations of truth. History is a particularly pliable concept when accessed from this vantage. Collective memory fades with startling, frustrating rapidity. Under the weight of new information, the past is augmented and reconfigured to fit new schematics. Derek Waters’ Drunk History and The History Channel fall into this no-man’s-land of modern history. The startling overlap between these seemingly antithetical outlets begs many questions, chief among them (besides, ‘how did it come to this?’): which is more pedagogically valuable? Whether the very existence of this query is dispiriting or deliciously absurd is a matter of opinion, but it is real nonetheless.

I have a love/hate relationship with The History Channel. I grew up with it as background noise coming from an adjacent room. The cable network’s bread-and-butter used to be cheap, stock-footage documentaries. Then, it was swept along in the reality-television/reality-competition wave and never really looked back. I’m not sure what Swamp People‘s, Ice Road Truckers’, and Mountain Men’s connection is to the concept of ‘history’ proper, other than the fact that they do indeed exist in time, but such is the state of things today. This is not a new development, having occurred steadily over the last 8-9-plus years or so. Point being, The History Channel has been actively waging war against itself for years now, shaping history to fit the constantly shifting TV landscape, which in some instances has meant actively making up new lines of historical inquiry on a whim. Past events can’t be changed, but our relation to them certainly can be—enter Vikings, I Love the 1880s, and Hangar 1: The UFO Files.

The Animal Planets, TLCs, History Channels, A&Es, etc. of the world have strayed from their definitions, or have found new, unexpected elasticity in their particular niche. Strangely, though, they have become more alike over time. This, honestly, is classic cable at its core, but with a modern flare displaying the full, alarming extent of conglomeration. Seemingly competing cable networks are more likely to be “sister networks” in this day and age—The History Channel is owned by A+E Networks (Hearst Corporation) and The Walt Disney Company; take that as you will (i.e. with unbridled terror). Perhaps within this rebranding lies the sinister truth of the modern cable era—the full effect of conglomeration of the ’90s and aughts has been brought to bear in programming overlap and genre melding. What’s spun as the evolution of content and style has a disquieting underbelly. Television has become rigidly narrativized in modern times, prizing seriality to keep eyeballs coming back or to enable bingers. Is Drunk History slyly literalizing this?

Drunk History has been replicating this collapse on Comedy Central for nearly three seasons now, but from the opposite direction, through parody. Drunk History uses the History Channel’s former aesthetic—overwrought historical reenactments, stock footage, insistent music, and talking head commentaries (basic low-grade documentary stuff)—and lets them ferment. The episodes—beginning as a popular, short-lived web series, then getting picked up as a half-hour comedy program by Comedy Central (owned by Viacom, it should be noted, know your mega-corporations, people)—are literally Wikipedia on hard liquor, casting famous and not-so-famous comedians and celebrities to get lit and recount random historical events to the best of their recollection. That’s really it. But, is it possible that Drunk History is sneakily satirical, riffing on the degeneration of our notion of history and historical pedagogy? And, more specifically, does it comment on the breakdown of the representation of history on television? Or, is it just fed up with how overly-serious we are when we talk about the past?

Really, Drunk History is riffing on a dead stylistic, one that barely exists anymore, on television especially. The style of this group of supposedly education-centric cable networks has shifted to a combination of faux-documentaries—such as Ancient Aliens (a particular guilty pleasure of mine)—various paranormal exploration offshoots, pulpy criminal investigation shows, and second(third, maybe?)-wave reality programs. The “history” aspect, such as it is, is more specific, and less tethered to an overarching human narrative. Context—eccentric characters and videographic style—is prized over content—stories and themes—by and large. These are not classroom supplements any longer. They make no bones about their entertainment value and, in some cases, deviation from scientific consensus. Even science-centric programs on The History Channel or The Discovery Channel, for instance, are more about spectacle that anything else. Really, at this point, the Discovery Channel is one big lead-up to and wind-down from “Shark Week.” The History Channel lacks this rising and falling action, instead offering a collection of shoddily assembled, tenuously aligned texts that fall somewhere between reality shows, workplace comedies, and game shows, offering only fleeting, superficial affiliations to what is purportedly a centralizing ethos. That proved too boring; but at least they have a library of tapes to dust off should they need to fill time at 3am when a marathon of Counting Cars, or Chasing Tail, or Cajun Pawn Stars (or whatever the hell Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar is) runs its course.

Drunk History can and should be given credit for intently focusing on how these stories are told rather than the particulars of the story. It’s up-front with its objectives, clear in its ambitions (or lack thereof), and ends up covering more ground. The reenactments have a recombinant aesthetic of stock footage, dramatic period dramas, and puppet theater. The show acknowledges that telling history in this style is inherently problematic and biased and heightens this to an absurd degree, adding more bias and more problems. It’s defiantly colloquial, rebuffing the earnestness of many a documentary or serious dramatic reality program that feels the need to constantly justify its existence. The show can often live or die by a narrator’s level of storytelling skill and alcohol tolerance. It effectively ties past to present through juxtaposition, making the two seem disjointed rather than continuous and forcing viewers to fill in the gap that this dissonance creates.

Drunk History turns on the idea of the unreliable narrator; in fact, that’s probably its one joke. And, Waters and the show know that in modern media, and TV especially, history is only as good as the person telling it. Sometimes, liquid courage goes a long way toward bringing the past to life. At the same time, it acknowledges that history is always filtered through perspective, condensed down to bites and fragments, and pieced together hastily into a linear narrative. Drunk History gives the floor to unqualified armchair-historians to give full, coherent history lessons. The raconteurs are limited by their knowledge on the subjects and their mind’s capacity to juggle booze, facts, and causality. The scope and the perspective of the history lessons are purposefully, pointedly pared down then puffed up by faux-serious aesthetics. These are all performers, one must always remember, and they are given ample latitude—encouragement even—to color and skew the tales in any direction their particular style or level of intoxication demands. Opinion is allowed to fully dominate. An historical figure can be “dope as hell” on Drunk History, whereas, on a show like Ancient Aliens, the ominous narrator is forced to continually pose rhetorical questions and conditional statements to feign reliability.

Point-of-view is essential—history is written by the winners, as they say. Drunk History places narrativity on shaky ground, literally and figuratively, as the tenuous connection between pieces of information is made obvious and humorous. The History Channel is content to leave you in the dark and put up veils between our experience of these texts and their superficiality. Though, in the end, both avenues are closer to each other than ever. Entertaining is successful, both The History Channel and Drunk History live by this rule. Some parts of history are more fun and more interesting than others; The History Channel has found itself confronted by this. Its all-in stake of Pawn Stars and American Pickers will suffice as acknowledgment enough, summarizing this perfectly—each “historical artifact” is attributed a monetary value based on how old it is, how exotic it is, and how popular and rad it is. To be fair, it’s been this way for a long time, maybe always. All this is the logical next phase of the network’s near-constant Hitler shoehorning of yore, but, thankfully, Drunk History stumbled in to connect the dots.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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  1. Disembowel Disavowal, and Vice Versa – *Dusk Magazine

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