Drunk History – For better or worse

Artwork by España Sheriff

The best show on TV, without question, is Drunk History. Why? Because it’s history that people actually want to watch, and furthermore, it speaks to something I truly believe about Museum Education.

Let me take a step to the side. Drunk History started as a web series, hosted by the awesome Derek Waters. It was basically an excuse for Derek to drink with comedians he wanted to get drunk with. The concept was so simple, and perfect for a web show — get a comedian, have them research a topic of history, and then get ’em good and drunk, and record them telling the story. Now, of course, it ain’t nearly that simple. They shoot long and edit down, which is good. They make sure that the key elements of the story are mentioned, and sometimes that means cueing them to say specific things. There’s the question about how drunk a lot of the folks actually are, but the folks I’ve talked to who have been on the show have all said they shot while actually seriously buzzed, and they did have to play it up a bit.

Now, they take the audio from those recordings and create recreations around them, using the dialogue from the performer as the basis for the script. The reenactors lipsynch the words, and they almost all do so beautifully. The effect is very cool, and especially so when they add little touches from the ‘real’ world in the re-enacted world for comedic effect.

The episodes are so smart, themed around either a location or a concept. There are some really impressive things, like the fact that they’ll often cast women as men, or African-Americans as white characters, and when they did an exceptionally good segment on the Disability Rights Sit-ins, they cast various disabled actors, which is fairly rare in the world of comedy television. The performances are all awesome, and the selection of topics are often done to highlight little-known historic moments or people.

By far, the best episode is ‘Drunk Mystery’, which is a riff on Unsolved Mysteries, the greatest television program of the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. They look at three amazing stories, the disappearance of Agatha Christie, the Dan Cooper hijacking, and the Centerville Letter Writer. The way these stories are presented plays with the typical Drunk History concept mixed with the way that Unsolved Mysteries used to do things. It’s also got Taran Killam and Jayma Mays in the awesome segment about Cooper.

Now, there’s a theory in Museum Education: it has to be engaging, it has to be accurate, and it has to be constructed in a way to get across key messages.

And this is where I call bullshit for the first time.

What Drunk History teaches is you don’t need to get across crafted key messages; you only need to get across the information in a way which is relatable, and what is more relatable than listening to a friend drunkenly recount some partially hazy memory of a history class? Nothing, that’s the fuck what. The key points they ensure are covered aren’t done so to get any sort of message across, but so that they can have a story to edit to. It’s not about the learning; it’s about the interaction with the material presented, in this case, to ensure comedic reaction. That’s the key. All educational theory with regards to teaching history is contrary to that very idea, being based on the concept that it is the learning of messages that is the key.

And that is, truly, bullshit.

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