Derek Waters Explains How to Make a Great Episode of Drunk History

First things first: nothing is scripted.

Derek Waters finds he’s best at being your drinking buddy.

Since his web series Drunk History launched back in 2007, the Baltimore native has watched hundreds of his famous blacked out buds attempt to recite their favorite historical tales on camera. The result: An intoxicating re-telling that holds your attention much longer than the average college course. It was only after his first few videos began to gain traction on YouTube that Waters acknowledged how much potential the webisodes had to offer, and was ready to hit it big. “It had done the best that it could be online,” he told Maxim. “I wanted it to have more purpose.”

Drunk History, currently in the middle of its third season on Comedy Central, has since evolved into a delightfully drunken spectacle unlike anything ever seen on television. The show has featured A-listers (Kristen Wiig, Chris Meloni, and Octavia Spencer, to name a few), covered topics like sports heroes and first ladies, and even earned itself an Emmy nomination. This isn’t just your average history lesson. 

Waters spoke with Maxim about the origins of Drunk History came to be, drawing out the best reactions, and his choices for dream narrators.

Where’d the idea for Drunk History​ come from? Is it just as simple as a night out with friends?

It was all based off of my dear friend and actor, Jake Johnson, telling me a story that I thought would be really cool reenacted. And I just think the tone of it, the more serious it’s taken, the funnier the ridiculous dialogue, still with a purpose. The main goal is to find stories you haven’t heard before that are true.

Photo: Comedy Central

How do you pair historical topic with narrator? Is there a general interest or is it more of an assignment?

When we did it online, I would ask the narrator, “What is the moment in history that you feel more people need to know about?” That’s the goal of all these stories. When it was just one story, I didn’t have to have a through line. Now that it’s a TV show, I have researchers that are UCLA PhD students that love history, have a lot of experience with how to research, and libraries they can go through and find these stories. When I talk to the narrators, if I don’t know them really well, I just ask what types of stories and what times periods they really love or historical figures they really love. Then, I’ll match them up with a story that, if they don’t know, they at least like the subject.

Have you ever sat across from someone so belligerent that you started to wonder how the edits would come together?

Yeah, but we always kind of figure out a way. If it’s hard to understand, we’ll make the actor look at the camera, like, “What?” It is what it is, you know? We have about 7 hours to shoot a narrator and I refuse to ever do ADR on it. I always feel the best documentaries are the ones that don’t go back and reshoot stuff. they’re just  documentaries of what happens. My favorite guy, Fredrick Wiseman, that’s how he does it.

With the show now on its third season, do you feel  well versed in drawing out the best reactions from your narrators?

Well, I don’t know who I can compare to, but I would say I’m pretty damn good at it. I feel very confident. I humbly say that. Maybe the best, but only because there’s no one else that does the same job I do. I think my love for people and my understanding of soft spots and things you want to avoid and also ways to get the narrator to get more into the acting.

I have a very slow, semi-boring voice, so when I say, “I don’t know what you mean?” they do believe that I don’t know what they mean. Sometimes I don’t know what they mean, but most of the time, there’s nothing more frustrating when someone is drunk, or when you’re drunk and someone doesn’t understand you. It’s not that I’m messing with them, I just know how to get a good reaction. The main thing is to keep the passion and the narrator has to be likeable. There’s a lot of variables that go into this strange little thing.

Photo: Comedy Central

What made you steer towards more themed topics this time around?

I’m a comedy snob and I don’t want it to get old. I think the only way the show will continue to evolve is the stories and not just being locked into one set thing. We can’t just talk about guys in white wigs. I just think that the themed stuff really is a way of trying to make the world of history as big as I can.

We’ve seen Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Jason Momoa.. who else are you pining after? 

Definitely Bill Murray, definitely Dustin Hoffman, and my forever choice is Eddie Vedder. It’d be a dream. I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan. 

Has the network had any objections to the show’s format so far or have they let you take the reigns for the most part?

They’ve been so supportive and I think a lot of it is because they’re great at allowing the artist to do what they want. Also having the web series showed the tone and showed what we were doing had an audience online. I think that helped to really gain our trust with them. The format has always been the way I wanted and hoped it would work. I’m always in my head trying to make this more than just a five-minute short, and turn this into a show without people being annoyed by drunk people. There’s only so much you can say. That’s why I take my friends, because I pick good people, they’re likeable. You gotta like them. Or else the show would just stink.

So what’s in store for the future of Drunk History?

I kind of want it to be a surprise, but the best way to respond to that is I want it to not be just locked in one place so I’ll tell stories from the world. So further than American history.

Photos by Getty Images