I avidly follow the sketch series Drunk History. From the first sketch I felt that shared recognition, that moment of contact that readers of nineteenth-century literature will know as a constitutive in the genre of the novel.
If you’re not familiar with the Drunk History sketches–a deficiency you should remedy right away–the format is this: for each episode a person gets very drunk and narrates a historical event on film. The facts of the historical event are pretty accurate, if colloquialized. As the drunk storyteller proceeds, his or her narrative is acted out, and lip-synched, by well-known comic actors in period costumes.
What makes Drunk History work is the rigor and investment of the wrecked narrators in telling their stories–this series does not condescend to history. Here’s Drunk History creator Derek Waters on the people who become its narrators: “All the stories they tell, they really love and are excited to tell. Works better that way, rather than some idiot making stuff up.”
Drunk History has everything I love (and aspire to) about storytelling: quirks of natural history, accidents of will, adrenaline narratives, odd locutions. It is a dream scenario for a storyteller: the social safety of the Ancient-Marineresque seizure of the listener via the camera lens; the pleasure of having interpreters who are listening so closely that they speak your words, your interpretation; and the embrace of the moment in the telling at which you might otherwise become loud or an asshole.
Editing is what makes a good story: with editing, a story about awkwardness is not an awkward story. Let me tell you a few stories.
Four moments from the pre-history of my own brush with Drunk History:
I am at the Huntington Library in California on a night when the wonderful historian David Blight is speaking on his new work, a biography of Frederick Douglass. His special guest, to the intaken breath of all, is Douglass’s great great great grandson Kenneth Morris, whose physical resemblance to his ultimate grandfather is arresting. At the reception after the talk, I have the honor of meeting Morris, who now works to eliminate global slavery. My question to him: “have you seen the Drunk History sketch about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass? Lincoln is played by Will Ferrell and Douglass by Don Cheadle and it is brilliant.” No, he replies with more patience than I deserve. “YOU MUST Google ‘Douglass’ and ‘Drunk History’ THE SECOND you get home. DO IT!” I essentially holler at the great great great grandson of Frederick Douglass.
It is the early months of my relationship with Jonathan. We have been invited to a party at the home of his dissertation advisor, a generous and playful genius from France who once asked me (in an early graduate school exam question) to discuss how A Good Man is Hard to Find should be the subtitle to Dubliners. It was my first faculty party, and I wondered to Jonathan what the conversation would be like. We still use his earnest reply as a household punch line: “I don’t know, people will talk about France? or film?” The party guests were themselves generous and playful and after a few cocktails I filed my anxiousness away with a capital F and started telling any and all about a remarkable thing I’d read in the paper that morning: a population of iguanas appeared as if dropped from the sky on Guadaloupe, the Caribbean island on which their presence was unknown. They were believed to have arrived by floating for a month! on giant tree branches swept during a hurricane off their home island in Anguilla!–200 miles away! The bit killed. To this day I have never discussed Film.
I am in an undergraduate seminar on Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene with a professor from Ivy League central casting: a snuff-using, tweed-patch-wearing, mystery-wife-who-is-a-“dancer”-living-abroad-having, juniper-scented-from-lunch-at-the-Annex-arriving gentleman. He had a pedagogical style that I realize only now I have wholly adopted both in the classroom and in the stridently joyful conversations I most love out of the classroom: in taking deadly seriously all the events of plot, gesture, tone, allusion, and history brought to bear in the text at hand, he nevertheless recast key moments as if they were details in Bruce Springsteen songs. All of literature, in these terms, is about cars and girls. So for example when in Book I of The Fairie Queene Una and Redcrosse Knight pass time under a tree’s shadow, away from the light of God, they are “marking time in the Bide-a-Wee Motel,” said my professor. Who was drunk.
We are on a high school field trip to the amusement park Busch Gardens, which is laughably justified by the school district by a glancing stop at Colonial Williamsburg. (It goes without saying I wished for more time amongst the re-enactors.) I am in one of many sloughs of awkwardness in which I don’t really have any close friends or a pack with which I can rove. I was tagging after one group among the bonnets and breeches in Williamsburg when one of the boys snorted something like “another fucking pewter shop.” Without considering the social cost I blurted “I LOVE PEWTER,” thinking only of what to me was the lowness and strangeness of the material (my nascent early Americanism). Many years later I told this story for some reason at a party we were having for the Oscars or the Superbowl. My friend John M was the only listener to register the catch in my voice on the word “pewter,” to recognize the place where my high school avidity met social death–to understand that I thought that I was actually being cool in sharing my passion for pewter. I see John less frequently than I would like but whenever we meet the incantation of PEWTER has a charge and value at which that metal of early Americana never traded.
My Drunk History
New Year’s Eve, 2012. Dear friends are hosting a party which will feature a talent show; the guest list includes many faculty colleagues. We are initially skeptical about this idea and struggling to come up with workable skits until the lightning strikes: we can do our own drunk history! Jonathan is outside of the lightning’s range, it seems, since he has doubts: will we edit our own video? do we have Derek Waters-level technology? who will play whom? will anyone get it? do we really want to be very drunk in front of professional colleagues?
But like history itself, I cannot be halted. My early ideas for the historical event at the heart of the skit (the Melville-Hawthorne epistolary romance, the caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor) are quite reasonably rejected. My social network–my friend Matt–comes through: the historical event will be the Scott-Amundson Race to the Pole, when British and Norwegian Antarctic parties competed to be first to the South Pole. This has the added benefit of being part of my current scholarly work, so I am all too glad to be Drunken Historian to Jonathan (and host Ben, our recruit) in the roles of reenactors.
This is the point of the story in which I should say that the party was lovely: many folks brought their charming kids; the talents on display were terrific (from Ben impersonating an elderly Jewish man laughing himself into a coughing fit, to JM’s witty sestina, to Sarah’s taped interview with then-governor George W. Bush); and I pushed our sketch to last so that I could get good and properly drunk for my discussion of an historical event.
And the event, if you don’t know it, is magnificent; read all about it in British expedition member Apsley “Cherry” Cherry-Garrad’s The Worst Journey in the World. It features ponies freezing to death on Antarctic hummocks, British explorers man-hauling sledges filled with rocks for “science,” Amundson’s Norwegians triumphing while blithely skiing to the Pole and leaving a “suck it” note for Scott, and Scott’s party’s death in a tent scant miles from a food/fuel depot, scrawling their tragic last words: “Great God! this is an awful place.”
This is also the part of the story at which I should try explain what went so horribly wrong in our drunk history: the absence of laughter other than from kind Janet; the absence of the spectacular cursing I had planned given the presence of the charming kids; the absence of awareness of the genre of Drunk History among the crowd and thus the absence of sense or context for any of our performance, despite Jonathan and Ben’s gameness; and the absence of my own sense of temporality in telling the story, losing everyone in the audience, even Janet.
But my history of failure, unlike Scott’s, has no bright Cherry to tell it. I fell out of my chair at one point and everyone thought it was a purposeful pratfall; my degree of actual drunkenness was in vain. Even–and this is stone truth–the video failed to record the scene. My friend Debbie was filming the act with my phone, but the video did not appear anywhere in its memory. I assumed I’d been narrating for about two minutes; I’d not come very far in the story, getting only to the point at which Scott was slaughtering the climate-unfit ponies for food–that is, stopping at the first Roy Rodger’s on the Mass Pike. But Debbie said to my horror that the video had been about eleven minutes long when she stopped recording, in sketch comedy time a glacial age. No wonder my Drunk History had a cold reception.
For passion, however solitary, requires a receptor of some sort. The moment of shared recognition, however imagined, requires the shaping of a narrative. The polar explorers I’m writing about in my scholarly work had their own closed, edited circuits for telling their own Drunk Histories: they created private newspapers, for expedition members only. Yet with the “long grey beard and glittering eye” of the traveler returned, they knew better than to circulate those rimes, unedited, upon their return from the ice.
Some weeks later, a video began circulating on the polar news websites I follow. If you want to see the apotheosis of all I had dreamed possible, watch the brilliant (and justly long) Drunk History: The South Pole, created at the South Pole by real Polies wintering over. And then about three months later, I did a software update on my phone and cleared some memory and suddenly, like a hoary, staggering figure from out of the Antarctic whirlwind, appeared the eleven-minute long video of my Drunk History. Great God! it is awful.
Hester Blum is a long-time listener, first-time caller.
Hester Blum + drunk history = SERIOUSLY AVID, dudes.
I love all of your anecdotes, especially the one about pewter. And honestly, who doesn’t love pewter? I also fully relate to your Spenser professor story, since I too had a professor who regularly compared Renaissance poetry to pop songs, and that kind of rhetorical move has become a regular feature of my own pedagogy because of him. (Though my professor was sober, and also mixed in Lacanian theory… but anyway.) What is most enjoyable and interesting, here, is your narrative of failure, but a failure that –as failure– seems to do some pretty cool cultural work, and that, like drunk history itself, is all the better and more meaningful precisely because it fails… or at least falls short of the ideal.
However, there is one key difference between the drunk history genre and your own attempt. In Derek Waters’s drunk histories, the narrator is an amateur, but in your case, you’re a professional. There is something loveable and perhaps even sublime about amateurs telling a story. We might compare them to the “literati” ink painters during the Yuan and Ming dynasties of China who were all amateur “gentlemen” painters, and whose monochromatic gestural sketches are far more well liked and more popular in art museums today than the ornately colorful and detailed professional paintings done during the same time period. I wonder how your attempt at drunk history would have been different if you had attempted a subject in which you had no expertise or professional interest.
I wonder too about the deep anxiety that we professorial types feel all the time because of the huge gap between what we really do and know about and what the general public believes we do and know about. For instance, how many times have you been expected to deliver a perfectly situationally appropriate literary quotation on demand? Too many times for me. The scenario goes something like this:
Friend: “I need a good quote for my mother’s birthday card, you know, like from Shakespeare or something, please help.”
Me: “Umm….” Fail.
Thanks, Steve–and totally, remember that dinner with the now-disgraced corrupt state senator you were supposed to attend with me? I was told we’d be talking about C19 literature but he spent the whole time quizzing us on what year Longfellow died, and what year Cooper was born, and why didn’t I know that?
i must also add that while I was getting ready to publish this page this morning, THROUGH SOME MIRACLE OF TECHNOLOGY the drunk history image of cheadle/farrell became my computer background. drunk history, apparently, is catching.
Cannot be halted.
What’s the real reason academics love the internet? Because it allows them the time to reframe their most cringe-worthy social moments into smart and hilarious narratives.
Is snuff the narcotic analogue to pewter? (Did the prof really use snuff??)
Thanks Nancy–and we totally used snuff in class! He brought in his snuff box collection and we all tried it, while he described sneezing as the second most pleasurable feeling a body could have (we disagreed with that declaration).
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