Authority in Storytelling: Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” Intoxication, and the Historian’s Craft

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. Today he examines Comedy Central’s popular program Drunk History, and explores the role non-authoritative, even inebriated, history can play in getting students to question accuracy, opinion, and historical perspective. 

The first episode of Drunk History aired on the web as a Funny or Die feature on August 6, 2007. The show’s narrator Mark Gagliardi, fresh off a bottle of scotch, told the story of the infamous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to friend and show creator Derek Waters. A good deal of the episode takes place in Gagliardi’s apartment as he weaves his tale, but the funny comes from an amateurish documentary acted out by a cast of the creators’ close friends. After some initial background told by a clearly inebriated Gagliardi establishing Burr’s reputation as a shrewd opportunist, he launches haphazardly into the “scene” where Burr confronts Hamilton, boiling down the complexity of a nineteenth century “Affair of Honor” into a matter-of-fact declaration from Burr, lip-synching Gagliardi’s drunken mumble, “Hey you’re giving me shit, we gotta duel.”

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First episode cast image Left to Right: Michael Cera, Jake Johnson, Derek Waters, and Ashley Johnson

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Towards a Global History of Intoxicants: The War on Alcohol

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she brings a global focus to drug and alcohol history and reviews Lisa McGirr’s book on federal Prohibition. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-10-18 at 8.23.09 AMLisa McGirr’s stimulating recent book The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Norton, 2016) links early twentieth-century temperance to the origins of the muscular federal authority we know today. Historians typically trace the enlargement of state power to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to lift the United States out of the Depression in the 1930s. However, McGirr points to earlier growth in the Prohibition era. By creating new categories of legal violations, the ban on brewing and selling alcohol transformed crime into a “national obsession” for the first time in American history. The government responded to public panic by expanding law enforcement—a measure whose effects linger today in such forms as the War on Drugs.

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Radical Temperance: “Drunkards’ Raids” & “Boozers’ Days”: The Salvation Army’s “war on drink”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post rounds up our series from the Radical Temperance conference, which was held in June. It comes from Steven Spencer, Director of The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre and an Honorary Fellow in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. Enjoy!

Since it was founded in 1865, the Salvation Army has been opposed to the use of alcohol. Its members and clergy totally abstain from alcohol and, from the 1880s onward, its weekly newspaper, The War Cry, regularly carried illustrations of the negative effects of alcohol. In the 1890s the Salvation Army described itself as “a universal Anti-Drink Army” and in this blog I’m going to look at two examples of this war on drink. Both my examples are taken from the first decades of the twentieth century and represent some of the more theatrical approaches taken by the Salvation Army in its rehabilitation of alcoholics.

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“Drunkards’ Raid,” Leyton, east London, early twentieth century

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Radical Temperance: “Cool Sobriety” and the Novel: Anneliese Mackintosh’s So Happy it Hurts

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Emily Hogg, an assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. Hogg presented this work to the Radical Temperance: Social Change and Drink, from Teetotalism to Dry January conference held in June, and this post dives deeper into her work on representations of “cool sobriety” in the novel. Enjoy!

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Prof. Emily Hogg

“An air of cool hovers around sobriety at the moment,” argues Alice O’Keefe in The Guardian in December 2017, “just as it does over veganism and clean eating.” For O’Keefe, this is exemplified by “the proliferation of sober blogs such as Hip Sobriety (hipsobriety.com) and Girl and Tonic (girlandtonic.co.uk).” Indeed, a sense of fashionable distinction is proclaimed by the very title of Hip Sobriety, founded by Holly Glenn Whitaker. The cool appeal of such contemporary ideas about sobriety rests, in part, upon the way they distinguish themselves from older, staler accounts of its meanings; if sober living was generally understood as “hip,” of course, there would be no need for Whitaker to use the word itself. In this cultural moment, there is a determined effort to rewrite familiar narratives about alcohol and its place in our lives. The Hip Sobriety manifesto, for example, directly challenges a number of well-known ideas about alcohol, stating: “you don’t need to hit rock bottom,” “Am I an alcoholic? is the wrong question” and “It’s not incurable” because “Cured is never having to drink again.”

Screenshot 2018-09-27 08.53.35This reimagining of sobriety has a significant literary dimension: it is driven in no small part by reading, writing, and the circulation of texts. In the Guardian article, O’Keefe, reviews The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray, a blend of self-help and autobiography which, as its title suggests, seeks to illuminate the pleasures of sobriety through descriptions of its author’s life. Both Glenn Whitaker’s Hip Sobriety and Girl and Tonic, by Laurie McAllister, stress the significance of reading in the maintenance of sobriety. McAllister lists “6 of my favourite books about sobriety,” whilst Glenn Whitaker’s blog includes posts called “Why Reading is Paramount in Recovery’ and “’13 Essential Books to Build a Holistic Recovery from Addiction’.”

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Radical Temperance: Conference General Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Annemarie McAllister, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire, and Pam Lock, a doctoral candidate and the GW4 Developing People Officer at the University of Bristol. They organized a conference on alcohol called Radical Temperance: Social Change and Drink, from Teetotalism to Dry January, held at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England, from June 28-29, 2018. This is their general report, with more posts to come over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

The signing of the teetotal pledge on 1 September 1832 in Preston by a group of seven men, including the social reformer Joseph Livesey, was a pivotal moment in the history of the temperance movement in Britain. Preston was thus an obvious home for the first-ever conference to bring together historians, social scientists, and third sector groups concerned about support for alcohol-free lifestyles today.  The underpinning rationale for “Radical Temperance: Social change and drink, from teetotalism to dry January,” (28th-29th June, 2018), was that, just as the total abstinence movement had originally sprung from the desire of working people for radical improvement of individual lives and of society, in the twenty-first century we are once again seeing living alcohol-free as a radical, counter-cultural choice.  This had been a project in the making for over two years, the dream of Preston academic Dr Annemarie McAllister, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), enthusiastically supported by Pam Lock, University of Bristol. At times, drawing such a varied range of delegates together did seem as impossible as the scenario of Field of Dreams (1989, P.A. Robinson). Repetition of “If we build it, they will come,” became a mantra, but to ensure that the event did succeed, considerable, real, support was provided by a team of colleagues and grants from the ADHS and Alcohol Research UK.

A diverse group of nearly sixty academics, graduate students and third-sector delegates arrived from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Denmark, Ireland and around the UK to share research and experiences, discover connections, and explore the history and legacy of the temperance movement. The conference bags included refillable eco-friendly water bottles and snap-open fans, necessary during the hottest weather Preston had experienced for many years. The latter prompted our favourite joke of the conference from drink-studies regular, Phil Mellows who began his talk on the Newcastle project by declaring: “Nice to see so many fans in the audience.”   Continue reading →

The Points Interview: Michael Lewis

Editor’s Note: Today’s interview is with Dr. Michael Lewis, author of the new book, The Coming of Southern Prohibition (out now from LSU Press). He is an assistant professor of sociology at Christopher Newport University. Contact Dr. Lewis at mlewis@cnu.edu. 

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Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The Coming of Southern Prohibition is a story about profit from liquor sales- who gets it and how the government sometimes uses morality and fear to make rules to ensure they get more of it. In 1892 South Carolina’s Governor Benjamin Tillman did just that, creating a statewide system of liquor stores that kept all the liquor profits for the state and county government. The subsequent decisions that South Carolina counties made about how many liquor stores they should permit and where these ought to be located were influenced as much by the chances of increasing profit than they were by preventing
alcohol sales to the “riff-raff” of society.

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The Points Interview: Mark Hailwood

Editor’s Note: Today’s interview comes courtesy of Mark Hailwood, author of Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. (Available from Boydell and Brewer, and in paperback later this month!) Contact the author at m.hailwood@exeter.ac.uk or follow him on Twitter @mark_hailwood. You can also follow his blog, Many Headed Monster, on WordPress.

  1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Well, it is a book of particular relevance to bartenders, because it tells the story of the emergence of their institution – at least in the English context – in the years from 1550-1700. It is a book about how and why the English pub became such a central part of our cultural life, which I argue it did for the first time in the period covered by the book. Various incarnations of the ‘pub’ existed before this time, but they were relatively few in number and their main function was to cater to travelers. Communal, recreational drinking took place instead in churchyards and church buildings, and was tied in with feast days and holy days. But after the English Reformation the church became hostile to such activity, and recreational drinkers found a new home in the growing number of alehouses that sprang up in villages and towns all across England.

This rise of the alehouse was a controversial process though: the government in particular were concerned about the effects that recreational drinking had on the work ethic and the political loyalty of its subjects, and they launched an ambitious campaign to try and restrict both the numbers and the functions of alehouses, including introducing a one-hour time limit on drinking in an alehouse. The state martialed all of its resources to try and discipline this emerging institution, but the book shows – through a close study of the regulatory records generated by such efforts – that many publicans and villagers dug their heels in, and ultimately resisted the bulk of regulation directed against them. The reason why so many villagers rallied behind the institution, I argue, is because alehouses had quickly become important sites of what contemporaries called ‘good fellowship’ – a popular and significant form of social bonding, based around choreographed drinking rituals, that appealed to many men and women of both the lower and middles classes.  So, it is a book about the way ordinary villagers fought for and won a place for recreational drinking at the heart of English community life, one that it still holds to this day.

  1. What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I’d like to hope they might find the whole thing interesting! I have tried to construct it as a coherent overall ‘story’ about the rise of the alehouse which I hope gives it some narrative drive, but it is also an attempt to use a focus on alehouses as a way of highlighting a wide range of broader themes and issues of interest to historians – a kind of ‘prism’ effect. So, for those interested in the ways in which governments attempt to regulate alcohol and drugs it provides a case study of what I would consider one of the first examples of a concerted ‘war on drugs’ (the ‘campaign against the alehouse’). For those interested in ‘moral panics’ about alcohol and drug consumption it offers an insight into another early example, detailing the language and arguments used to condemn alehouse sociability in seventeenth-century England. Scholars interested in the relationship between alcohol or drug consumption and the formation of social identity will find plenty here on the ways in which alehouse ‘good fellowship’ fed into the articulation of individual and collective identities in the period, and historians interested in the ways that gender shapes and is shaped by practices of intoxication might be surprised to find that the alehouse was an important site of mixed-gender forms of sociability. So, in ranging quite widely I’d hope most historians of alcohol and drugs could find at least one angle that would interest them.

  1. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I love uncovering colorful vignettes of the everyday lives of ordinary men and women in the past – those tantalising insights into a world that is often very difficult for historians to uncover. So, for me, the most fascinating part of researching and writing the book was turning up lots of examples of sixteenth and seventeenth century villagers engaging in bizarre drinking rituals, scatological political commentary, or touching acts of romance and friendship. I’ve written about quite a few of my favourite ‘alehouse characters’ on my own blog, and the book is packed with them, but I think the most interesting vignette of the lot was the one involving a drinking ritual from 1604, in Essex, in which a village constable led an all-night drinking bout involving a 2 gallon stone drinking vessel nicknamed ‘Fowler’ and ended with a sack placed over one man’s head and the untying of his codpiece. It’s certainly interesting trying to ‘decode’ rituals like this one!

  1. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Like many historians I have tried to tell a story about historical change without being an expert on what came before or after the period I’ve studied. I’ve done my best to read up on the late medieval period, but I would love for someone to come along and challenge my overall narrative with a book about the importance of alehouses in medieval England. Likewise, I’ve done some homework on the eighteenth century, but it would be great to see more work done on the role of the alehouse in the years after my book finishes: there is a lot of work on gin in the eighteenth century, largely centred on London, but I’d really like to read a book on the ongoing political, social and cultural significance of the alehouse in England’s eighteenth-century market towns and villages. I’m not really qualified to study these periods myself, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that others will come along to fill in the gaps and provide a much clearer sense of the longer term trajectory of the role played by pubs and recreational drinking in English culture.

 

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

It would be nice to have it read by the English actress Maxine Peake. Given that it is in large part a story about the agency of ordinary people it would be fitting to have a narrator with a working class background, and I would also want to have a female narrator – the ‘pub’ is often thought of as a very masculine environment, but certainly in the seventeenth century it was an important social space for both women and men, so I wouldn’t want too ‘blokey’ a tone set by the narration.  It might be a bit of a step down from her recent role in Hamlet, but she did once play a character in the British sitcom ‘Early Doors’, which was an affectionate homage to the English pub, so I’d like to think she recognizes the historical importance of the institution!