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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The Points Interview — An Vleugels

Editor’s Note:  An Vleugels graces Points today with a few words about her forthcoming book, Narratives of Drunkenness: Belgium, 1830-1914 (London: Pickering &
Chatto, 2013). An is a lecturer in the history of medicine, mind, and the body at Birkbeck, University of London.

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

Narratives of Drunkenness is about how drunkenness was understood in Belgium in the second half of the nineteenth century. Drinking alcohol was part of daily life. Workers needed it: they believed gin and beer gave them necessary strength to get on with their heavy work. They also drank a lot in the pub, especially when there was something to be celebrated. Wealthy people drank a lot too, enjoying wine with their copious meals and sweet liquors afterwards to help digestion. But at some point and for some people this drinking became too much.

Félicien Rops, “Le Gandin Ivre” (“The Drunken Dandy”) (1877)

Félicien Rops, “Le Gandin Ivre” (“The Drunken Dandy”) (1877)

When and for whom, however, was not straightforward. It depended on cultural categories such as gender and class. For example, getting drunk in public was not the same thing for a group of workers who had just received their paychecks on a Monday as it would be for a middle class lady who needed her medicinal pick-me-up to deal with the boredom of her role as angel of the house. I tried to trace different stories of drunkenness in different places, in the countryside, the cities and also in the Belgian colony of Congo. Whereas in the beginning of the nineteenth century excessive drinking was seen as a vice and a responsibility of the individual drinkers, by the end of the century excessive drinking was regarded as affecting the whole of the social body and it became understood as a “disease.”  The book traces how this shift came about in the complex and changing society that was Belgium in the second half of the 19th century.

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