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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Announcing the latest episode of Poinstcast!

The latest episode of Poinstcast is now available on Soundcloud for your listening pleasure! On this episode, Alex and I introduce a new segment, the Paper Chase, where we unpack the cultural meaning of even silly-sounding news from a not-so-bygone era. We end with a discussion of the “lovable drunk” television trope, particularly on The Bachelor and other reality (“reality”) shows featuring heavy alcohol use. Join us for a meandering conversation about dogs on marijuana, a purported heroin Queenpin in 1940s Chicago, and whether Barney Gumble and Karen Walker are held to a gendered double standard.

As always, feel free to reach out via email at pointscast@gmail.com, post on or message our Facebook page, or find us on Twitter. (#YouVapeBro?)

Drugs on the Small Screen

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest contributor Michael Brownrigg. Enjoy!

It is often said that we are in the midst of a new golden age of television. A remarkable abundance of compelling stories and indelible characters on the small screen has captivated American audiences, fostering new trends in how and where we consume visual media. It seems that everything these days is must-see TV. The small screen’s renaissance has occurred in the wake of cinema’s so-called “death,” in which quality and experimental content has largely yielded to commercial imperatives, consequently impoverishing the cinematic experience once considered transcendent.

Yet while the surfeit of quality television is striking, so too is the prevalence of representations of drug use available for our viewing pleasure. Indeed, drugs of all kinds, licit and illicit, are more than mere props in recent popular programs, but dynamic characters with the capacity to propel and shift plotlines and enrich visual narratives. Below I briefly examine the integral role of drugs in two critically-acclaimed television programs: Mr. Robot and Fear the Walking Dead. Although significantly different in subject matter, each show depicts American society on the cusp of historic change and situates the addict at the center of stories of structural transformation (or disintegration). While this small sampling only begins to reveal the prominent place of drugs in our visual culture, I hope to draw attention to contemporary assumptions about drug addiction embedded in the imagery that reach millions of Americans on numerous platforms.

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Public Disservice

Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.

If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white cameronsuburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron willisadvises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis seagramsappeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”

In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of peewee.cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s eastwood.crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack.  This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine. Continue reading →