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'Drunk History' makes leap from web to Comedy Central

First episode by Lutherville native Derek Waters premieres on Tuesday

By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

3:46 PM EDT, July 5, 2013

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Derek Waters says having Dave Grohl accept an invitation to appear on his new TV show was a dream come true. He also describes the idea of working alongside modern rock royalty as "petrifying."

The Foo Fighters' lead singer had been a fan of Waters' "Drunk History" clips when they appeared on the comedy website Funny or Die, and agreed to make a cameo in the show's Comedy Central pilot episode, which airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. Waters, a Lutherville native, and Grohl bonded over a mutual love: Ocean City, Maryland.

"He went to Ocean City as a kid and still goes back from time to time," Waters, 33, said of Grohl, who grew up in Alexandria, Va. "He's definitely a hon. We've texted about Natty Bohs. We're going to try and put together a Maryland crab feast [in Los Angeles]."

Waters remains a Maryland boy at heart, even as his career reaches new heights in Hollywood. During a recent phone interview, he was quicker to discuss the Orioles' bullpen problems than the first season of "Drunk History," which Comedy Central picked up for eight episodes earlier this year.

The show takes a simple premise — third-person storytelling — and gets it very wasted. With prodding from Waters, an inebriated narrator tells a story, typically involving famous or historically significant people. Then Waters re-enacts the story with recognizable actors who lip-sync the narrator's slurred, semi-accurate dialogue. There was never a shortage of star power for "Drunk History" online, and that trend continues with the first TV season. The talent-level is consistently high, and ranges from actors known for dramatic roles (Connie Britton, Winona Ryder) to "Saturday Night Live" alumni (Kevin Nealon, Kristen Wiig).

It's a formula that's easy to like, but it's a formula nonetheless. Waters knows this, so the challenge of "Drunk History's" debut season on Comedy Central is to keep surprising the audience.

During a break from editing — color correction, sound mixing and "all that exciting post-production stuff" — Waters talked excitedly about forthcoming episodes, but also sounded exhausted from the mounting pressure to deliver a consistently funny show.

"If I wasn't a part of the show and I heard about it," he says, "I would say, 'How are you going to do that? It's a five-minute idea!'"

Focused, Waters tweaked the presentation. While each webisode of "Drunk History" was a stand-alone story, a Comedy Central episode will tell stories about a particular city. (The exception is the season finale, which will be "Wild West"-themed.)

Tuesday's premiere is the Washington, D.C., episode, and it tackles the Watergate scandal and the sibling rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. A third story features Jack Black as Elvis Presley, with Waters and Grohl playing his buddies. Some know the story of how Elvis met Richard Nixon, but it seems likely that a portion of Comedy Central's audience will be unfamiliar. For Waters, keeping "Drunk History" fresh means telling stories that seem almost too strange to be true.

"A lot of times in history, people are put on such a pedestal," Waters said. "I think a lot of people like to hear stories they can relate to. I want to humanize people like Abe Lincoln. Of course, he's great, but we have a story that explains he was kind of a nerd and made fun of. It's important for me to tell stories people don't know, but I like to grab figures that people do know and say, 'Well, did you know this about him?'"

For a comedy series essentially about drunken people rambling (and occasional vomiting, which makes the leap from the Internet series to the pilot), Waters clearly takes it seriously.

Mark Gagliardi, a narrator on the series, says Waters and his small research team at Comedy Central worked feverishly to find compelling stories.

"When Derek said 'research Teddy Roosevelt,' I didn't realize it was going to be three weeks of cramming for the final exam for a doctorate," Gagliardi said. "I thought I was writing my dissertation on the Rough Riders."

Movie stars re-enacting funny stories seems like a combination that should work on Comedy Central, but this is still TV, where there are no guarantees. Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming at Comedy Central, is confident in success for "Drunk History" because he found no need to tinker with show's basic premise. He trusts Waters' comedic vision enough not to mess with it.

"We like to make our bets on talented people and do whatever we can to empower them rather than get in their way," Alterman said. "In this case, Derek and the whole team are so good and have already proven they can execute on such a high level. It's become a very positive creative collaboration."

As an artist, Waters can't ask for more. Work on the first season will be finished in August, and then it's up to Alterman and Comedy Central on whether or not there will be a second. In the meantime, Waters, who will be a guest on Conan O'Brien's talk show on July 11, plans to stay busy. He has film auditions lined up and new pitches for TV shows. And, of course, he still dreams of doing a Baltimore-based "Drunk History" episode. He's excited for the "Drunk History" premiere, but Waters has no plans of its being his greatest achievement.

"I feel happy and blessed that I'm at Comedy Central and I have my own TV show," Waters said. "Not in a selfish way, but I'm just excited to do more. I don't ever want to feel like, 'Yeah! I'm done!'"

But that doesn't mean he won't take a short trip home to decompress.

"I can't wait to come back to Baltimore and have a snowball," Waters said.