If you drive downtown on the Jones Falls Expressway, you might have noticed a new billboard just south of Orleans Street featuring a blurry image of George Washington and the word “DRUNK” in big bold letters.
No, it’s not a leftover attack ad from the 1789 presidential campaign.
It’s a promotion for the second season of “Drunk History,” the off-kilter Comedy Central hit created by Lutherville native Derek Waters. Season 2 of the woozy walk through our national past starts Tuesday night at 10 and includes an episode on July 22 set in and featuring three stories from 19th-century Baltimore — one each with Edgar Allan Poe, Francis Scott Key and Abraham Lincoln.
“I didn’t choose Baltimore just because it’s my hometown,” Waters said during an interview in January when he and his crew were here to film part of the episode in a jam-packed, loud and extra-boozy Mother’s Federal Hill Grille.
He chose it, he said, for its character.
“People are proud to be from Baltimore,” Waters said. “In any industry you work in, you need support to survive. And this city has that support for anyone who was born or lived here. I feel it, and it gives you a feeling like, ‘Oh, I stand for this place, and if I do something I’m not proud of, I might not make my town proud.’ That motivates me, because I want to make Baltimore proud.”
More than a million viewers a week tuned in for “Drunk History” in its first season, an audience the creator of any freshman series on basic cable has a right to be proud of. And the crush of fans who came out to see Waters at Mother’s was such that when he and a camera crew first moved into one of the ground-floor barroom areas to start shooting, club security had to quickly move Waters into a back room to break the body-to-body gridlock and pushing that engulfed the room.
Based on a web series of the same name created by Waters and Jeremy Konner in 2007, “Drunk History” is not for everyone. The premise involves very drunk writers and performers trying to narrate historical events through an alcohol haze. In addition to celebrating the act of getting drunk, the language makes HBO’s “Veep” or “The Wire” sound positively PG.
It pushes boundaries — the way good comedy often does, especially on a channel known for being transgressive. Tuesday’s season opener is set in Montgomery, Ala., and one of the stories it revisits is that of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old African-American girl who was arrested nine months before Rosa Parks for the same “crime” of refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white woman, in 1955.
Such narratives of the civil rights struggle hold a special place in the memories of many Americans, some of whom might not appreciate this inebriated account of that bus boycott by Amber Ruffin, a comedian and writer on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Waters says his “dream for any city” that his show visits is to find stories from its past that are “true” and make viewers wonder, “Why weren’t we taught that in school?”
There is room for debate about the extent of the truth of some of the details in “Drunk History.” Take the Poe story in the Baltimore episode, which focuses on the author’s intense rivalry with Rufus Griswold, a poet and editor. The basic rivalry part seems to be on solid enough historical grounds.
But then, there are the embellishments by the drunken narrator, standup comedian Duncan Trussel, and some of the actors like Jesse Plemons who plays Poe with an off-the-wall anger and comic abandon.
At one point Plemons’ Poe refers to Griswold as a “holographic piece of [expletive].”
“Holograms don’t even exist yet, and I’m calling him a [expletive] hologram,” Plemons lip syncs to Trussel’s narration.
And then, there’s Trussel’s alcohol-wacky explanation of Poe’s fame: That immediately after the writer died, Griswold went to town trashing Poe as a drunk and drug addict who was mentally ill — only it backfired.
A woman is shown holding a book of Poe’s poems and saying, “A drunk, crazy guy who writes about ravens? Where can I get his books? This is awesome.”
The story also has Griswold, who is played by Jason Ritter with one of the cheesiest looking beards in the history of TV, dying of tuberculosis alone in a room with a picture of Poe looking down on him. All of a sudden, the picture starts talking.
“Look at you, man,” Poe’s image says mockingly to the dying Griswold. “Where are you now?”
Plemons is outstanding in his extended riff as Poe, but there are plenty of wonderfully bizarre comic turns in the first four episodes — like that of “Weird Al” Yankovic as Adolf Hitler in a re-enactment of the 1930s heavyweight championship fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. (Yes, Hitler is in Tuesday night’s Montgomery episode. I warned you about “Drunk History” being transgressive.)
“Will someone pull my pants up?” comedian Morgan Murphy says as she takes a break from telling the Louis-Schmeling story to put on a pair of boxing gloves and drunkenly duke it out with Waters, whose eyes are only slightly less glassy-looking than hers.
Paget Brewster’s slurred “hold onto your panties” warning to Waters as she starts into an account of how Pinkerton detectives helped Abraham Lincoln avoid assassins in Baltimore in 1860 typifies the loose and racy tone of many narratives in the series.
With actors like Jack Black, Laura Dern, Tony Hale, Emily Deschanel, John Lithgow, Winona Ryder and Terry Crews featured this season, much of the attention rightly goes to the actors performing in the recreations.
But the real seduction of this series is found in the narrators who move through various stages of intoxication before our eyes as they unreliably recount historic events. They tend to be comedy writers and standup comedians, two groups of artists who already know something about crafting narratives that can hold an audience. And in the case of the standup comics, some of them might just have performed their stories onstage after a few drinks.
As drunk-and-I-don’t-give-a-damn as Waters comes across onscreen in his role as listener and audience for the inebriated narrators, the 34-year-old writer-performer was all business and alcohol-free backstage at Mother’s as he filmed cut-ins for the Baltimore episode.
In fact, the most striking thing about Waters was his intense let’s-get-the-work-done focus in a sea of alcohol, noise and people competing for his attention.
He attributes the work ethic to Baltimore and his father.
When asked how he thinks Baltimore shaped him, he responds instantly with: “hard working.”
“My father has his own tire company of three generations - since 1926,” he says. “It’s actually tire parts. It’s called The Waters Company. I always say it’s everything to do with tires except tires — and anything I care about. But that taught me a lot from my father about the work ethic in small businesses and respecting the little man.”
Waters says after graduating from Towson High School, he spent one semester at what’s now Community College of Baltimore County, Essex “to make my parents happy.”
Burns Waters III, the comedian’s father, says, “The other thing he probably forgot to tell you was that when he went to Essex, he only was in the acting and dramatics classes. And he got a 4.0, so he figured it was the time to retire.”
Burns Waters says he and his wife, Jody, visited the set of “Drunk History” in Los Angeles for four days in March and were “just completely shocked, because this is Derek’s little idea and now he’s in charge and there must be over a hundred people working on it.”
Waters’ father says he admires the hard work his son put in to get to where he is today.
“Derek was out there for over 14 years and he worked and worked and worked,” Burns Waters says. “He did everything he could – standup, skit comedy, a lot of commercials – to maintain his life out there. He never gave up, he just kept working hard, because that was his dream. And it’s so nice to see it pay off for him with ‘Drunk History’ now going into its second season. You see all the stars that come out to be in it, and they get only scale money. They want to be part of it.”
Between Baltimore and Los Angeles, Waters went to comedy and improv “school” in Toronto.
“I wanted to be like Chris Farley,” he says of the Second City and “Saturday Night Live” comedian who died at age 33 of a drug overdose.
“He was my hero. I couldn’t gain that much weight or do drugs, so,” he says, stopping in mid-sentence. “I shouldn’t say that. But I love him and he was my inspiration, so I wanted to go to Second City where he trained. And I went to Toronto and Chicago to visit, and Toronto seemed more open to people just starting out. So, for me, it was the best college.”
The past seven years, he and Konner have been producing videos for the web version and now TV episodes of “Drunk History.”
The biggest change from Season 1 to 2 is what Waters terms “interactivity.” By that he means, more of the city-by-city encounters he’s having with fans at places like Mother’s, scenes of which will appear in each episode between stories.
Waters said his goal for such encounters is to “capture the voice, the heart, the soul of the city — and people’s opinions of it.”
He said he was looking for someone in the crowd at Mother’s who would say “he loves Baltimore so much, he’d be willing to take a bullet for it.”
Based on what’s on the screener for the July 22 episode, he didn’t quite find that.
But there is a nice montage of Baltimore in the opening moments and a ton of energy in the bar scenes.
And Waters did find one guy who said, “You pay me eight bucks, I’ll snort Old Bay — which I did last weekend.”
The guy looked and sounded as if he might have had a drink or two — and might be just about ready to be a “Drunk History” story teller.
Waters says the success of the show has changed his life in some ways.
“The joking version is that everybody wants to tell me about history now,” he says. “Any time I go somewhere, it’s, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got a great story for you.’ Which is nice.”
And then, he pauses, “Actually, that’s a hard question. I think I feel more responsibility. I’m like responsible for this [the production of the series].
“I’ve been working in L.A. for 14 years, and this is what you work for. And now here you are. And anything can be taken away from you at any moment. So, you do the best you can. Yeah, that’s a Baltimore thing. That’s how I was raised. You don’t really change. You are who you are.”
On TV: Season 2 of “Drunk History” starts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Comedy Central.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun