With 'Drunk History,' Lutherville's Derek Waters has a tipsy hit
Five years ago, Lutherville native Derek Waters was a struggling comedian in Los Angeles.
Like thousands before him, he had dreams of being cast on "Saturday Night Live" or making it in Hollywood as a funny guy. But Waters wasn't having much luck.
"My auditions were like, 'Stoned Guy No. 7' and 'Drunk-looking Guy No. 8,'" Waters, 33, said. "So I could've been bitter about it or write my own stuff, like shorts and sketches."
Trusting his "dark" sense of humor, which Waters says he inherited from his grandfather, he followed the latter path.
On Aug. 6, 2007, Waters handed his friend Mark Gagliardi a bottle of scotch and asked him to tell the story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton's famous 1804 duel. As the camera rolled, "Drunk History" was born.
Waters, no stranger to the inner circles of young Hollywood comics, enlisted the help of other working actors. Michael Cera, before the uber-fame of that year's "Superbad," portrayed Hamilton, while Jake Johnson — years before his starring role as Nick on "New Girl" — played Burr. The actors donned cheap period outfits and lip-synced Gagliardi's slurred historical account.
The first, nearly six-minute episode was an instant hit when Waters debuted it at "LOL," his one-man comedy show at Los Angeles' Uprights Citizens Brigade Theatre. Fans in the audience urged Waters to put it online, but he wasn't so sure.
"I said 'Hell no,'" he said. "You're judging [comedy] off hits and I didn't like that."
Waters was smart to eventually succumb to the pressure. Now, after six webisodes and more than 13 million views, Waters is ready to take his simple-yet-brilliant concept — which Jack Black found so funny he contacted "Drunk History" co-director Jeremy Konner to play Benjamin Franklin in the second episode — to the mainstream.
Earlier this year, Comedy Central approved a pilot of "Drunk History" in a 30-minute form that focuses on true stories from a city's history. With Boston as the first backdrop, the pilot stars Cera and Winona Ryder, among others, as Waters serves as host.
The premise of "Drunk History" is so simple, it's the type of sketch aspiring comedians kick themselves for not thinking of first. Waters takes a piece of American history, gets Hollywood A-listers ("Drunk History" alumni include Ryan Gosling, Danny McBride, Zooey Deschanel and Ferrell) to portray the characters and uses an unreliable narrator to retell the story.
Episodes are typically full of hiccups, rambling, nonsensical asides and, in one instance, vomiting. If you've ever laughed at someone trying their best to accurately tell a story after a few too many drinks, then the appeal of "Drunk History" is obvious. Waters says he enjoys the performances but also the story itself.
"I like discovering stories where I'm laughing and I'm learning," he said. "It's like, 'How was I never taught that in school?' I get this is comedy but I don't like things that are just funny."
Waters guesses he'll be waiting until Christmas to hear whether or not Comedy Central will pickup the show for a full season. He's optimistic, but maintains the dry, self-deprecating sense of humor his "Drunk History" videos are known for.
"They're testing it to 14-year-olds who know comedy the best and control peoples' destinies," Waters said.
If the test audience is won over, Waters will get a 10-episode season to explore a wide selection of American cities. Naturally, he's long had the idea for a Baltimore episode.
"My dream is to get picked up, do Baltimore and do Edgar Allan Poe's story," Waters said. He already has the ideal actor in mind to play the poet — Baltimore icon (and non-relative) John Waters.
Mike Farah, president of production at Funny or Die, compares Waters' sense of humor to a wildly successful duo's — Will Ferrell (a "Drunk History" co-star) and Adam McKay, the team behind "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Eastbound & Down" and other highly influential comedies.
"Like Will and Adam, he has the ability to make things funny to him — and potentially esoteric in their description — feel very accessible, funny and broad to the average viewer," Farah said. "It's a great skill to have and not many have it."
After being featured on the "Funny or Die" HBO series and winning "Best Short" at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, "Drunk History's" next logical step is the Comedy Central pilot.
Farah, who says he'd "never bet against Derek," says the pilot has a chance of gaining a large audience because of the rich source material — America's history.
"Normal people telling stories and then seeing those stories come to life, with the comedians the show will have access to, will be a formula people come back and watch," Farah said. "It's just funny and, in a weird way, educational."
Regardless of Comedy Central's impending decision, Waters has clearly come a long way since graduating from Towson High School in 1998 and dropping out of Essex Community College after one semester.
After leaving college, Waters left the East Coast (and America, in general) for Toronto, where he performed
improvisational shows at the famous Second City theater.
Growing tired of the improv scene, Waters moved to Los Angeles at 20. While cutting his teeth with the famous Uprights Citizens Brigade, he eventually caught the attention of Naomi Odenkirk. Besides now being Waters' manager for more than a decade, Odenkirk introduced him to her husband, Bob Odenkirk, a personal hero of Waters.
While Bob has recently become a cult-favorite as the buffoonish lawyer Saul on the drama "Breaking Bad," he's long been Waters' comedic hero for a past role.
"He's been my father out here because 'Mr. Show' will always be the best comedy show ever made," Waters said.
But management and mentors, no matter how influential, will only get you so far in Hollywood. Although he came to California with the hopes of being an actor, Waters has only landed roles on poorly rated series (he played Lewis for one season on ABC's "Married to the Kellys" in 2003) and blink-and-you-missed-it cameos on TV ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Happy Endings") and film ("This Means War," "Hall Pass").
"Just being an actor is so crappy," Waters said. "You audition for things that are crappy but will pay, and those things will keep you afloat for year."
While Waters has given up on the "Saturday Night Live" dream (he submitted an audition tape but never heard back), he hasn't closed the door on being an actor. Over the years, he's become more comfortable with the roles he's offered.
"My main inspiration is Chris Farley, but in two years [in Los Angeles,] I realized I wasn't Chris Farley, and I shouldn't be [him] when I'm not," Waters said. "Once I did that, things fell more into place."
Soon, he'll appear on the ABC sitcom "Suburgatory" and TBS show "Men at Work." Steady acting gigs still interest him, but with "Drunk History's" success, he's no longer pinning all of his hopes on them. When asked if he'd rather be known for his writing or acting, Waters can't choose.
"I think the shortest answer is I want to do it all," he said. "I don't want to be labeled one thing. My main thing I care about is being able to create the things I want to do with my friends, whatever platform that is."
That may be his main goal, but it's not the only one. Waters, whose Facebook page proudly supports the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles, wants to eventually return to Maryland.
"My dream is to be able to make something in Baltimore that's just there," he said. "Make a movie or make a show there. I only left because there wasn't any opportunity except being an extra in Barry Levinson or John Waters movies."
Fulfilling that dream might be years away, but Waters will be a step closer to it if Comedy Central greenlights a full season of "Drunk History." But to Waters, his most famous sketch is only a small piece of his humor.
"There are more things I want to do, more narrative stories," he said. "But I think [Drunk History] was a good way of getting introduced. I don't want to be known as someone who gets people drunk and have famous people re-enact it. But I'm proud of it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun