True, his hit Comedy Central show got unexpectedly canceled, and Derek Waters now finds himself strangely unemployed after six raucous seasons of “Drunk History.” But most regrettably, the Maryland native won’t, as planned, get to nod to his muse.
“Mr. Stange taught me the importance of history and, almost more important than that, good storytelling,” Waters, a Towson High School graduate, said about his history instructor. “You gotta have the right teacher. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
Had he been given a chance to salvage his show — which, to be clear, did not end on his terms, he said — he would have formally thanked Mr. Stange in a special “teachers appreciation” episode, most of which has already been filmed. But without Comedy Central’s backing, it’s unclear that the tribute will ever air — a shame not only for fans of the program but also for people who understand Waters’ deep reverence for both history and the people who can bring it to life.
What started as a simple web series about the inebriated reenactment of historical accounts exploded into a major network show starting in 2013 and has featured guest appearances from stars ranging from Will Ferrell and Jack Black to Lisa Bonet and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Upon the show’s cancellation, online tributes and words of encouragement poured in on Waters’ Instagram page from Zooey Deschanel, Patton Oswalt, Nick Kroll and Jeff Ross. This year, the show is nominated for three Emmy Awards: outstanding costumes; outstanding production design; and outstanding variety sketch series.
But even after Waters’ celebrity ballooned and the show rose in profile, he remains steadfastly, passionately and exquisitely linked to his scrappy, blue-collar hometown.
“I’ve lived here [in Los Angeles] for 20 years, but I will never not have a Baltimore soul,” he said in a recent phone interview with The Baltimore Sun after the show’s abrupt cancellation. “Hoping to make Baltimore laugh ... I can humbly say, made me want to do this.”
A son of Lutherville, Waters, 41, still has family in the area, and — now that he has the time — hopes to rent an R.V. so he can drive cross-country for a visit. The terms “Hon” and “Charm City” adorn his vernacular. He appreciates the genius of John Waters (no relation) and the production value of a summer crab feast.
The “Drunk History” host and showrunner got his start in the Toronto improv and sketch comedy scene before landing in Los Angeles in 2000. “Drunk History” started as Waters’ online pet project in 2007, and he was featured on HBO’s “Funny Or Die Presents” in 2010. By 2015, the Comedy Central production of “Drunk History” had clinched its first Emmy. It has been nominated for Emmys every year since, for a total of 17.
The show has explored President John F. Kennedy’s reliance on methamphetamine, celebrated transgender activism during the Stonewall Riots (with transgender actresses) and, in a Baltimore-themed episode, detailed Edgar Allan Poe’s feud with writer and editor Rufus Griswold and the local origins of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
But Waters’ favorite memory? Getting to discuss journalism over crabs with Baltimore’s David Simon, a former Sun journalist and creator of HBO’s “The Wire.”
“There are many great things I can say about how wonderful he was, but what I’ll never forget is that there were maybe 12 people in the restaurant, and when he stood up to go to the bathroom, at least three people went, ‘Omar comin’,” Waters said, a reference to one of the HBO show’s central characters.
Once, Waters attempted to film a “Drunk History” episode in Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, a popular South Baltimore haunt known for its Ravens tailgating parties and vodka “crush” buckets. As Sun columnist David Zurawik recounted at the time, “It felt like about 999,999 of those weekly viewers were packed into the club and yelling at the top of their lungs to be heard over the pounding jukebox,” to the point that the crew had to stop filming.
Waters, in retelling the story, simply called it “a s— — show,” and “not a very good idea,” but “so much fun” to do.
Despite creating a show so centered on alcohol, Waters said he’s not much of a drinker. But he encouraged his storytellers to imbibe to make viewers as engaged with the material as they would be at a party. And with every clip — regardless of how slurred the speech or nauseated the actor (someone actually spewed chunks once) — he tried as much as possible to get the cast to stick to the facts of the matter.
“As much as I want this to be funny, the stories have to be true,” he said. “It’s appealing to watch because sometimes history is taught looking down to us, and here, history is taught looking right at us. That’s why I feel people like it — ‘I’m listening to them because they’re talking to me.’ ”
Some fans of the show like to say “Drunk History” carries more value than traditional U.S. history textbooks, as it often underscores pieces of the past considered too offbeat or sensitive for most high schools. When Comedy Central announced it would drop “Drunk History” last week, viewers commended Waters online for lending time to the narratives of women as well as Black, Indigenous and people of color, who often get left out of historical accounts.
It also comes as supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement seek to retell the history of the country through a non-white lens and with greater time allotted to the history and legacy of slavery, sexism and white supremacy.
“Drunk History” could have risen to the occasion, Waters said, had it been given a chance to survive.
“I would love to finish what I started,” he said, adding that he would be open to finding a new platform for the show, even if just for one last season, on the condition that new owners would allow him the same creative control afforded to him as Comedy Central.
The comedy channel and its parent company, ViacomCBS, did not respond to requests for comment about the show’s cancellation. But Waters said budget constraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic likely played a factor, as well as the network’s commitment to producing more adult animation. “Tosh.0″ and “Lights Out with David Spade” also got dropped from the network this year.
Waters said he hopes the “Drunk History” legacy inspires more content creators to look inward, rather than outward, for ideas.
“People like the show because something like that hadn’t been made that way, so I hope more people know to look at yourself and know that what you do will be great even if it has never been done,” he said. “What people like is something that stands out because it’s different. But some people like more of the same. Not me.”
He’s working on new material now but remains tight-lipped about it. He promises, soberly, “it’s going to be good.”