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Derek Waters: How a cocktail of YouTube, Hulu, and booze made ‘Drunk History’ a hit

Drunk History wouldn’t be the Comedy Central hit it is today without YouTube, which allowed creator Derek Waters to launch the concept, and Hulu, which introduced the television series to millions of cord cutters.

“Anytime you have an idea you should make it and show people what you’re talking about before you pitch it.”

Season 4 of the show, which blends real history with celebrities drinking the alcohol of their choice, is out on DVD March 14 from Paramount Home Media Distribution. The 11 episodes cover everything from Alexander Hamilton’s feud with Aaron Burr, to Boston’s Great Molasses Flood, to the story of a lady pirate who head-butted strangers. Guest stars include Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day), Rachel Bilson (The O.C.), Kat Dennings (2 Broke Girls), Ben Folds, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Ed Helms (The Office), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Ronda Rousey (UFC Fighter) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton).

Waters, who is currently working on Season 5, talks about why technology makes for exciting times for comedians, and offers some drinking advice, in this exclusive interview.

What have you seen digital outlets like YouTube open up to get new show ideas out there outside of the old-fashioned television pilot season?

When Drunk History started in 2007, people were just starting to put ads on videos, and I purposely never put any ads on our videos because I thought all these celebrities like Michael Cera and Jack Black are being so sweet to be in it, I don’t want to be making money off of it. I just want this idea to continue. But where I’m getting at is now, there’s so many ads and so many things, but the best part about it is people are still doing what I think YouTube’s whole purpose is: making stuff that you believe in and not running on a paid Internet service like Hulu.

Derek Waters with Michael Cera in Drunk History Volume 1.

Hulu is great, but I feel like YouTube still has underground people making their own stuff and anyone in the world being able to see it. Anytime you have an idea you should make it and show people what you’re talking about before you pitch it. YouTube now more than ever allows that to happen. There’s a place out there for that. But I’ve never made a penny off YouTube, so that’s just me being honest.

What role do you feel that Hulu has played in helping the show gain popularity over the years in addition to Comedy Central?

Well, I am not the bearer of bad news, I’m the bearer of real news of the time period that we’re in, which is people aren’t watching TV on TV. They’re watching it on their computers. And because of Hulu, more people know about it. That’s just the truth of our generation right now where people are getting their content on their computers or on their Apple TVs.

More: Lin-Manuel Miranda to put a tipsy spin on Hamilton/Burr duel for ‘Drunk History’

With our show on Comedy Central, it also makes cable networks find the best stuff because they know the majority of people are going to the Hulus and the online stuff. So, TV shows just have to step it up so people keep watching them on TV. But at worst, they watch it on Hulu or Amazon. Everybody wins if it’s a good show and people watch it.

Jon Stewart helped pave the way with The Daily Show to use humor as a way that a lot of kids actually consume the news today. Do you have any sense of what role Drunk History has played in educating kids or possibly getting people interested in real history?

It’s hard for me to say it without sounding arrogant, but I humbly say that why we all can remember our favorite teachers is because it didn’t feel like they were teaching.

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I feel like it’s secretly always been a history show that happens to be on a cable network. History is so important but it’s usually told in such a boring way. When you’re a kid, you’re like, “Who gives a shit about what happened a hundred years ago? All I care about is what’s happening at the party this weekend.” But this show kind of opens that door, like, “Oh, they’re like me. They’re having fun and blah, blah, blah. Oh shit, I just learned something.”

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I hope it paves the way of being, like, “Oh, that made me laugh. I want to go look at that history book and see if that was actually true.” It gets people interested in what’s happened in the past.

And speaking of getting people interested, how has the popularity of this show over the years opened up actors coming to you and wanting to get involved?

Tremendously, every actor that’s on that show is someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. It’s been like such a Make-A-Wish Foundation for me of people that I’ve wanted to work with. It’s taken on its own thing. I’m just so blessed and lucky to be part of something that I used to be in control of, but now it’s its own thing that people that I would have never imagined wanting to do the show coming in saying they want to do it. For me, it’s been amazing to meet all different types of people.

Given that alcohol is involved, how much improvisation ends up being a part of these stories that we watch on the show?

“As a doctor of how drunk someone should be telling a story, it tends to be whiskey.”

Well, nothing’s written. The whole thing is they have to tell the story, but they can add in side things. I never had to audition them to see how well they burped. That just happens. So I would say it’s 60% the story that they’re assigned and 40% improv and telling that in their own words, which a lot of people like. That’s why I like it because it’s not somebody preaching to you. It’s somebody talking to you.

Over these four seasons, how have you mastered what alcohol is best for Drunk History storytelling?

Everyone is different, but alcohol is always the same. So I always say whatever you’ve never had a bad experience with. But as a doctor of how drunk someone should be telling a story, it tends to be whiskey. Whiskey kind of gives you confidence, keeps you awake, while wine makes you tired and beer makes you talk about things that don’t matter. Whiskey makes you think you’re very smart.

With so much history out there, how do you decide which stories to tell in any given season?

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The easiest way of answering that is the stories are picked for one of two reasons. One, I learned that and I’m like, “Why weren’t we taught that in school?” Or two, a specific person that we’ve all heard about but finding a story that, you’re like, “How didn’t I not know that Harriet Tubman was a spy. I know she freed slaves, but I didn’t know she was a spy.” Just stuff that for whatever reason — race, sex, whatever — was not put in the history books. So trying to find those stories that make me go, “Everyone, more people need to know about this. I don’t know why this didn’t make it to our books.”

One of the highlights from season four was Hamilton who’s also obviously having a moment with a little Broadway show as well.

Is that right?

Who’s another president who deserves to be featured in that type of way on your show?

Oh. Another president that deserves to have a musical or another president that we feature?

Or both, or to be featured on your show.

That’s hard. They all have a story. I don’t know how to answer that without being, like, “Oh, why didn’t you say that guy?” Yeah, I don’t think I’ll win with any answer, but every president has a story.

What’s the challenge as you’ve had success from season to season of trying to top what you did. For instance, as you look at season five and you look back at what you just did with season four?

It’s the same thing when this was online and people were talking about, “You should make this a TV show.” And my constant thing, I’m a comedy snob, and I’m like, “How is that not gonna get old?” And really, how to one-up it is the stories, because the premise is going to stay the same. There may be added jokes, but at the end of the day it’s always a drunk narrator telling a story with famous people moving their lips. So how you one-up it is the story that makes you go, “Holy shit! That’s a great story!” So the stories have to be better every year.

What are your thoughts on the opportunities we’re seeing out there with the Netflix’s of the world opening up for comedians like Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle?

It’s kind of the dream we all had as kids when we were making movies in our backyard. But now it’s not just our neighborhood kids that can watch it on the VCR, now the world can watch it. Louis C.K. kind of started this deal with FX allowing the artist his own vision. More people started to see that the old saying of “be yourself” is true. And now more people are trusting people, “Oh I should just let them do their vision.” Netflix and all the other digital places are embracing that. I wish I was 12 and this was just about to start.

“It’s exciting and encouraging to people watching what’s happening.”

So it’s a really cool time. It’s a scary time, but I say scary because everything’s moving in a transitional way. It’s exciting and encouraging to people watching what’s happening. They go like, “Oh yeah, I should make the thing that I find funny or what I think is good.” And not try to sell a show that’s compared to another show.

Like just focus on original content and stop remaking fucking movies too much, or remaking everything. So I feel like this digital stuff is going, like, “Stop doing that. Let’s embrace and make new stuff.” And television is doing so much better right now than movies. Movies are getting a little lazy with the remakes.

But it just made me think, it would be cool to remake Punky Brewster. I was like, “Who’s remaking TV shows? Oh, I don’t even want to put that out into the world.” Let’s not even think about people remaking TV shows.

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You said whiskey was the go-to drink from the storytelling perspective. Have you advice on what the best alcohol would be from a viewing perspective to get the best Drunk History experience?

Yeah, if you drink it’s like 3D. I don’t know, you know it’s hard, I love this show, but I never want to say something that makes it sound like I’m glorifying alcohol. So I would say that the best thing to drink while you’re watching it is something that you enjoy, and you don’t have to drive anywhere, and you’ve never had a bad experience with. Ah fuck it, I’ll say wine, cause wine always makes people feel smart, and tired. Which I don’t want Drunk History to make you feel tired. But yeah, something smooth, not Zima. Not Zima.