As Emmy season continues — final voting runs through Aug. 29 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.
For the second consecutive year, Comedy Central’s Drunk History has earned a nomination for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. The show, which picked up a trophy in 2015 for costumes, is also up for production design and picture editing. Yahoo TV spoke with co-creator Derek Waters about the episode he submitted for consideration in the top category, “Spies” — and about what we can expect when the show returns for its fourth season on Sept. 27.
When we spoke last year after your first Emmy nomination, I asked you to predict which episode you’d submit in 2016, and you said “Spies.”
Derek Waters: Really?
Yes, you called it that early, before it even aired. Why was that one you felt so strongly about?
There’s a lot of reasons, but I think the first one was just the goal of the show being, “OK, let’s hear something about someone we have heard of, like Harriet Tubman, but let’s explore something that hasn’t been explored.” Finding the story we all knew, that Harriet Tubman freed so many slaves, but you don’t really get taught about her being a spy and going undercover. The mix of the story with the narrator, Crissle West, who is one of my all-time favorites, and also Octavia Spencer’s performance — even though I directed it, I don’t even feel like I was part of it. Watching her do it, I was like, “Am I inside of a movie?” It just felt like another world that wasn’t coming from a sketch comedy show.
That mixed with Will Ferrell as Roald Dahl — that’s another example: People know him as such a great children’s author, but they don’t know about him as a spy — and Alia Shawkat [as Virginia Hall]. She’s my favorite re-enactor we’ve ever had. She’s so good. I instantly felt like this was going to be a really strong episode. That’s so crazy, because last year I probably was only editing it.
How did you land Octavia Spencer?
I just took a real big gamble and reached out to her agency and just said how much I love her and that she would be the best. Somehow she said yes, no questions asked. It was very, very surreal, and she had a blast. I hope I get to work with her again.
Looking ahead to Season 4 (watch the trailer above), if you had to pick an early contender for next year’s Emmy submission, which one is it?
I think it might be “Hamilton,” but I only say “might” because we’re still editing it, and I love all of our episodes this season. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had, this season. We’re doing all themed episodes, so it’s just like “Spies” — it’s not city-related. There’s an episode called “S–tshows.”
What’s in that episode?
One [sketch] is narrated by the beautiful, talented Jenny Slate, who talks about the very first “it’s so bad, it’s good” ordeal. It was this vaudeville act named the Cherry Sisters, and they were so bad, people would come from miles around just to see how bad they were. I love that story so much. I wanted it to feel like Waiting for Guffman, as in the Cherry Sisters are in Red, White, and Blaine and don’t know how bad it is. They’re trying their hardest. They had a song called “Corn Juice.” Yeah, I’m excited for the world to learn “Corn Juice.”
One of the other ones is Bob Odenkirk got drunk and told the story of the Disco Demolition in Chicago in 1979. It’s the night that people claim disco died. This DJ, named Steve Dahl, got fired from his station when disco came around and he was still doing rock and roll. He formed this, not really rally, but event at Comiskey Park, where the White Sox play. They were trying to get more of an audience to show up. There was a double-header, and there was a deal: Their station was 97.9, so if you brought in a disco record, it was 98 cents to go to the game, and you put your record in this huge bin that, in between the games, Steve Dahl was going to light off with dynamite. It becomes a real s–tshow, because there was more dynamite in there then they thought, more people were there than they planned. Don’t quote me, but I think it was like 50,000 people and they planned for 20,000. Security wasn’t prepared, so [people are] jumping over the fences and just storming the field. It’s a great story, and Bob Odenkirk’s telling it, and he’s from Chicago. I love it.
Obviously people are excited for the “Hamilton” episode, which Lin-Manuel Miranda narrates. How did that come about?
I had always heard that the guy that started Hamilton likes Drunk History, and that he watched the first one when he was writing the musical. I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I just got in touch with him and threw out a couple ideas, and thought it might be cool to have him tell the story of Hamilton and Burr, but also including stuff that he didn’t get to fit in his musical. Shooting with him for six hours at his parents’ house was a blast. He’s a very sweet, sweet man. I purposely shot it before I’d seen the musical, so I didn’t fan out on him.
So he hooked you up with good tickets afterward, I assume?
Yes, he did. It really is something that can’t be overhyped. It’s impossible. It’s so f–king great.
Are there any other first-time narrators in Season 4 that you think nailed it?
Definitely Bob Odenkirk. That was his first time doing it. There’s a friend of mine, a great comedian named Doug Jones from the Upright Citizens Brigade, and he is the most likable, beautiful person. He tells us the story in the “Great Escapes” episode about the drunk baker on the Titanic who is one of the survivors solely because the water didn’t affect his body because he was so drunk from whiskey. Doug and I test it out in the episode and fill a bathtub with ice, and pour ice over each other to see if when you’re drunk it still feels cold. It does. It’s real cold. I don’t know how drunk that man was, but I couldn’t get that drunk. It’s crazy that after they rescued him, he was frozen, and so to thaw him out, they put him in an oven. He’s a baker, and there’s a great bit where Doug’s explaining, “The guy is saying, ‘Yesterday, I was making pies, and today I am the pie.‘” It’s Chris Parnell [playing the baker], and he is always so, so good.
Ronda Rousey is in Season 4. Who is she playing?
I’m going to hide what she’s going to play, only because there’s no way you’ve ever heard of her. I like waiting, because then someone searches the person, and they’re like, “It’s going to be about that.” I like them being surprised. I’m a nerd. I can tell you that our stuntman loves doing stunts, because he’s a stuntman, and he’s the sweetest guy. He’s like, “Derek, do you mind if I pitch Ronda an idea to do a little stunt with me here?” I said, “Of course, go ahead, but just remember she’s an athlete and she may legally not be able to do any stunts or not want to do stunts just in case she would get hurt, so pitch her arm wrestling or pitch her something small first.”
I go, “Jimmy, this is Ronda. Ronda, Jimmy,” and Jimmy says, “Ronda, can you body-slam me?” That was his first pitch. And Ronda was like, “Yeah, what do you want: the Texas Firehouse or the Oklahoma Spinwhirl?” She threw him down, and it was the quickest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, but so cool. I was so nervous to meet her, and she was like, “My expectations of you were pretty high, and I’m glad that you’re as laid back a person as you are on the show.” Then we high-fived, and my hand still f–king stings. It really hurt.
Are there other first-time reenactors you were impressed with?
Elizabeth Olsen did it this season. I had seen her work, but man, I didn’t know how funny she was. You know who else was great was Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day. That was mind-blowing. He plays Charlie Chaplin, and Tony Hale is Buster Keaton. Dave Grohl’s done the show, and musicians are naturally good at lip-syncing from doing videos, but you have to do more than just lip-sync. You have to be able to act, and Billie Joe was so good, and couldn’t be any sweeter. It was crazy to talk to him.
What’s the theme of that episode?
That is an episode called “Legends,” that has three stories of different types of legends. There’s that one, then the story of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe and their friendship, and then Sam Patch, who was the world’s first daredevil.
It’s a fun season that I’m so excited for people to see, because it feels like a brand-new show. The cities were fun, but all in all, people just want to watch the show for the stories, so I just wanted to only focus on finding the best stories this season.
Season 4 of Drunk History premieres Sept. 27 at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.