A very sober-minded Derek Waters on work, life and doing Baltimore in Season 2 of 'Drunk History'

Lutherville native's hit show returns to Comedy Central Tuesday night with Alabama stories

  • Derek Waters, right, creator and host of Comedy Central's "Drunk History," mixes it up with the crowd at Mother's Federal Hill Grille for a show featuring Baltimore. Waters grew up in Lutherville.
Derek Waters, right, creator and host of Comedy Central's… (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun )
July 01, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

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?”

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