Drunk History: Intoxicating and Informative

Drunk History? I’ve watched only the first three episodes and the segments featuring Paget Brewster, but I understand the concept.  Derek Waters lights up friends with adult beverages and then has them narrate historical incidents while comedic actors perform reenactments.  Over my brief viewing, I witnessed vomiting, inhibited logic, loss of coordination . . . diagnosis: these cats were drunk.  But even through the haze, historical facts remained largely intact.  Viewers still glean why these moments are important, why Waters and his people would wittily package them for easier consumption.  Admit it.  You’ll watch Paget Brewster rhapsodize tipsily about Florence Nightingale all day, but you’d walk out after the first ten minutes of a public lecture given by some tweed-jacketed pedant more in love with historical facts than the humanity behind them.  You know it.  Waters understands how delivery enhances mental digestion. 

Barbara Papworth, my junior-year social studies teacher, also understood how entertainment kept students engaged, even if my methodology fell far short.  Each unit contained creative options, allowing us to tap into alternative talents rather than simply writing research compositions.  For example, we could write short stories based on the subject at hand.  I went after these hotly.  For World War II, I envisioned two brothers fighting for opposite sides while confronting decades-long conflicts within their own relationship.  They were Japanese nisei.  One joined the famous, highly decorated 442nd while the other left for Japan to enlist with Hirohito and Tojo.  Research?  Already done!  Why review class notes when I’d read Eric Van Lustbader’s thriller The Ninja, and I’d shotgunned Chuck Norris’s The Octagon and Enter the Ninja starring Franco Nero and Sho Kosugi?  Picture it:  brothers Ken and Shiro, facing off on Guadalcanal where resides a secret shadow-warrior training camp, each employing the ninjitsu skills they’d learned from their father – only one would survive! I can’t remember how I ended my story, but I remember Mrs. Papworth’s concluding remark: C-.  So, the 442nd served in the European theater, nowhere near Guadalcanal.  So, my characterizations fell flat, teetering toward stereotypes.  Fricking Van Lustbader, that untrustworthy source.  And screw Chuck Norris!

Thankfully, Derek Waters takes history far more seriously than did teen Chuck.  For example, from Season One, Episode Two we have “August Spies and the Haymarket Riot” with Kyle Kinane delivering the drunken narration and Ike Barinholtz playing August Spies.  A German immigrant and editor for the anarchist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung, Spies was outraged by the police’s opening fire on workers during a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago.  He wrote an article headlined “Workingmen, To Arms,” and over the evening word spread about police brutality.  The next day – May 4, 1886 – labor radicals organized a protest at Haymarket Square to address police brutality.

Spies spoke at the Haymarket gathering, which included an estimated 2,000 individuals.  When the police arrived to break it up, someone threw a bomb at them, killing seven police officers and at least one civilian.  The bomber remains unidentified.  Thereafter, xenophobia against immigrants ran rampant throughout Chicago, and August Spies was one of four who were hanged on November 11, 1887.  More positively, labor movements in Chicago and other cities grew, leading to worker’s rights, such as the eight-hour work day.  Through their intoxicated haze, Waters and Kinane repeat “eight-hour work day” again and again, hammering that message home.  Barbara Papworth never mentioned the Haymarket Riot, but Derek Waters enhances both our appreciation and understanding of this critical occurrence.  That he and Kinane were willing to enjoy fine liquor to keep our attention during this important lesson, the birth of worker’s rights in the United States – well, gentlemen, thanks for that sacrifice.  We laugh: we learn.

Then comes Season 1, Episode Three which contains “Stetson Kennedy Infiltrates the KKK.”  Our drunken narrator, Mark Gugliardi, relates how Stetson Kennedy – familiar mostly I’m guessing to hardcore historians or comic-book nerds – infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, revealing their secrets through the medium of radio, through the 16-episode “Clan of the Fiery Cross” storyline of The Adventures of Superman.  I’d known vaguely that Gene Luen Yang had in part based his recent Superman Smashes the Klan on that original radio broadcast, but I was unaware of Kennedy’s infiltration into the Klan, his involvement with developing the radio-show plot, and the ramifications that followed.

Because he suffered from a bad back, Kennedy, played here by Jason Ritter with Kevin Nealon portraying the Klan leader, couldn’t enlist into the military during World War II, so he instead invested his energies against Jim Crow laws in the South.  After the war, the Klan had experienced an uptick in recruitment, particularly in Georgia.  Working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Kennedy adopted the pseudonym John Perkins and began infiltrating various Klan organizations.  He hoped to expose their secrets, to blow open this secret empire, attending regular meetings and recruiting a high-ranking informant.  Local authorities weren’t interested, however, so in 1946 Kennedy contacted the producers of The Adventures of Superman who were looking for enemies for Superman to confront, and thus was born “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”  Writers peppered into each episode actual Klan codewords and rituals, and soon children and others were mocking the Klan whose enrollment plunged as a result.  A humiliated Klan is a good thing.  Later, Kennedy included the Columbians, another racist organization, into his investigations.  In 1947, after a year undercover, Kennedy testified at trial against the leaders of the Columbians, Homer Loomis and Emory Burke, who were found guilty.

Both stories are relevant today.  With currently rising wealth disparities and racist activities, we’d do well to learn the lessons of Spies and Kennedy.  Labor movements and anti-racist initiatives were essential then and are now.  I’m especially happy that Drunk History taught me about Kennedy, because within my own fandom, comics, a toxic group, Comicsgate, has been moaning about what they perceive to be recently enhanced diversity and social justice within contemporary comics and how they think this is disastrous for the medium, but no. Hello! The “Clan of the Fiery Cross” aired in the late 1940s, so comics always have been engaged with such important issues, quite successfully so.  Drunk History aired this segment well before Comicsgate started, but I’ll apply the lesson nonetheless.

When watching Drunk History, enjoy the drunken antics of participants, but pay attention to the underlying messages too.  All hail the Internet, which enabled me to do quick searches to move beyond the introductions this show provided.  Play along, but remember the “history” part of the title too, not just the “drunk” angle.