What does the newish Comedy Central series “Drunk History” have to do with documentary film? I suppose most people would say, “not much.” But I disagree. In my mind, the best way to make sense of the show (which made me laugh so hard the other night that I nearly peed the couch) is to think of it in relation to documentary film and trends in documentary filmmaking over the past few decades.
If you go back forty or fifty years, most documentaries were produced by government agencies or one of three major news networks. (Nobody else had the money to make one.) These documentaries generally featured voice-over narration by some voice of authority. The story was narrated, and the disconnected parts were helpfully connected, by an authoritative narrator – usually a male narrator with a deep resonant voice. You heard Walter Cronkite, or some other eminent-sounding male explaining, “Marijuana is a very addictive drug,” and you just knew – or at least you were supposed to just know – that IT WAS TRUE.
However, after the cultural revolution of the sixties, and the writings of Foucault and other theoretical luminaries, it has become much harder for most people to accept this sort of “voice of God” narration. People have become more suspicious. Many people, especially among the cognoscenti, now see the machinations of Power (Foucault’s term) everywhere, and they are immediately suspicious of anything that presents itself as “the voice of God,” or the supposedly objective voice of the narrator. If you’ve watched documentaries for the past few decades you probably know what I mean. Young filmmakers today generally avoid the voice-of-God narration like the plague. They want to avoid any suggestion that there is one true narrative, or that they are naïve enough to believe in such a thing. The general view, I take it, is that only someone who is hopelessly naïve could believe that objective narration is possible.
Thus we get lots of films with no narration whatsoever, and cinema verite films, and we also get films that feature a blatant, utterly unapologetically subjective narrator (like say Ross McIlwee). Now my claim is that “Drunk History” represents a sort of reductio ad absurdum of this tendency in documentary filmmaking.
What if the narrator were not as reliable as the day is long, like Walter Cronkite? What if he were not even an ordinary guy like Ross McIlwee? What if he happened to be not even remotely reliable? What if he happened to be so blotto that he could barely narrate the story in a comprehensible way?
This is the road the producers of “Drunk History” have traveled – or, some might say, stumbled down. I am not sure I would say that, however, because I think the people who make the show know what they are doing, even if the inebriated narrators in the episodes often do not.
Notice also how “Drunk History” makes use of another convention of traditional documentary filmmaking: the re-enactment. In traditional documentary, one of the classic methods for dealing with lack of footage (a serious and recurring problem) is to stage re-enactments. You see these in Ken Burns films, and in all sorts of other documentary films. You see this in “Drunk History,” too, but with a difference. In this case, the narrator is a drunk – the ultimate in unreliable narrators – and yet the exact words of the drunken narrator, and even the stupefied pauses, are put into the mouths of the re-enactors. If the narrator is telling the story of Nellie Bly and mumbles “Nellie Bly was like, “This is totally bogus, dude!” then the on-screen actor portraying Nellie Bly mumbles, “This is totally bogus, dude!” This sort of word-for-word re-enactment goes well beyond what is done in most documentaries. In a Ken Burns film, you might see a line of soldiers marching or a group of men sitting around a campfire. But you will rarely see the filmmaker trying to place words in the re-enactors’ mouths. In Drunk History, though, that is exactly what the filmmakers do, and it produces most of the funniest moments in the series. But these moments would not be nearly as funny if we weren’t all so familiar with the elements of classic documentary film — the voice-of-God narration and the shots of soldier-reenactors s mustering out in a Civil War documentary. The series works by accepting the conventions of documentary – voice-of-God narration for audio and re-enactments for video – and reducing them to absurdity by substituting a drunk for the omniscient narrator and having the re-enactors act out and re-speak the intoxicated narrator’s mumblings and non sequitors verbatim.
And – perhaps I should have said this earlier – the result is funny as all get out . I enjoy the show immensely and pay it that highest and most sincere form of tribute – I wish to hell I had thought of it first.
And yet, even while I am laughing at “Drunk History,” I am unwilling to give up my belief that documentary film can sometimes present us with reliable information about the world we live in. It’s all very well to be suspicious – to be aware of the ways in which the medium can be manipulated by governments and ad agencies and interested parties. It really can be. It has been. It will continue to be. We don’t want to be naïve. And yet it is equally true that part of what we appreciate about a documentary film is that it has a certain relation to reality which is not true of fictional films. If we consistently treated documentaries as if they were indistinguishable from fictional films, there would be no reason to have a separate category, and, if you think about it, no reason to make documentaries at all.
In short, I feel like what “Drunk History” has done is similar to what the boys from Delta House do in “Animal House.” You may recall the climactic scene, in which the Delta boys sabotage the town parade and one of them leads a marching band into a blind alley. The musicians in the band keep marching, till they are marching into one another and their trombones are bending and folding up as they smash into the wall. We laugh at the absurdity of the situation. However, nobody ever decides they don’t ever want to see another marching band because they saw one marching band made to look absurd in National Lampoon’s “Animal House.” Thus it is – or will be, I think — with “Drunk History.” We laugh at the absurdity of the situation – and at the drunks – and at the re-enactments of drunken dialogue. We admire the cleverness of the idea and the skill with which the whole thing is done. But we don’t necessarily conclude (at least I don’t) that because documentaries can be made to look silly, with drunk narrators, all documentaries are necessarily silly and as unreliable as the narrative of a whiskey-bleared Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. A vigorous genre survives lampooning, and I take it documentary film will, too.