Visual Culture has friends in high and low places. The upper echelons are powerful and necessary, the forces that be and the fonts of learning that command the eyes and mindsets of those “in the arts.” University systems, smash art fairs, the bidding floor at bluechip auctions, the politics of biennials.
Though there’s no ignoring the sway of what some would consider the dregs of the visual cultural teapot. The shoot-em-up films with more CGI gas explosions and cleavage than dialogue, telenovelas, great bake-offs, pop music composed, screeched and auto-tuned by teenage robots, advertisements that leave I.Q.s three points lower after their minute-long span on TV and send people out in droves to buy laundry soap and overpriced snowman-flavoured lattes and car insurance that feed a lot of corporate fat cats out there.
We all watch, listen, rap along to, bring up in conversation and sickly obsess over some kind of visual media we know to be depravedly terrible. And we love our Netflix-induced lobotomies all the same, for they help us relax, laugh a little in the face of the world and feel connected to other binge-watchers out there. Without much thought required, we can become immersed in the roiling whirlpool-of-many-colours that is the spectacle of modern day life.
In the twenty-first century spirit of seeing what lessons philistine entertainment all around can teach, seeing what significance lies buried underneath popular appeal, I turn to Drunk History, one of the basest but undeniably watchable divertissements I’ve come across.
No flashbulbs necessary, I’m not exactly breaking news here. The creators of Drunk History joined YouTube way back when in 2007; since then, Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner wrote, produced, filmed, edited and directed multiple installments between them. More recently pounced upon by that colossus of broadcasted buffoonery, Comedy Central, and having also descended into the boggy terrain of Britain’s past, the series’ cheery motto still reads, “Witness history as it’s never been told before: Drunk.”
The premise shares a similarly sauced-up flair. Ordinary people with seemingly ordinary levels of education and affluence soberly memorise basic history lessons. Next, the sporting volunteer is plied with a considerable supply of alcohol, say, eight vodka-cranberries, then gets relocated to cosy quarters in which they repeat their anecdote from the past in an utterly sodden state. The results include unbeatable hiccups, impaired judgment in fact-telling, and numb-lipped mutterings about George Washington, all of which are easily lapped up and laughed at in a trivia-buff-meets-boozehound pageant.
Garnering more audience interest, scenes starring rather recognisable faces, like the waif of a wit Michael Cera, the scruffily roguish Jack Black, even Don Cheadle and Dave Grohl, are interspersed in between shots of the buzzed narrator’s sagging posture and glassy-eyed revelations. In era-appropriate garb, the powdered-wigged actors reenact the unfolding story — not the facts as read in the trustworthy academic tomes of primary school classrooms, but the error-riddled and anachronous events as told under the influence of neat whisky.
Viewers of this sideshow, if they enjoy any semblance of reality or just a decent sense of humour, comprehend the flagrant falsehoods seen within Drunk History.
It should be clear that U.S. statesman Alexander Hamilton did not actually shoot Alexander Hamilton while engaged in a gentlemanly duel for honour against east-coast politician Aaron Burr, as told by the inebriated, subtly sweating Mark Gagliardi after downing a quart of Scotch during Drunk History Volume 1.
There’s a lot of amusement, but not much accuracy, let alone coherency, in Duncan Trussell’s Volume 6 attempts to reveal all about that one time Nikola Tesla and “that Westinghouse guy” won a contest to supply all the electricity to the World’s Fair, prompting the defeated Thomas Edison to begin, “like, publicly electrocuting animals…taking, like sheep being like, ‘Look what happens when the sheep touches an alternating current, oh, it blows, it…gets electrocuted…,'” between loopy, laughing exclamations about the imminent spewing up of a refined blend of beer and absinthe.
Yet can these red-faced, lighthearted, and hangover-inciting short films cause damage to society and wide-eyed viewers by means of misinformation and promotion of bacchanalian habits? After all, the french theorist, writer and creative type, Guy Debord, cautioned:
…reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real…the spectacle presents itself something enormously positive, indisputable…it says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance…
Goodness knows I’m certainly not advocating for the passive acceptance of alcohol abuse. No one likes giving or sitting through floundering morning-after apologies, no one likes a cirrhosed liver. And Drunk History is certainly not the apex of Western culture.
It is a form of artistic vision and public dissemination which has more in common with pee-soaked alleyways and gutters than whitewashed gallery spaces or the pages of PhD dissertations. Much more puddle of vomit than Picasso’s rose period.
However, Drunk History is engaging, feasibly, perhaps, just almost maybe educational, clever and well-timed in its staging and accessible enough to glean impressive popularity. The very first plot line, the Alexander Hamilton one seen below, has reaped over 7.2 million YouTube hits, and the series was even taken to cable television in a short Home Box Office special titled Derek Waters Presents and shows no present signs of stopping. There’s a whole lot of the past behind us.
The concrete life of everyone (and everyone important who ever was) has been degraded into a circusy, sloppy universe, and we can’t look away. Drunk History has nothing in common with statuesque marble figures at the Louvre, those upper echelons, and the series easily raises questions of ethics, propriety, and deliberate distortion; but somehow it fits our postmodern age of uncertainty, outrageousness, and moral and social change.
It’s easily identified with and chuckled at by pint sippers across everywhere; I remember my first beer. But the facetious performances by famous actors seems to belittle such excessive antics. Perhaps Drunk History can have the effect of misleading and encouraging intemperance. It can also have an uplifting effect when a mindless laugh is needed, its moral standard does shine through the slurring, and though seemingly silly, the series can even start social discourses as demonstrated by this blog post.
Ultimately, though, any media’s power to be noxious rests with viewers. In this age of visual everything and rapid-fire exchange, it’s important to both stand behind noble convictions and be receptive to absurdity. It’s also thankfully simple to cross-reference, sift through the sludge and seek out truth in information, whether presented by known sources or in the drunken sputterings of a stranger.
Source: Guy Debord,”Separation Perfected”, In Society of the Spectacle, Michigan: Michigan, Black, and Red, 1977