'Drunk History' Has Become a Major Influence on Documentaries

Nonfiction films taking a humorous approach in their storytelling are mimicking the Comedy Central series' lip-synced reenactment technique.

Screwball Kid Bosch
Greenwich Entertainment

Archival documentaries may be on the rise lately, but what do you do if your story is lacking in prior documentation? Reenactments have been a staple for nonfiction film for decades as a tool for depicting events of the past that aren’t visually recorded. Depending on the amount of this dramatized material, a film can fall into the categories of hybrid film or docudrama. Sometimes minimal usage can be combined with whatever archival footage does exist.

One benefit of reenactment — or in the case of docs like The Thin Blue Line that play with perspective, merely enactment — is their visual appeal as a counterbalance to talking head interviews. Although a great interview can be worth watching on its own, most of them have a stagnancy that welcomes or even demands some kind of supplementary imagery to break up the monotony. And typically audio from the interviews carry over into that alternate material.

Occasionally dramatizations or reenactments or enactments or whatever you want to label them have featured actors speaking dialogue in these scenes. But there seems to be a rising trend now to have the performers lip-sync the words of the interviewees. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that two new documentaries released the same week, Screwball and The Legend of Cocaine Island, utilize this trick. And as such, both of them have been likened to the gimmick behind the comedy series Drunk History.

In a way, Drunk History, which began as a web series from Funny or Die and then became a hit TV show on Comedy Central, is a documentary program (its creator, Derek Waters, does have some documentary producing experience). You’ve got people telling true stories, and then actors reenact the events based on what’s being narrated. Of course, the storytellers there are intoxicated and also not expert historians, so it’s not exactly the most fact-based depiction of history, but not all nonfiction films are confined to representing provable facts either. Many docs are based around individuals’ versions of the truth.

Screwball and Cocaine Island use the lip-syncing reenactment technique for comedic effect. The former comes off particularly silly because director Billy Corben cast children for his dramatized scenes and then those kids are mouthing the narration and dialogue of multiple adult storytellers edited perfectly together as an oral history of a recent major league baseball doping scandal. Cocaine Island, which is comparatively spare in its lip-syncing, similarly has a heightened, almost farcical tone to its reenactments, which feature one of the main storytellers dramatically reliving his tale of hunting for a buried treasure of the titular narcotic.

“I said, ‘Oh shit, we can Drunk History this, and all the actors will be eight years old!'” Corben told Rolling Stone last month. He’s mentioned the comedy series in multiple interviews, actually, acknowledging the influence and similarity of approach and effect. But he also states that the original inspiration for the use of kids lip-syncing was the 1997 Spike Jonze-helmed music video for The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit.” As for whether or not the makers of Cocaine Island thought of Drunk History, I haven’t seen any mention in interviews one way or another, but there have been reviews making the connection.

Not that the lip-syncing technique is a new one since the existence of Drunk History, and other documentaries have been doing it more seriously over the years. Sometimes the device is used for a visual supplement to interviews and recordings of stories that are only available in audio form. Most famously we saw this done in Clio Barnard‘s acclaimed 2010 feature, The Arbor, in which actors stood in as talking head interviewees and also dramatized scenes, all lip-syncing to words spoken by the late playwright Andrea Dunbar as well as to audio interviews with her family. There are scenes in the film that could have seemed comical if not for the sober tone of the entire production.

Other documentaries that have been compared to The Arbor rather than Drunk History include Peter Middleton and James Spinney‘s Notes on Blindness and Elan Bogarin and Jonathan Bogarin‘s 306 Hollywood. The latter is a more playful film, but both are respectful tributes to their late subjects that utilize lip-syncing in order to have something cinematic on screen where archival audio material was the primary source or a significant part of the storytelling.

So it’s all dependent on the tone the filmmakers are going for, and certainly aping a comedy series’ effect in documentary is going to result in something with more entertainment value for mainstream viewers while also appropriately fitting the wild and crazy sort of characters and events being portrayed in Screwball and Cocaine Island. It won’t work with all stories, though I could see there being more of a demand for stories like theirs and docs like them to carry those stories across.

What’s interesting about these two new examples is neither of them totally just dropped out of nowhere. Screwball premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, while Cocaine Island debuted months earlier, under the title White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. And that came a year following the SXSW premiere and subsequent theatrical release of another Drunk History style doc, Becoming Bond, in which actor George Lazenby tells his life story, focused particularly on his one-film portrayal of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the events he recounts are recreated in dramatizations.

In a 2017 interview with Australia’s The Iris, Becoming Bond writer/director Josh Greenbaum responded to a comparison made between his film and Drunk History. “Part of it is certainly Drunk History, in terms of the voiceover technique,” he said, “but I think, as artists, we’re always trying to do something new and feel like we’re breaking new ground, even though it’s always a form of stealing/honoring something else.”

He also recognized the Drunk History influence in the press notes for Becoming Bond. “I see the potential of filming a traditional documentary but with a new style of reenactments. We’ve seen dramatic reenactments in all sorts of docs, from Nanook of the North through Man On Wire, but we’ve never seen the comedic and entertaining reenactments that have been done more recently in shows like Drunk History,” he stated in the 2017 publicity materials.

“George’s stories are larger than life (I kept thinking of Big Fish and Forrest Gump as I sat with him),” the statement continues, “and he tells them in a such an entertaining way, that reenacting them with his voice dubbed over the scenes (a la Drunk History) with a young, talented and well-suited actor to play him, will make for a hilarious and unique fresh style to a documentary.”

As with any sort of distinct approach in documentary storytelling, this one could lose its freshness rather quickly if it does indeed become a real trend. Had Screwball and Cocaine Island not been released at the same time — theatrically by Greenwich Entertainment and for streaming on Netflix, respectively — the Drunk History comparison probably wouldn’t have stood out so much as an apparent fad in nonfiction filmmaking.

Looking ahead, the celebrity-filled dramatization of Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce‘s upcoming feature Framing John Delorean could invite its own Drunk History comparisons, even if the famous and oft-comedic actors — including Alec Baldwin, Jason Jones, Dean Winters, and Morena Baccarin — aren’t lip-syncing the words of their real counterparts from interview materials. Among the cast is Josh Charles, who has appeared on Drunk History. Hopefully, the likeness, if unintended, doesn’t create too much of a distraction.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.