‘Drunk History’ laudably cashes in on ‘Hamilton’ hype
He’s a man! He’s a musical! He’s an episode of Drunk History! Alexander Hamilton (1757 – 1804) died over 200 years ago, but his legacy lives on. Today, “Hamilton” is a sensation that’s sweeping the nation, just like the revolution its titular character helped lead 240 years prior. It seems like everyone has caught the “Hamilton” bug, including Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.”
The episode begins with Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) walking the streets of the Upper West Side with host Derek Waters before quickly transitioning to the apartment where he (Miranda) currently lives. It’s a fitting opening, given that the story of Hamilton is centered around where he came from and where he ended up. In the first few minutes, as viewers settle in for a 22-minute romp through history with Broadway’s best, Miranda prepares for an afternoon of drinking his way through Hamilton’s life.
Waters sets the episode up perfectly when he asks Miranda, “Do you want to get drunk?”
It’s a treat to watch Miranda — a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Genius — share the intimate details of Hamilton’s life while inebriated. The musical “Hamilton” is incredible and moving on its own, but there are parts of history that simply can’t translate to the stage. “Drunk History” provides audiences with what they can’t get from other sources.
An excellent example of these minute details comes early in the episode, when Miranda describes Hamilton’s journey from the West Indies to Colonial America. A horrible hurricane “f**ked up the Caribbean” and sent the young, orphaned Hamilton packing his bags for more prosperous shores. On his way – and this is where it gets interesting – the ship caught fire. As in, he rode a flaming vessel to the land of opportunity. This is “the kind of shit you can’t do in the play,” Miranda says, further coloring the rich history of Hamilton’s life.
Both the hurricane and the flaming ship emphasize the poetic irony of Hamilton’s death. At a young age, he survived disease, natural disaster and freak flames. Once older, he lived through a war. It was a single bullet, borne out of rash decisions and high-school level feuding, that killed him.
The musical does a great job of emphasizing the tragedy of Hamilton’s death. Interestingly, so does “Drunk History,” yet in a completely different way. Miranda’s drunk musings about the lives of both Hamilton and his killer, Vice President Aaron Burr, somehow resound with deep, heartbreaking emotions.
The sporadic and blatantly honest storytelling in “Drunk History” points out a central truth about Hamilton: From the start of his life to the end, he was a wildly gifted, incredibly troubled genius who cared so much about his legacy and his name that he let it end relationships and eventually, his life.
Miranda shares another important fact that isn’t mentioned in the musical. Prior to his fateful duel with Burr, Hamilton wrote and sent a series of letters claiming that he had no intention of shooting Burr, and that if Burr shot him, then it was Burr who was the bad guy. His final act forever sealed the fate of Burr – writing his place in history as a villain and Hamilton’s as a martyr.
Over bites of Dominos pasta, Miranda observes that, “whether Hamilton lived or died, he won the duel.”
The Hamilton special of “Drunk History” is a pleasure to watch and a gift for viewers, fans of Miranda especially. Watching him narrate the story is the closest most audience members will ever get to hanging out with (not to mention getting drunk with) a truly remarkable artist. Like the musical, it’s a fresh take on a story that is centuries old.
Other highlights of the episode include a stellar cast re-enacting the history, a rendition of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” from Miranda and a surprise FaceTime break with both Questlove and Christopher Jackson (“Hamilton” ’s original George Washington).
The 22-minute episode doesn’t feel nearly long enough. For the sake of concise storytelling and Miranda’s liver, however, it’s just right.