The art of talking story—not just any story, but an engaging one—is not a skill that all people are born with. It takes mastering through practice, dedication, and perseverance. And so it might go without saying that making something seemingly boring, such as history, come to life is a task more daunting than most. Trust me on this, I’ve taught Art History for two years.
But lo, and behold, alcohol. As the cure-all of many of our shortcomings, alcohol makes a person in the throes of storytelling more relaxed and inventive, a phenomenon showcased on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” which features filmed historical reenactments by actors dubbed with the voice of inebriated comedians. The end product is a narrative that meanders through hegemonic beliefs sprinkled with elements of creative reinterpretation by the changing roster of liquored-up storytellers.
My first introduction to “Drunk History” was at a social gathering with fellow art history people who would reference episodes in conversation, to which I’d incessantly nod and laugh with them. Then we’d make plans to write, star, and act in our own version, called “Drunk ART History,” something we still might do someday.
In an upcoming episode, “Drunk History” will dedicate a segment of a Tuesday’s episode to Hawaii’s heroic badass, the late Senator Daniel Inouye. The 3-minute preview below tells the story of WWII-hero Inouye (1963-2012), who, like many Japanese-Americans, tried to enlist in the U.S. military but was banned because of his ethnicity and instead signed up to join the Nisei 442 Regimental Combat Team. The intoxicated haole storyteller with a gravely voice—well-known radio personality Phil Hendrie—narrates, while a 1940s era-costumed cast reenacts Inouye’s experience as a lieutenant of his primarily Japanese-American squad. (Story continues below.)
The Nisei 442 Regimental Combat Team is known as the U.S. military’s most decorated infantry unit. It was composed of primarily young Japanese-American men and proudly supported by their families, some of them in internment camps back in Hawaii and the mainland. The soldiers were determined to prove their fierce loyalty to the United States even if it meant sacrificing their lives. Their “Go For Broke” motto speaks to the mission of those soldiers torn between the land they believed they belonged to and Japan, the foreign country of their mothers, fathers, and ancestors. Unfortunately, this rich history that is dear and pivotal for the Japanese-American community is severely and disrespectfully downplayed in the “Drunk History” reenactment.
For me, the one thing that probably upsets me most is that they cast Steven Yeun, most notably of “The Walking Dead” and an actor of Korean descent—to play the role of Inouye, a Japanese-American. This reminds me of the uproar that followed when the cast list for 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha was released, announcing that a Chinese actress would play the lead character, Sayuri.
Hollywood has an unbreakable tendency to conflate the distinctive cultures and physical appearances ethnicities, particularly East Asians. There are differences that perhaps those of Asian ancestry, or those raised in or near heavily Asian-populated communities, are keen of. However, it could be worse. Comedy Central could’ve decided to yellow face Inouye. Maybe this is progress.
It’s a funny clip, no doubt. And the full episode, which airs on Tuesday totally dedicated to Hawaii’s history, will also include reenactments about James Cook and Eddie Aikau (featuring Ken Marino and Jason Mantzoukas). But I’m curious to know what alternative, if any, Hawaii stories were considered to be told by an intoxicated person to a national viewing audience. In what manner might hot topics from Hawaii’s history—such as the forced signing of the bayonet constitution, the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by descendants of the missionaries, the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani by the U.S. military, the infamous Massie Case, or even the University of Hawaii’s scandalous “Wonder Blunder”—might be retold through the eyes and slurring words of Comedy Central’s drunk historians?
Surely, Hawaii is ripe for the drunk storyteller in us all.