While Jake Johnson has gained notoriety for his acting work in New Girl, Jurassic World, The Mummy and, most recently, Tag, you might not be aware that he also inadvertently helped to create the cult comedy Drunk History, too.
Johnson’s drunken attempt to tell his friend Derek Waters about the night Otis Redding died instantly sparked an idea in Waters’ head. I recently had the chance to speak to Johnson about his performance in Tag, during which time I quizzed him about the story, and, surprisingly, he admitted that he “remembered it all”
“The Otis Redding story is one that my friend Bill told me. A guy I creatively worked with back in high school, long before a little thing called the internet.”
“When I met Derek [Waters] and I told this story to him it was in 2004 and that was not an era when you had cell phones that were computers. So when you have a drunken night to tell a story, nowadays you only get that when you are camping. The story, no-one is backing you up on it.”
“So me and Derek were at my apartment, and we were having a bunch of beers so I told him the story. The story is the night Otis Redding died he was on the way to the plane, and he used to write all his love songs with his wife, who was uncredited. Another woman in history who doesn’t get the credit she deserves.”
“But, to Otis, he knew her value. So that’s why they had this partnership. He gets on the plane, they kiss goodbye, he gets off the plane, comes off, goes in car and says, ‘Promise me, no matter what happens, you will be good, you will be true to yourself.’”
“She says, ‘Otis you’re crazy. Get on the plane.’ He says, ‘I’m not getting on the plane until you promise me.’ She says, ‘OK, I promise.’ They give each other a kiss, he gets on the plane, the plane crashes and he dies.”
“So I told that story to Derek, and I had a bunch of beer in me. The story took 45 minutes to tell. I was doing the voices, I was doing the back and forth.”
Waters came up with the idea for Drunk History while listening to this preposterously elongated story.
“The next day he calls me up and he says, ‘Can I come over and get you drunk and have you tell me that Otis Redding story again?’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I want to get our friend Jeremy to film it and then I want to get some celebrity actors to re-enact it’.”
“‘Then at one point I want the ghost of Otis Redding to be listening and say, ‘Shut up, man! You’re lying. That didn’t happen’.’”
But Johnson wasn’t interested in getting hammered on camera. “We both started laughing. I was an out of work actor, who was aspiring to do commercials. And I said, ‘I can’t have a video of me getting drunk. I am trying to seem professional.’ He said, ‘But it is a funny idea.’ I said, ‘Not a chance.’”
“Now, the times have changed, with social media and everything. It is why celebrities and actors don’t have the value we used to have.”
“My kids are not fans of actors. They are fans of people with YouTube channels. Now everyone is shooting footage of them at home, goofing with their families, so they feel more real. So getting drunk doesn’t matter.”
“But that’s just not the sort of actor I have ever aspired to be. Even in 2004, I never wanted that. There has to be some mystery about your real life. People have to think that you are exactly who your character is. That is who you are to them.”
“But Derek goes, ‘If I get another actor to another story would you be an actor in it?’ I go, ‘I will be one of the actors.’
“So he got another friend drunk, Mark Gagliardi, and me and Mike Cera performed it, and that was the Aaron Burr one. He put it up at UCB, it got big laughs, and put it online. That was one of the first big viral videos I had ever been a part of. Two hours after it had been on it had like a million views, and he is still doing it to this day.”
“Drunk History” continues to thrive, too. In fact, its fifth season is currently airing on Tuesday nights on Comedy Central at 10 EST.