Engaging Comedic History: Buzzfeed and the Historical Profession

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This post is the third in our ‘Media of History’ forum which explores the decisions we make about the choices we make when we communicate our research. The first installment in this series was ‘Poetry as History?’ and the second was ‘How to build a scholarly community without leaving your apartment!’

by guest contributor Jake Newcomb

          Buzzfeed recently premiered a new show called That Literally Happened! that features comedians and historians recalling funny episodes from history. The videos are short, and the pilot detailed Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous “potato incident,” where Vice President Quayle, while visiting an elementary school, asked a student to incorrectly spell “potato” on the chalkboard. Actually, the student correctly spelled potato on the board, then Quayle asked him to add an “e” to spell “potatoe.” The episode is lighthearted, yet critical of Vice Presidential ignorance.

Buzzfeed releases new episodes of That Literally Happened! every week to an online audience, and they continue to merge history with humor. As such, they attempt to solidify their role in the media landscape as a producer of comedic history, alongside shows such as Drunk History on Comedy Central. It is clear that shows such as That Literally Happened! and Drunk History are enjoyed for their humorous interpretation of historical events, rather than for an education exposition of those events. The massive popularity of shows such as these (Drunk History started as an online show like That Literally Happened! and is now regularly nominated for Emmys) forces historians to reckon with their mass appeal, but what are the ways in which academics can even engage with comedic history? Academic history and comedic history have very different target audiences, yet are both purportedly committed to an honest retelling of historical events whereas other, more unsavory, forms of historical entertainment (Ancient Aliens) are not committed to the same standard of reality. This commitment to historical truth (even if it’s comedic) could enable us to engage on a more professional level with its content and existence, if we can find ways to do so. 

            One such way would be to include reviews and comments of comedic history in our scholarly journals and publications. This would not be so different from the American Historical Review’s initiative to publish reviews of non-traditional scholarly works or works of history outside of the academy altogether. In recent years they have taken to including reviews of “documentary collections, historical fiction, digital history sites, museums, graphic histories, and…films,” (AHR 124.4 1373). In their October 2019 number, the AHR published three reviews of HBO’s summer hit mini-series Chernobyl. In the past year, they have also published reviews of graphic histories (AHR 123.5 1596), documentary films (AHR 124.1 172), historical fiction (AHR 124.3 1002), and Ken Burns and Lisa Novick’s The Vietnam War (AHR 124.1 164). These expanded reviews may prove to be largely successful because television epics like Chernobyl and The Vietnam War attract wide-ranging audiences. Thus, reviews of these productions could be applicable to a wider range of scholars than ones of area/time-focused monographs. While a traditional review-style might not apply to comedic history series like Drunk History or That Actually Happened! (because of their short run times and abundance of episodes), there is space in our journals and publications to address non-traditional materials on history, and the inclusion of comedic history within our scholarly view may be productive.

Another way would be for historians to collaborate with comedians in the recounting historical stories. While the narrators of Drunk History are largely comedians or comedy writers, the new Buzzfeed show includes both comedians and historians to tell the story. The aforementioned pilot of That Literally Happened! featured NYU’s Michael Koncewicz, a research scholar and overseer of the Cold War archival collection at NYU’s library. Koncewicz is joined by Buzzfeed staff and comedians in contemplating Quayle’s legendary gaffe, and together they break down why it’s so funny. In that episode, it’s clear that historians and comedians have a lot of common ground when it comes to recounting history: both are highly attuned to the ironies, hypocrisies, and sensitivities of the past. And while the methodologies and practices of historians and comedians are largely separate, when they come together there is a natural syncretism between them.

While the synchronicity between historians and comedians in That Literally Happened! may simply be due to the show’s decision to tell funny stories, scholars such as Hayden White have demonstrated how the underlying narrative structures of historical writing have historically utilized comedy, satire, and irony. Voltaire’s satires (non-fiction like Letters on England and fiction like Candide) serve as a constant reminder of that legacy.  All that being said, the production of comedic history has largely been undertaken by film/television studios, online media, and independent content creators, and there does not appear to be much room in academia for producing it. It is thus up to historians to look for avenues to contribute and collaborate with comedians, which could help broaden the public role of academic historians.

The inclusion of historians in media with a large target audience, like comedic history, could also work to counter the proliferation of conspiratorial-minded historical entertainment. Ancient Aliens may be the best example for this genre, and its massive popularity has drawn the ire of many professional historians, archeologists, and scientists. The participation of historians within the world of comedy would not by itself de-popularize conspiratorial accounts of history, but such participation could re-introduce academic historians to a contemporary media landscape plagued by conspiracy theories. Such a step would have the added benefit of a broader collaboration between the world of academia and the world of popular art. These spheres often appear mutually exclusive, but both are primarily concerned with producing narratives, ideas, and reflections on who we are. There is also a longstanding relationship between academic expertise and art. Historians are often consulted by documentary filmmakers and period-piece filmmakers, but the gulf between historians and comedians (and other popular artists interested in history, like some musicians) remains vast. At the expense of sounding simplistic, collaborations between historians and comedians could often educational entertainment, while providing the consumer market historical entertainment that does not resort to conspiracy, speculation, and outright fabrication. 

            Shows like That Literally Happened! offer historians an opportunity to collaborate with comedians and review comedic history as a medium of history. Even though opportunities to collaborate with comedians are limited and contingent on production supplied by companies like Buzzfeed, these collaborations offer historians the opportunity to present historical knowledge in a digestible way to a large audience. Further, comedians and historians may not be so different in their concerns, as both direct attention to humanity’s ironies, hypocrisies, and sensitivities. Despite a lack of infrastructure supporting collaborations between historians and comedians, there is ample space for historians to engage with comedic history in our journals, websites, articles, and monographs. The recent move on the part of the American Historical Review to broaden their review section demonstrates the desire on the part of historians to broaden their horizons beyond the monograph. Incorporating our intellectual engagements with comedic history in our annals could be just as important as our inclusion of historical fiction and period pieces. More broadly, these engagements further enable us to address the lasting cultural importance of historical satire, from Voltaire to Drunk History.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at jakenewcomb.tumblr.com

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