On December 9, Tom Whitcomb had exactly one beer… and then discussed an historical event.
While Madison has almost certainly made drunk history before, there’s only one instance in which it kinda sorta helped to create Drunk History.
Today, December 10, marks the 51st anniversary of the Lake Monona plane crash that killed 26-year-old soul singer Otis Redding. Though the event itself is a terrible tragedy, the legend surrounding it is fascinating. So fascinating that one drunken night circa 2004-05, actor Jake Johnson decided to tell his buddy Derek Waters all about it.
“This was before you could check things on the internet,” Johnson recalled to Larry King in 2016. “So a great story in a bar was just fact. And if you could tell a great story, then that was the truth.”
While getting wasted on Miller Lite, Johnson says, the future New Girl actor proceeded to tell his friend Waters a long-winded tale set around Redding’s Madison plane crash. (“It’s probably got two minutes of content… it took me 45 minutes…”)
At the core of the story was the last conversation between Redding and his beloved wife Zelma. As Johnson tells it:
“He gets on the plane, they kiss goodbye, he gets off the plane, comes off, goes in (the) 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.”
“Jake was so passionate about trying to convince me that Otis knew he was going to die when he got on that plane,” Waters told the New York Times in 2013. “But because he’d had a couple drinks, he was messing up the story. I thought it would be cool to re-enact that.”
So Waters asked Johnson to get drunk and tell his Madison-adjacent story again. Waters would record it and use celebrity actor friends to re-enact and call bullshit. Because for however entertaining as Johnson’s story may have been, it was bullshit. For one thing, Zelma Redding wasn’t touring with Otis and his band; she was at home in Macon, Georgia.
Johnson declined the offer to make Drunk History history, but the idea stuck. And from its web series beginnings, the Derek Waters co-created Drunk History is now an Emmy-winning television program currently in its sixth season on Comedy Central.
Unfortunately, Drunk History has never featured a story set in Wisconsin, let alone Madison. That said, Madison-born actors Bradley Whitford and Kevin “Brother of Chris” Farley have each appeared on the show, playing orator William Jennings Bryan and lexicographer James Murray, respectively.
No footage of Johnson’s story exists, but I have to imagine it’s incredible. He’s pretty much the Daniel Day-Lewis of acting drunk.