When Emmy-nominated production designer Chloe Arbiture — the only woman to get the nod in her category — first joined Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” on season four, she realized that the main challenge was going to be the show’s rapid production pace.
“There’s 10 episodes, and we shoot three stories per episode and one a day,” says Arbiture. “Each story has its own time period and up to 14 different sets. On top of that, we have no prep. Everything has to be shot in a single day.”
Created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, the show’s liquored-up version of American history features an inebriated narrator and a changing cast of actors and comedians who travel across the country re-creating historical events.
To keep up, the crew maintains a brutal schedule. “The call is at 7 a.m. every day, but the art departments arrives at 5 a.m.,” Arbiture says. “By 7:45 a.m. we’re busy shooting, and by 11 a.m. we’re done and the set is already broken down.”
The show uses miniatures, backdrops and 2D scenery to create nontraditional sets that lend themselves to the comedy and story at hand. “Derek, the host and director, is a really big fan of the community theater aesthetic, so we often lean into that, as it helps us tell the story,” Arbiture explains. “Miniatures mean that no idea is off-limits.”
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She cites an episode in which “we had to re-create this real-life molasses flood in Boston and build an entire city covered in the stuff on a very small budget.” The solution? “We built the whole of downtown Boston in a 1/87th-scale miniature and then just dumped a ton of molasses on it. It worked perfectly. It’s all about telling these stories in creative ways.”
Arbiture stresses that the aim is “always to make the stories as historically accurate as possible. All the research and the execution serve that end. We never try to make the set design, costume design, hair or any of that stuff comedic. The comedy always comes from the drunken narrator. We don’t try to make fun of the history itself.”
Arbiture’s Emmy nomination, which is for outstanding production design for variety, nonfiction, reality or reality-competition programming, comes for her work on the “Hamilton” episode, appropriately narrated by Lin Manuel-Miranda. As the only woman nominated in the production design category, she says “it’s still a bit of a boys’ club, especially in the comedy category, which tends to be male-dominated more than drama — so I’m very happy to be nominated. In fact, nearly all my crew are women, so I’m thrilled we’re seen as an equal creative force to men.”