Kristin Wiig as Patty Hearst, Aubrey Plaza as Sacagawea, Jack Black as Elvis. To some these roles would sound like serious Oscar-bait. But to fans of Drunk History, they are just a few of the famous figures resurrected by comedy all-stars for reenactments of great moments in American history… as told by an intoxicated narrator.
So what was it like to create the costumes for these fractured versions of famous figures? “It felt like we were doing college theatre or a play,” said Drunk History costume designer Christina Mongini, whose other credits include The League and Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Every day we shot a different mini movie in a different time period. It was fast and furious, but that lent itself to creativity. Sometimes you can get away with something that you might not have gotten away with of you’d had more time to plan it.”
With a revolving door of guest stars and a tight production schedule, Mongini counted on creative lightning to strike. “I’d fit them in the 15 minutes before they’d go to set,” she explained. “[None of the actors] really knew what they were doing until they showed up. They weren’t given scripts, they were just told who they were going to play. [When] I did their costume fittings, it was the first time they [started to see] what was happening.”
Thanks to the offbeat, do-it-yourself look of the show, the guest stars often got involved in the costume design process. Read to see what Mongini had to say about the cast’s outlandish looks — from her actress who brought in her own personal collection of Victorian costumes, to the comedian who showed up with his monogrammed Evel Knievel suit — and find out how the designer is recycling some of the period costumes from Drunk History for the characters on The League.
Entertainment Weekly: What were the unique challenges of designing costumes for Drunk History?
Christina Mongini: We needed to find that middle ground of having the costumes still look DIY and a little bit off [like the original Funny or Die series], but… not be too distracting. That was the biggest challenge, because you can’t just plan on something looking bad. You have to plan for it to all look good, and then take [some of the good details] away. [Series creators] Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner really wanted to maintain the sketch comedy aspect of it. It was low-budget, so our resources were limited, which helped. It definitely was a challenge to find that place where I felt okay about sending a character off to get in front of the camera. It was like, “Okay, fine. You’ll wear your Nike [sneakers] , and that’ll give it that [DIY] quality.”
How did you get what you needed with such a small budget?
I didn’t work on any of the web series but… I’m pretty sure we had more money to do this, although it was still at the lower end of the spectrum because it’s sketch comedy. For big [crowd] scenes like The Alamo and Spanish armies, we used costume rental houses and we ended up making a lot of stuff. We mixed and matched. We would find things in rental houses to help sell the period, but then we’d also do a lot of arts and crafts to try and create those silhouettes… We rented from our usual favorite houses — Universal, Western, Warner Brothers, and ABC Costumes — and I have a huge stockpile of things that I’ve been collecting since high school. It validated my hoarding for so many years because we used a lot of pieces for multiple eras. We would also kind of cheat. In Lincoln’s deathbed, Mary Todd is wearing a shawl and a blouse that is probably a 1970′s piece that I had in my kit. We used it there and then we used it again for Patty Hearst in a different way. We — I couldn’t have done it without my creative team, Jamie Redwood and Jill Lucas – did a lot of that. You find the silhouette and then you find whatever piece of clothing is going help make that silhouette happen. Derek and Jeremy wanted that. They didn’t want it to look like, “Call up Western Costume and get a head-to-toe outfit!” perfect.
Tell us about the fast-paced nature of shooting this show.
We had a lot of prep in terms of knowing what stories we were going to be shooting. So we took the prep time to make our picture boards. We tried to absorb and saturate ourselves in the period. But, like a lot of shows, sometimes casting comes in last-minute when all is finalized, [and says], “So and so is finally in, go get her stuff.” We knew enough to stockpile of period pieces. There were a lot of costumes that ended up being last-minute only because of the process of figuring out what it was going to be and what it was going to look like and how we were going to pull it off. That added to the fun of it. At the time, you’re like, “We’re never going to get this done,” but I think back now and that fast pace kept our creative juices [flowing].
How much did the guest stars collaborate with you on their costumes?
It varied. As a designer, I like to collaborate with actors. Obviously, I bring my vision, [but] they are the ones wearing the costumes. It’s their character, so it’s important for them to feel like it works. When it doesn’t work, you can see it on their faces. With Drunk HIstory, everybody was happy to be there and game for anything, so no one really cared if I put them in something I found at a thrift store for a dollar. Everybody came to play. Some people got excited looking at the rack and trying things on, and some came with ideas. Lisa Bonet, for instance, has an expensive collection of Victorian costumes, and she came in with exquisite pieces. We got to use some of her things mixed in with some of mine. As much as people wanted to be involved, I welcomed it. It’s more fun that way. It feels like dress up. Also, the [guest stars were] so inspiring.
In tonight’s episode, Aubrey Plaza is hysterical as Sacagawea. What can you tell us about her costume?
We [used] trims we bought at Jo-Ann Fabric, and we made her headpiece. She had to be pregnant, so we used pillows — that we bought at either Ross or Marshalls — that were taped up around her belly underneath the costume. They were these weird, little round ruffled pillows. When I looked at her [in character] I keep picturing these really tacky, cheapest-clearance-at-Ross pillows underneath her dress. It made me laugh so hard watching her deadpan delivery and knowing what was underneath that dress.
What about Kristen Wiig’s Patty Hearst costume?
The beret she’s wearing when they rob the bank is a beret that I’ve had for probably 20 years. I wear it all the time. I had it at my house and thought, “This is Patty Hearst’s beret,” so I brought it in and we used it. She was amazing. She’d put something on and become Patty. During our fittings, we laughed a lot. It was fun to dress her.
Luke and Owen Wilson play Will Keith Kellogg and John Harvey Kellogg, respectively. What was it like working with them?
Owen being in that white outfit was already so funny, and then he put that wig on. The gloves are the dollar gloves you buy at Smart & Final to wear for restaurant work. He walked off and then Luke came in and it was the same thing. They walked in to wardrobe, laughed, and went and did their scene. I don’t have any stories about it because it went off so seamlessly. It happened organically.
What were Jack Black (as Elvis) and Dave Grohl (as a member of Elvis’ entourage) like?
I showed up to do [the fitting] and he pulled out this leather Evel Knievel suit — that I guess he wore at a Vanity Fair shoot with Annie Leibovitz years ago — and it had his initials on the sleeves. It was the most amazing thing ever, but we didn’t get to use it. What he ended up wearing, my team went out hunting high and low for it. They found the jumpsuit and that belt, and the shirt was a piece I’d had for 15 years that happened to fit him. The stars aligned… The minute he put on his suit, he was in character and would start doing karate kicks. Dave was the same. He was really down [for anything] and happy to be there. His fitting was fun because he’d try on the craziest polyester and leather stuff. It was like, “What’s the tightest thing you have? Great, that’s what [I'm] going to wear!”
Is there one character that you enjoyed creating more than any other?
I don’t know if I can actually say this is a favorite, but… doing Dolly Parton was amazing. I love Dolly Parton. Being able to dress Casey Wilson as Dolly, to put her in those gowns with the jewelry and the jumpsuits and then hearing her be Dolly Parton was a high point for me. Her costumes were spectacular.
Now that you’ve wrapped Drunk History, you’re working on season five of The League. How’s that going?
It’s a gear shift, but [The League is] also comedy. I feel lucky that I get to work on shows that make me laugh. The two shows differ, obviously, in that one takes place in present day and one does not, but it’s that same scrambling to find costumes. Having a [smaller] budget to work with requires being creative. A lot of the same pieces I used on Drunk History are in the wardrobe trailer for [The League] and I’ll re-use them in a different way. I get to do cute girl stuff for Jenny [Katie Aselton] and shop at contemporary stores, but I’m also still putting together things for Andre [Paul Scheer] and the guest stars. I like being able to get a little colorful with some stuff that I’ve been hoarding for years.
Drunk History airs tonight on Comedy Central at 10/9c.