Ken Burns Talks New York Drunks, His New Prohibition Documentary

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks to GOOD about his best drinking story, his new documentary Prohibition, and American drinking culture.

I suspect Ken Burns is lying to me about his best drinking story, but the iconic filmmaker has a reputation to maintain.

Burns’ latest project, a three-part PBS series on Prohibition, premieres Sunday night, so to celebrate the occasion, GOOD asked him to share his best booze story.

“My best drinking story is after the broadcast in 1990 of The Civil War, I was heading back to the editing room,” Burns says, referring to the magisterial history that confirmed his reputation as the country’s most respected documentarian.

“It was off 43rd Street, at the point, one of the seediest areas of Times Square, [near] Smith’s, a famous bar that’s been there forever. As I came up out of the subway, the side door of Smith’s opened up and this drunk came just ambling out of the side door of Smith’s, and I gave him a pretty wide berth, because he’s three sheets to the wind.”

No, Ken, don’t give him a wide berth! Have a drink with him!

“He’s staggering in the direction I’m going, he looks up at me and says, ‘I woorrrvvved Civil War,’ it was the most slurred thing I’d ever seen, and I suddenly imagine them showing The Civil War at Smith’s bar. The biggest lush voice* you ever saw, ‘I love The Civil War,’” Burns says. “I just assumed that somehow, everyone in Smith’s Bar and Grill, drinking their dinner, was transfixed by The Civil War. It gave me great pleasure to know that our audience extended outside the normal PBS demographics.”

His latest project has the opportunity to similarly expand viewership. Tracing Prohibition from its religious origins in the 19th century through its legislative enactment and all the messy, unexpected consequences that followed, Burns says he uncovered unexpected stories and found surprising resonance with current events.

“In all ways, human nature never changes,” he says. “This is a story of Prohibition; a story of single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with horrible, unintended consequences; it’s the story of demonization of recent immigrants to the United States; it’s the story of a whole group of people who feel they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back; it’s the story of the loss of civil discourse, and smear campaigns.”

Burns grew up when the drinking age was still 18, so I asked him whether there were lessons from Prohibition that could apply to the way we regulate alcohol today. (I also hoped, to no avail, that he might share some youthful indiscretions.)

“If you take just college culture and isolate it, the drinking age at 18 didn’t make alcohol so illicit,” Burns says. “There was no pre-gaming, which was also done in Prohibition times, by the way: Because liquor was illegal, it was often more convenient to drink at home and just come loaded. You didn’t have binge drinking the way it’s sort of institutionalized now. The illicitness makes you drink more. Overall drinking went down with Prohibition, [but] those who did drink ended up drinking more.”

His major takeaway was that the complex problems of society rarely have a silver-bullet solution.

“There are a lot of horrible unintended consequences that come out of Prohibition, like organized crime,” he says. “It’s been a cautionary tale whenever this interest group or that interest group comes around with a cure-all, ‘if only there was a ban blank amendment.’ I think we’ve been rightfully and thoughtfully suspicious, always worried about those unintended consequences.”

Still, Burns is not a polemicist. “I’m in the 'let me tell you a good story' business, grateful that you’ve given me your attention. The takeaway would be that you made a really dramatic and compelling story, sometimes sexy, sometimes violent and deadly, sometimes fascinating.”

I’m now convinced to tune into Prohibition, but I still haven’t satisfied my curiosity about the drinking habits of the man behind it; I can’t watch Boardwalk Empire without thinking about a cocktail (Burns: “We live in an age when the whole speakeasy culture is making a comeback.”), so how can someone deeply immersed in documenting the most important alcohol event in the nation's history not be affected? At least he confirmed that his film company “definitely served alcohol” at the wrap party.

“Well, we work really hard and at the end of the day I’ve been known to have a nice drink, and people do, when we’re out on the road, buy that,” Burns says.

If you happen to run into Burns, buy him a drink. See if he’ll tell you a story.

* Burns does a great drunk voice, which is one of the reasons I think he’s holding back on the boozy story front. Back to top.

Photo courtesy of Ken Burns.

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