The town drunk typically dwells in a small enough town that he is the only conspicuous alcoholic. Larger cities may have more than one, but this term appears to come from around the 17th century; in the stereotype, when a city grows large enough to house a sufficient mass of town drunks, the area where they congregate becomes known as Skid Row.
Uses in fiction
In fiction, the town drunk character serves a number of functions.
- The town drunk may serve merely as a moral example and object lesson on the evils of drunkenness. This approach to the character is associated with the "temperance" movement, and peaked at the start of the twentieth century. The notorious Prohibition play Ten Nights in a Barroom portrays the inevitable fall into destitute drunkenness of a person who dared to take that "Fatal Glass of Beer", the title of another period drama working this vein. A town drunk who appears in Our Town by Thornton Wilder is perhaps the most often seen example of this version of the character. Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another famous example. In modern fiction, which tends to reflect the contemporary influences of the sobriety movement, the town drunk may get sober and set about revitalizing his life.
- The town drunk may play the role of the fool as a source of comic relief. "Otis" from The Andy Griffith Show is this type of town drunk, as are many of the denizens of Moe's Tavern such as Barney Gumble from The Simpsons. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the Porter who appears in Act II, Scene 3, is also a type of "comic relief" drunk who serves to temporarily lighten the mood of the play right after a heinous regicide has taken place.
- In a similar vein, the town drunk may serve as a semi-comic proxy for the Wise Old Man. He may disrupt public meetings, either for comic effect, or by dispensing what proves to be wisdom in a garbled and comic form. Or, in this incarnation, the character may introduce the hero to some of the worldlier sorts of wisdom, as well as forming a contrast to his truly heroic character. One prototype for this version of the town drunk is supplied by Shakespeare's Falstaff, who appears in both parts of Henry IV and in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Another would be the drunk who appears in Team America: World Police at the low point of the film, where his drunken ramblings inspire the hero to save the world.
- Bob Ewell is the town drunk who abuses his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, but he does not fill any of the above roles.
Because the town drunk is famous only for drinking heavily, there are relatively few historical figures who inform the stereotype of the town drunk. However, Mad Jack Mytton and his antics would appear to be a historical example. Mytton is an example of one variation on the character, the drunken aristocrat; another example, more frequently found in British humour than American, is the drunken clergyman. American humor, by contrast, is likely to produce a drunken politician, from a local mayor to a Senator --- as in, for example, the ending of National Lampoon's Animal House, revealing the future "Senator and Mrs. Blutarksi". A number of writers and artists have gained some notoriety from eccentric public performances while intoxicated; Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas are particularly notorious in this respect. The comedian W. C. Fields and his movie performances are often classic examples of the character.
The rake is another stock character associated with heavy drinking. However, the rake is invariably much younger than the town drunk, and the designation casts attention on sexual excess and spending money more than on strong drink.
- Walter J. Engler, "A Project on Our Town for Communication Classes", College English, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Dec., 1952), pp. 150-156
- John E. Richters and Dante Cicchetti, "Mark Twain Meets DSM-III-R: Conduct Disorder, Development, and the Concept of Harmful Dysfunction", in Development and Psychopathology 5 (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 5-29
- P. F. Murphy, "Living by His Wits: The Buffoon and Male Survival", in Signs 2006 vol 31, num. 4, pp. 1125-1142.
- B. Wills, T. Erickson, "Drug- and Toxin-Associated Seizures", in Medical Clinics of North America, vol. 89, no. 6, Pages 1297-1321.