Fans of Mel Brooks’ 1981 romp through the annals of Western Civilization, History of the World, Part 1, will likely come into the follow-up Hulu series with one burning question: Will Part II deliver on the trailer that closes out the 42-year-old film? Will we actually get to see any of the segments it teased—“Hitler on Ice” or that viking funeral with the shocking twist or the semitic Star Wars sendup “Jews in Space”? Sadly, this is a question that Hulu has asked me not to answer. What I can tell you is that, for an unnecessary sequel realized in the age of infinite derivative content, History of the World, Part II is pretty damn funny.
A collaboration between Brooks, producer David Stassen (The Mindy Project, Blockers), and co-writers and stars Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, and Ike Barinholtz, the 8-part series, rolling out March 6-9 with two episodes per day, makes a solid capstone to the 96-year-old legend’s career. While Brooks, who may be past his physical-comedy years, mostly limits his onscreen presence to narration, he recruited an enormous cast of extremely funny people to bring his sketches to life. Kumail Nanjiani, Quinta Brunson, Pamela Adlon, Jason Alexander, Jake Johnson, Jenifer Lewis, Zahn McClarnon, and Danny DeVito are just a few standouts among dozens of famous guest stars. Wonderfully intergenerational, the show is both an anointing of the many heirs to Brooks’ comedy throne and proof that he remains relevant after all these years.
The creative team has made a few smart tweaks for 21st century TV. Rather than repeat Part I’s chronological structure, which involved lengthy segments set in Ancient Rome and during the French Revolution, Part II moves quickly between periods and sketches—kind of like Kroll’s mid-2010s Comedy Central hit, Kroll Show. A handful of serialized story lines make shrewd use of the episodic medium. A biography of Jesus, played by Insecure heartthrob Jay Ellis, begins as a tale of cranky Judas’ (Kroll) betrayal in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm (complete with J.B. Smoove as Luke), then morphs into The Notebook when he meets Mary Magdalene (Zazie Beetz), and later graces us with a left-field parody of Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back in “The Last Supper Sessions.” Less consistent but occasionally hilarious is “Shirley!,” which casts Sykes as Shirley Chisholm in a sitcom à la Norman Lear about the first Black Congresswoman.
Not that Part II lacks Brooks’ signatures. Episodes are peppered with punny grandpa jokes that, if you’re familiar with his filmography, are just as subjectively endearing as they are objectively groan-worthy. (A sketch set in Shakespeare’s writers’ room finds one character typing notes on a “MacBethBook.”) There are song-and-dance numbers; a Civil War ditty called “F-ck the North,” performed by Abbott Elementary’s Tyler James Williams and Tim Baltz of The Righteous Gemstones, made me laugh, even though it doesn’t quite equal Part 1’s Spanish Inquisition barnburner. Speaking of which, while it’s also somewhat more inclusive of non-Western history (don’t miss Nanjiani pitching the publishers of ancient India on Kama Souptra: From Soup to Nuts), Part II remains every bit as Jewish as its predecessor. (Bet you didn’t know that a mohel played an integral role in Robert E. Lee’s surrender.) Well-earned callbacks to Brooks classics like Blazing Saddles and The Producers abound.
Each episode has its clunker jokes and a flimsy sketch or two. Social-media humor is overdone these days, and Galileo (Kroll) as content creator is far from the most effective example of it. Alexander Graham Bell’s (Barinholtz) first crank call gorges on low-hanging fruit. An ancestry.com bit about how everyone is somehow descended from Kublai Khan might’ve been funnier if Key & Peele hadn’t done essentially the same sketch more than a decade ago with Thomas Jefferson.
But Part 2—a sequel to a movie that made multiple “walk this way” gags and a banana-peel slip work through pure chutzpah—hits more often than it misses, which gives it a better batting average than SNL or the recent return of Inside Amy Schumer. In many cases, its success is a function of smart casting. Timothy Simons, who played noxious beanpole Jonah Ryan in Veep, is exactly the right person to wear Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. And if you can get Johnny Knoxville, why not have him spoof Rasputin’s famous unkillability in a Jackass clone called (groan) Jackrasp?
While not every aspect of his movies, Part 1 very much included, has aged well, Brooks comes into the controversy-riven 2023 comedy landscape with one big advantage over most old-school funny men: He has always known when to bring a wider range of voices into the writers’ room when the material calls for multiple perspectives. This time, that group includes Abbott’s Janelle James, Los Espookys co-creator and star Ana Fabrega, The Chair writer Jennifer Kim, and late-night vets like Emmy Blotnick, Sergio Serna, and Lance Crouther. The result is humor that feels casually multicultural and inclusive, from a Russian shtetl R&B group called Bolsheviks II Mensheviks that sings “I’ll make borscht for you” to Middle East peace talks that break down over the question of which country invented hummus to Sykes and Hacks’ Hannah Einbinder in a faux commercial for Amelia Earhart’s lesbian bar in the Bermuda Triangle. Brooks ends up looking more current than some comedians half his age, with his legacy as one of our all-time greatest satirists intact. Once again, it’s good to be the king.
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