Mel Brooks‘ 1981 comedy History of the World Part I was one of his classics, featuring an anthology format that amounted to a bunch of sketches based on the Stone Age, biblical times, the Roman Empire, and, of course, the Inquisition. Brooks starred in many of the skits himself, along with such regular collaborators as Madeline Kahn, Carl Reiner, Cloris Leachman, and Sid Caesar.
It was always called “Part I,” and the end promised the arrival of a “Part II,” including specific sketches called “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space.” But a few decades passed until, 40 years after the original film, History of the World: Part II was announced as a multi-episode Hulu project in the fall of 2021.
The now 96-year-old Brooks, it was announced, would be involved, along with comedy stars Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz, and producers David Stassen and Kevin Salter.
Part II is Here
Now, a year and a half later, the series is finally here, with all eight episodes arriving on Hulu between March 6 and March 9. It follows the template of the original movie, with a series of comedy sketches, set in various periods throughout history.
The joke, about 50 percent of the time, is the anachronisms — Princess Anastasia (Dove Cameron) as a TikTok influencer, Jesus’ disciples re-enacting The Beatles: Get Back, that sort of thing. There’s even a Curb Your Enthusiasm bit… also involving Jesus, which probably would have been better if Larry David had participated along with J.B. Smoove.
But we do get the kind of things we expected, including out-of-nowhere raunch, as well as musical numbers, and near-constant references to Jews and Jewishness.
Not everything hits; the show’s batting average is somewhere between .250 and .300. But when it hits, it really hits.
The extended cast includes a long list of respected comedy stars of the moment — including seemingly half the cast of Abbott Elementary — and not so many veterans of the original, mostly because most of them are dead. Brooks is not on screen much, except for a couple of occasions when he is costumed as a muscleman, but we hear his voiceover frequently.
The main stars are Kroll, Sykes, and Barinholtz; Nick Kroll is in it so much that it feels as much like Kroll Show as anything Mel Brooks. The show also features an inspired bit featuring the concubines of Kublai Khan, in the style of a Real Housewives reunion; Kroll Show was so attuned to the rhythms of Bravo reality shows that it’s not a surprise to see that sensibility re-appear here.
The biggest laugh of the whole show is a recurring parody of Jackass whose central conceit I won’t spoil. The other running bits, though, are hit-and-miss. A running sketch with Barinholtz as a drunken Ulysses S. Grant takes a while to get going, even if it does lead to the series’ best musical number, “F-ck the North.”
And the story of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm is told as a 1970s Norman Lear-style sitcom, which is more impressive as a recreation of the aesthetics of Good Times-like shows than as comedy. But bravo to whoever had the idea of having George Wallace (the Black comedian) play George Wallace (the white segregationist governor.)
As for the certain sketches that you’re expecting, let’s just say that they don’t disappoint.
Will the new History of the World take its place in the Mel Brooks canon, with sketches becoming household names that get quoted all the time by comedy nerds? That I’m not sure, and it doesn’t seem likely to unseat I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson as the era’s greatest sketch comedy series. But it has enough high points that it was worth the more than 40-year wait.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.