Mel Brooks’ ‘History of the World: Part II’ Gleefully Returns to the Past to Rearrange the Facts
It has been 42 years since Mel Brooks released “History of the World: Part I.” Since then an entire medium has been catching up to him. When the comedic genius released his hilarious revisionist collage of world events in 1981, its format of a sketch feature was a bit ahead of its time and left more than one critic scratching their heads. Saturday Night Live wasn’t even a decade old. With streaming having changed everything and the internet having made quick-consumption humor permanent, Brooks and team deliver “History of the World: Part II,” a sequel that had been promised at the end of the first movie, yet no one truly expected it.
Appropriately enough it’s a mixture of different bits and jokes spread out over 10 episodes on Hulu. Many of the sketches land while some don’t, but the uniting idea keeps it all very entertaining. Once again all kinds of historical events and personalities are cheerfully distorted, satirized or just mocked. Who knows, maybe some of these gags do come close to how it all actually happened. Brooks takes over a role he gave Orson Welles back in ‘81 and narrates, while also writing material with executive producers and writers Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz and Wanda Sykes (who also take on acting roles). The legend himself opens the series as a digitally de-aged self with fresh abs. Brooks is now 96 and one can almost sense which sketches are his (the credits don’t specify), particularly the ones with a more classic feel, satirizing history the average Gen Z viewer will be completely lost about.
While the series avoids staying with one time period too long, as in the movie which allotted 50 minutes to an Ancient Rome sketch, it does have a few stories that continue through the season. The cast is quite enormous with a whole roster of top comedy over generally famous names. There is also a free form style to the wackiness where absurdity and wit dance together. Jack Black plays a tender-hearted Joseph Stalin who gradually becomes a murderous tyrant over the workplace abuse he suffers serving tea and snacks to Lenin’s inner circle during the Russian Revolution. This particular event is one of the sketches that run throughout multiple episodes. While nothing tops Brooks’s famous, cleavage-sniffing Louis XVI (“it’s good to be the king”) in the original’s sections on the French Revolution, there are still hilarious bits all around. Danny DeVito plays a nerve-wrecked Tsar. Dove Cameron is an influencer Princess Anastasia, who gives beauty tips as the Bolsheviks advance, signing off with “war and peace!” Johnny Knoxville and some of his old “Jackass” colleagues do rowdy intervals where Knoxville plays Rasputin facing various attempts to kill him.
Nothing is sacred in “History of the World: Part II” and Brooks brings in some of his trademark humor to hilarious sketches about Jesus. “Curb Your Judaism” follows the apostles and their messiah in the same style as Larry David’s HBO hit, with Richard Kind as Peter. Jay Ellis plays a rather convincing Christ in a riff on steamy Black romances. Brooks also has plenty of Jewish humor with other characters such as a “Fiddler on the Roof”-inspired worker whose wife wants to kill Lenin, which is based on an actual event the average viewer will need to seek out in Wikipedia. Some of the puns and comedy wink back at some of his classic sketches like “The Spanish Inquisition.” Others are in that classic tradition so common of Brooks’s time and welcome, because at its best this show lets a legend have possibly a final showcase in the streaming era. Yet he still allows room for some of the raunchier forms of today’s comedy. We get to see Thomas Edison have sex with an early telephone.
Some of the drop-in stars are so good we hope they keep the sketches going in later material. Taika Waititi is a brainy Freud obsessed with revealing Oedipus complexes to his patients. Jack Black as Stalin has a brilliant song and dance number. Kumail Nanjiani really sells it as the author of the Kama Sutra, who tries to pitch the original version of his idea to skeptical publishers. Wanda Sykes plays Shirley Chisholm, the first Black American woman to run for president, in a continuous sketch done in the style of classic ‘70s television sitcoms titled “Shirley!” When Nixon and Kissinger drop in for dinner, the dialogue is politically biting and full of satirical fun, just wait for Kissinger’s phone number. Not every single sketch can land, of course, and once in a while there’s one that feels like it’s trying too hard, such as a bit about Marco Polo offering to give himself a blow job to please Kublai Khan (Ronny Chieng). In a wink at the end “previews” of “Part I,” we get a sketch about Hitler doing some ice skating competition that feels too easy.
Among the large roster there are also appearances by David Duchovny, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Zazie Beetz, Jillian Bell, Lauren Lapkus, Zahn McClarnon and many more. This helps give “Part II” the feel of a tribute of sorts to Brooks, whose work has influenced so many of the careers on display. Even more than “History of the World: Part I,” Brooks movies like “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles” are essential comedy classics. This series combines his voice with new ones. We can absolutely feel his writing, or its influence, in sketches like one where a drunken Ulysses S. Grant (Barinholtz) is sent on a mission by Abraham Lincoln (Timothy Simons), whose height keeps causing him problems and he eventually makes a joke about his head in absolutely bad taste. Yet we applaud because Brooks always liked to defy “good taste.” When the Roman soldiers come looking for Jesus, one of the apostles calls them the “ro ro,” and it’s not as if the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed much since. “History of the World: Part II” is a buffet of good and bad jokes, hilarious sketches, and some weaker sketches, and that’s also the point of the whole enterprise. Brooks always tried many angles and was never boring. This is bad history that more often than not, hits the funny bone.
“History of the World: Part II” begins streaming March 6 with new episodes premiering through March 9 on Hulu.