If you don’t count the years he worked as a drummer, a “tummler” and a teen comic in the Catskills, Mel Brooks began his show business career in television, writing for Sid Caesar at the beginning of the medium. In the mid-1960s, he returned to co-create “Get Smart,” and now he’s back again, with Hulu’s “History of the World, Part II,” a sequel to his movie “History of the World, Part I” from 1981.”
That film, a series of skits set in the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, the Spanish Inquisition and Revolutionary France, is not the film for which he will be best remembered, or probably would like to be, but it is the only Brooks movie suggesting a second edition, with the option built into the title. Given that it’s one of his lesser films, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from the series, and while it takes a while to get on its feet, once it established its rhythm and breadth I was completely sold .
“The History of the World, Part II” is both a sequel and a redemption – vulgar, funny, fun and smart about history and the modern world. It’s made with (and you might guess primarily by) other, younger hands – well, they should be, considering Brooks is 96 – but it’s recognizably School of Mel, with an added vibe of tribute and celebration.
Most notable and most visible among his new hires are Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, and Nick Kroll, who take on a number of roles throughout the show’s eight episodes. Allen are credited as executive producers and writers (such as Brooks, or “American treasure Mel Brooks,” as he introduces himself), and with his mix of short pieces and longer interspersed continuous stories, his media and social media parodies, it is formally resembles Kroll’s great “Kroll Show”. (Kroll himself is the show’s most Brooksian presence, especially in his role as shtetl purveyor of mud pies, though he also pays homage to Gene Wilder’s “I’m hysterical” scene from “The Producers”.) Brooks, who starred in the film (“perhaps a mistake”, he admits at the top), does not appear on screen here, at least not in his own body, but he narrates, in a usual tone of excitement, and his voice alone – a cultural memory Running back 62 years to when he and Carl Reiner first made their “2000 Year Old Man” routine public — does a lot to set the stage.
Make no mistake: no matter how many ghosts entered, this is a Mel Brooks production. The hallmarks of his style are here: historical figures treated in a modern vernacular, founded with “the 2000-year-old man”; disrespect for the line between stupid and smart, subtle and ridiculous; lavish musical numbers; the actors’ metafictional awareness that they’re on a show (and the sense that everyone else is in show business); silly puns; and a rich amount of Jewish humor, that is, humor written not only by Jews, but also about Jews. (There’s less of that around than you’d think considering we run Hollywood – me kid, letter writers.) There are fart jokes, pee jokes, and puke jokes – the last of which, I surprise myself when I tell, is the basics of a special and funny piece that takes place on D-Day.
Some will certainly find the series blasphemous, given the various take on Jesus – also an early subject of “The 2000 Year Old Man” – in parodies of “The Notebook”, Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back” and a spot-on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with JB Smoove making a brilliant turn on his Leroy as the Apostle Luke and Kroll as a Larry David-ized Judas (starring Richard Kind as Peter, hurting Judas by not giving him a ticket to his one-man show “My Father is a Galilean, my mother is a Moabite, and I am in therapy.” In addition, there is a riot at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, in which the bishops agree to present Jesus as white from now on (he is played by black actor Jay Ellis) and blaming the Jews for his murder. The man who wrote “Springtime for Hitler” isn’t about to soften his brand name at 96; for his disciples, it’s a chance to make a to participate a little in that action (Hitler is back in the “On Ice” series, a short cut from the movie that has been blown out into a longer one.)
Where “Part I” was populated with a contingent of already older comics, including Henry Youngman, Shecky Greene, Jackie Mason, and Jack Carter, as if a Friars Club table had one day decided to relocate itself to a studio backlot, “Part II” teems with the faces of a few generations of contemporary comedy and comedies. (One imagines them getting the message, “Mel Brooks – you want to be here,” and clearing the calendar to make sure they were.)
The sizable cast, in larger and smaller roles, includes Pamela Adlon (singing and dancing and preaching the Russian Revolution of 1918), Danny DeVito (as the Romanov Tsar, with a Beverly Hills family), Josh Gad (as Shakespeare, the terror of his writer’s room), Zahn McClarnon (as a Civil War Native American soldier—”the one in the 1860s,” says Brooks, “not the one coming in 2024″—with a yen to do stand-up) , Kumail Nanjiani (as the author of the Kama Sutra, originally a cookbook), Ronny Chieng (as Kublai Khan), Zazie Beetz (as Mary Magdalene), Jack Black (as Josef Stalin), Fred Armisen (flogging of a pyramid scheme, with real pyramids, in ancient Egypt), Marla Gibbs (in a 1970s style sitcom starring Sykes as Shirley Chisholm), Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Paul Scheer, Arturo Castro, Jon Daly, Jason Alexander, Andrew Rannells, Reggie Watts , Rob Corddry, D’Arcy Carden, Jason Mantzoukas, Jillian Bell and, from “Abbott Elementary”, Q uinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams (plus Janelle James among the writing staff). There are more.
As popular as it has been over the decades, Brooks’ work, at its low or high level, is not for everyone; the easily offended need not apply. (For the situationally offended, the next good sketch can erase the bad taste of the last one.) “Part II” is typically rude, rude, stupid, learned, erudite, and delightful, in turn or even all at once, and it may be the only television series that would dare or even dare to joke about a pop singing group called Bolsheviks to Mensheviks. That’s good enough for me, and maybe for you.
‘History of the World part II’
When: Every moment
Judgement: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17 years old)