Like many of Moment’s readers, I have been a diehard Mel Brooks fan since before my bar mitzvah. As a youth I loved the satire of Spaceballs, the absurdity of The Producers, and even the fourth-wall-breaking surrealism of the yet-to-be-cancelled Blazing Saddles. But of all of Mel’s movies, my absolute favorite was History of the World Part I. Perhaps it’s the zaniness, the sardonic humor, or just the way the film pokes fun at history: In any case, the song from the film’s famed segment on the Spanish Inquisition—featuring Brooks as Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada and a synchronized swimming dance routine—has been and forever will be stuck in my head.
For the uninitiated, History of the World Part I is a 1981 film composed of comedic segments satirizing history, including the Paleolithic Era, ancient Rome, the aforementioned Spanish Inquisition, revolutionary France, and even the distant future, where Jews fly through space. The title of the movie is a play on Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, which was originally meant to be a five-volume series, but only the first was published. It was a surprise, then, when it was announced that a sequel to the film, in the form of a television show, History of the World Part II, was in the works. The eight-episode series, released on March 6, features an ensemble cast of actors, humorists and other entertainers. Comedians Ike Barinholtz, Nick Kroll,and Wanda Sykes inhabit the starring roles, with one of the three appearing in almost every sketch.
The show, much like the movie before it, is composed of sketches poking fun at various historical figures, with much of the same wit, weirdness and irony. But while Part I and Part II have largely the same premise, they execute it differently. In Part II, Mel Brooks replaces the late Orson Welles as the narrator in the series. Moreover, the sketches in Part I are chronological, whereas, in Part II they jump forward and back constantly. Similarly, the pacing in the series ebbs and flows more than its film predecessor. Despite these notable changes, History of the World Part II works.
There are a lot of reasons to like this new series. Chief among them is the talent of the ensemble cast, which includes Jack Black as Joseph Stalin, Josh Gad as William Shakespeare, and Dove Cameron as Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, among others. But Barinholtz, Kroll and Sykes hold the show together. Kroll in particular carries much of the weight of the project. Best known for The League and Big Mouth, he takes center stage as the nasal, shtetl-dwelling Schmuck Mudman, as Galileo and even as Judas. The latter performance is one of the series’ best. In a play on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, entitled Curb Your Judaism, Kroll, as Judas, is joined by Curb Your Enthusiasm regular J.B. Smoove. Kroll does his best Larry David impression, imposing David’s foibles and mannerisms onto Judas as he betrays Jesus. The whole scene is irreverent, deeply satirical and, most importantly, hilarious.
Sykes is similarly outstanding. In her lengthiest segment, she plays real-life Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm during her historic 1972 run for the presidency. Or rather, Sykes plays Chisholm who is in turn playing a fictionalized version of herself in a 70s-style sitcom about her campaign, with the goal of publicizing her campaign. While the premise might be perplexing, the execution hits the mark, as Sykes navigates surrealist scenes of 70s politics, all while engaging in kooky sitcom shenanigans.
Similarly, though Mel Brooks doesn’t appear physically in any of the sketches, he steals the show twice during the series, appearing with his head superimposed over an incredibly muscular body. It’s jarring, but funny.
In addition to some stellar performances, there are also some references and nods to the original film. The most evident of these are extensions of the famous “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space” sketches from History of the World Part I. Similarly, Part II has an abundance of Jew jokes—even more than the notable number made in the film, be it Kroll’s aforementioned Shmuck Mudman, Jason Alexander as a civil war era mohel, or Seth Rogen’s unsettling take on the biblical Noah. And while they don’t all land, they serve as the most immediately recognizable form of continuity between the two projects.
While there is much to praise about History of the World Part II, there are likewise some issues with the series. The most notable problem, although no doubt intentional, is the way the tone of the scenes oscillates. This comedic device was used in the 1981 film, as when Comicus (Mel Brooks) performs for emperor Nero, which then turns into a farcical chase around his palace. In one scene in particular in Part II, in which Barinholtz’s Ulysses S. Grant is undercover in a southern town called Rockridge (although very specifically not the Rockridge from Blazing Saddles), the tone and music change some seven or eight times, from chipper to tense in the course of just a few minutes. It is at times deeply confusing and comes off as just a bit overdone.
Similarly, many of the social media-based jokes fall flat. Be it Galileo on the platform “TicciTocci” or Typhoid Mary on “Itch,” they just miss the mark.
In addition, the time jumps are all over the place, with some plots being resolved in an episode or two, and others taking the entirety of the series. Perhaps this was done intentionally, but it ends up being somewhat disconcerting and stands in contrast to the well-paced and relatively tightly cut film.
The most disappointing part of the whole series may well be the lack of Mel himself. His manic performance and expert delivery are part of what made the original film so great. And though he is represented in Part II as a narrator, through his writing, and as a disturbingly muscular computer generated Jesus, his presence in the sketches is sorely missed.
Overall, History of the World Part II serves as a fitting successor to the original. The series is a testament to the everlasting genius of Mel Brooks, but also passes the torch to the next generation. Nick Kroll in particular seems to take up the mantle of the irreverent Jewish humor exhibited so well in Brooks’ work. Here’s hoping for part III.
Opening Image: Ike Barinholtz as Leon Trotsky.