History of the World, Part II Review

Mel Brooks presents the world the way it should have been, only funnier, with History of the World, Part II.

Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, and Ike Barinholtz in an ice rink in History of the World Part II
Photo: Hulu

As the American treasure himself says in the opening credits, Mel Brooks is a hero to some, and merely a legend to others. He broke ground in irreverent social commentary with Blazing Saddles, and rewired the knobs in the monster’s brain for Young Frankenstein. Brooks’ Hulu TV-sketch-series-masquerading-as-a-film-sequel throws more jokes at the viewer than almost any comedy in the History of The World, Part II. Not all of them land squarely, though the ricochets inflict sufficient comic collateral damage.

There is a lot we can learn from an anthology sketch series. All of which is graded on a curveball. Like History of the World, Part I, the series is made up of short gags, like Marco Polo’s (Jake Johnson) impromptu gift-exchange on his first trip to China, longer one-off sequences, and a few continuing stories. The eight-episode series is Brooks’ first creative project since composing the score to a Broadway musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein in 2006. He does not direct any of the episodes, but is credited as a writer, along with co-creator David Stassen and a stellar writing team.

In the 1981 film, Brooks acted in a number of parts, including a royal stand-in, a stand-up philosopher, a clumsy Moses, and a waiter at the Last Supper, though his shining moment was “Torquemada,” who choreographed the Spanish Inquisition. Sadly, Brooks doesn’t take on any roles, and is only rendered as an all-too-perfectly de-aged, CGI of his former self, with abs to die for, as narrator.

History of the World, Part I starred the top comedians of the time, many part of Brooks’ regular troupe, including Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Gregory Hines, and Sid Caesar. The main stars of the series – Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz, and Nick Kroll – are having the time of their lives fitting into every crevice of modern history. Kroll hits highs with a semi-reluctant Judas, and a caterer to the Bolsheviks. His Galileo misses the missive on ancient TikTok, hoping a new marriage will avert a land war and the Pope won’t stretch him out like string cheese. Barinholtz pours General Ulysses S. Grant into a tall glass, and lets Timothy Simons’ President Lincoln crouch to conquer. Sykes takes on multiple parts with enthusiasm, sarcasm, and dynamic tension, but her role as Shirley Chisolm has the most deliciously biting satire. It packs twice the punch, not only mocking the political world of the time, but the era’s most beloved media. 

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The series uniforms Jason Alexander as a Union Army notary public, books Hannah Einbinder’s Amelia Earhart on a Bermuda Triangle getaway, and tasks David Duchovny with giving the least convincing impression of Howard Cosell he can muster. Seth Rogen gives a dry performance as a well-meaning Noah, who draws the line at cleaning up after animals. Hot off his teaching stint on Abbott Elementary, Tyler James Williams gives musical lessons on northern hospitality, and how inventing the bathtub pales in comparison to the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman.

The songs, as is consistent throughout Brooks’ works, are spectacular. Sometimes caustic, always melodic, they can turn tyranny into an evening at Fiddler on the Roof. They also offer amazingly prescient teachable moments. “Someday the world won’t judge us for who we are inside, they’ll only see our surface beauty, and every heart will open wide,” Dove Cameron sings as Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, a social media sensation during the Russian Revolution. 

The biggest lesson to be learned from History of the World, Part II is comedy can be politically incorrect while remaining staunchly progressive politically. This is not to say that all sides are not flayed, but the vitriol is poured much more judiciously on the people who wound up on the wrong side of the History of the World, either part.

In the film, Brooks played King Louis XVI of France. He squeezes, teases, and seizes whatever happens to grab his fancy, by royal decree, pleasing himself and taunting the audience, directly, because “It’s good to be the king.” He does nothing to humanize the aristocracy. In the series’ segment on the fall of the Russian empire, Stalin had a plan B. He is only overachieving to make up for a lifetime of humiliation. At the heart of every monster is a regular person who is irregularly monstrous.

Some of the jokes are universal, others contemporary in-jokes. At this point in time, Rasputin (Johnny Knoxville) is everybody’s favorite ‘Putin. The humor occasionally pretends to be subtle, but in the most obvious ways, like the phallic symbols Sigmund Freud’s (Taika Waititi) office. The father of psychiatry misspeaks as many references to sex as actual sentences. Though the biggest Freudian slips come in the ancient first edition of the “Kama Soup-tra.” The author loves soup and sex. If he’s not slurping, he’s eating soup. The sequence is a true culinary delight.

History of the World, Part 1 moved chronologically through time, starting with cavemen, and telling two million years in under about two hours. History is funny, but some jokes get old with the benefit of hindsight, others suffer for coming “too soon.” Brooks is not afraid to prematurely insinuate. Most history is written by the winners. Mel and his staff of writers take their historical knowledge primarily from the gossip-mongers. Those who whisper about the inbreeding of the Hapsburgs or brag about the many concubines of Kublai Khan (Ronny Chieng).

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The jabs work. Silliness does not mean stupid, and even low common denominator humor, like a prank call to Alexander Graham Bell (Barinholtz), can speak to power. The inventor admits the telephone is a group effort, and thanks everyone for letting him take sole credit. This is similar to a Shakespearean writers’ room meeting, with the Bard, played by Josh Gad, passing on renaming Romeo and Juliet something like “Friends with Benefits,” but retaining the rights.

I don’t care if he’s been doing this schtick since inventing “The 2,000 Year Old Man” with Carl Reiner, it is personally very comforting to have Brooks back in a series TV format. He has made amazing works of unchallenged brilliance in iconic films Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977) and Spaceballs (1987), and conquered Broadway, hijacking it for seasons at a time. But to me, he’s never topped Get Smart. History of the World, Part II takes place in a time where we’re all talking into our shoes, and the series plants its feet in the present. All these yesterdays take place today, because they are always happening. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If we learn nothing else from History of the World, Part II, Brooks has done his job well.

History of the World, Part II will stream as a four-night miniseries on Hulu starting March 6.


4 out of 5