History of the world, part one is far from Mel Brooks’ most beloved film, even though “It’s Good to Be King” is one of the most enduring lines he’s ever written. It is, however, by far the one that most needs a sequel. After all, it’s been 42 years since Brooks wrapped up the movie with teasers for History of the world, part IIwhich was to include the skits “Hitler on Ice”, “A Viking Funeral” and, most memorably, “Jews in Space”. Blazing Saddles And Young Frankenstein are chilling classics, but they didn’t promise sequels they never delivered.
Well, we’re now in the era where no title is too old or obscure to demand a reboot or revival. So even though Brooks is now 96 and has largely confined his production to voice acting roles for nearly two decades, History of the world, part II is finally here, as an eight-part Hulu series.
I can’t reveal if the new version finally gives us full versions of “Hitler on Ice” or “Jews in Space”. What I can say is that the Hulu show is largely true to the spirit of the film, for better and for worse.
Where most of Brooks’ films have attempted to create something resembling a plot on which to hang the various jokes about farts, erections, and Frankenstein’s monster singing “Putting on the Ritz,” History of the world, part one was simply a collection of sketches set at famous moments in human history. And, like most films and sketch comedy shows, it was wildly uneven. The musical number about the Spanish Inquisition is one of the most inspired things in any film comedy, let alone the Brooks catalog. But apart from “It’s good to be the king”, the sequence which takes place during the French Revolution gives the impression of dragging on forever.
The streaming version is similar in bit-to-bit quality. Some are extremely funny, while others will leave you wondering how they got approved, let alone why they keep coming back from episode to episode. And even within those, there can be unexpected bursts of hilarity. One of the most important ongoing tracks features Ike Barinholtz as Ulysses S. Grant, who is desperate to end the Civil War so he will finally be allowed another drink. Almost none of this works, with one exception. Timothy Simons appeared in the role he was put on this earth to play: Abraham Lincoln, whose abnormal height turns everyday life into a painful drudgery.
Brooks is no longer the main creative force here, although he is an acclaimed writer, does voice-over narration, and somehow appears on camera in the opening episode. Instead, lead writers are Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, Barinholtz, and The Mindy Project alum David Stassen. There are references to various Brooks films, including Kroll and Pamela Adlon doing their own version of the “I’m hysterical!” scene of The producers, and some of the actors (Barinholtz in particular) are clearly inspired by Brooks’ rhythms as an actor.
But the series feels equal parts Mel Brooks and The Kroll Show. (Plus, a good chunk of the cast did voice work on Big mouth.) Almost every skit somehow filters the story through the prism of modern pop culture parody. And because many skits repeat from episode to episode, some of them end up spoofing multiple things. The Story of Jesus (played by Jay Ellis of Insecure) is at different times riffing on Calm your enthusiasm (with JB Smoove as one of the apostles), NotebookAnd The Beatles: Come Back documentary. And the Russian revolution manages to incorporate fiddler on the roofhip-hop, reality TV, social media influencers and – in one of the funniest gags of the whole thing – a take on Donkey where Johnny Knoxville himself plays the seemingly indestructible Rasputin. (“I’m Rasputin, and it’s ‘Get stabbed in the back and thrown in the Neva River!'” he announces at the start of one.)
Some of these recurring sketches land beautifully. I have never been sorry, for example, to see Sykes’ return as trailblazing presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, whose adventures are presented as if she were the star of a Jefferson-esque sitcom with a loud studio audience. But in many cases, the biggest laughs came from short one-off snippets, like Ana Fabrega from The Spookies as a Mesoamerican woman trying to avoid being a human sacrifice by telling her captors she’s not a virgin, or Sam Richardson as Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, who perpetrates the first history crank call.
History of the world, part II is, in other words, more or less what you might have expected from a long, long, long-delayed sequel to the film. I rolled my eyes when certain sketches came up again and again, but I also laughed more than enough to feel glad I watched it all. And if Hulu considers it a hit, I doubt we’d have to wait that many decades to get Part III.
The first two episodes of History of the world, part II begin streaming March 6 on Hulu, with two additional episodes released daily through March 9. I’ve seen the whole season.