‘The History of the World, Part 2’ Cast on Working With Mel Brooks: ‘This Is a Man Who Gets Up and He’s Ready to Work’
Yes, it’s good to be the king. But sometimes it’s nearly as good to be part of a legacy project initiated four decades ago by indisputable Hollywood comedy royalty — in this case, legendary writer, director, producer and performer Mel Brooks’ “The History of the World, Part 2.”
That was the prevailing spirit among the all-star assembly of contemporary comedy stars who turned out for the premiere of Hulu’s long-awaited follow-up to Brooks’ 1981 comedy classic “The History of the World, Part I,” the bulk of whom appear in the irreverent, sketch-style series and worship at the altar of the signature uproarious style of its creator, who – at age 96 – also serves as executive producer, narrator and overall guiding light.
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On the red carpet at the Hollywood Legion Theater, Nick Kroll, executive producer on the series alongside Wanda Sykes and Ike Barinholtz, said the trio’s extensive relationships across the comedy community served them well in recruiting top-tier players, “but then you have Mel Brooks.”
“We had incoming calls, [like] Johnny Knoxville calling to be like, ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know. Mel is my hero,’ and we took him up on that,” Kroll recalled. “[Mel’s]’s a magnet for talent, and so many of us were so deeply affected and transformed by his comedy that it allowed us to really bring together the best talent and comedy.”
Indeed, many of the modern-day luminaries featured in the series turned out for the premiere, including Knoxville, Sarah Silverman, Kumail Nanjiani, Hannah Einbinder, Josh Gad, Sam Richardson, Dove Cameron, Jack McBreyer, Pamela Adlon, Jason Mantzoukas, Natalie Morales, Timothy Simmons, Lauren Lapkus, Eugene Codero, Sarayu Rao, Will Sasso, Marla Gibbs and Ken Marino, who showed off his super-fandom by spontaneously singing the complete lyrics to the song “High Anxiety” in perfect Brooksian cadence.
Sykes said working with Brooks was both inspirational and aspirational. “This man is living through a pandemic, we’re pitching this show on Zoom and Mel shows up in a very nice, well-fitted blue blazer, a crisp white shirt, a little handkerchief, and it’s like ‘This is show business! This is a man who’s who gets up and he’s ready to work.’ To me, it’s like, ‘Yes – this is what I want to do.’ Like, there’s no retirement. You just keep going because we love what we do. And that’s what I saw: a guy who still loves what he’s doing, he’s sharp and he’s on top of it.”
Barinholtz, too, was still dazzled by the opportunity learn from the comedy icon. “Aside from the surreal nature of talking to him and having him laugh at your jokes and having him say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s good – let’s do it,’ early on, he said to us ’Hey, don’t be afraid to tell some dirty jokes.’ And that really made me happy and really freed us up to just kind of go all out and just really not be afraid of people getting mad at us, and we’re just really trying to honor him as much as we can by being the right amount of smart, stupid, and disgusting.”
The biggest challenge, Kroll admits, was diplomatically gatekeeping the cast members’ burning desire to meet Brooks. “When someone’s 96, it’s an easy one to be like, ‘Mel’s not available,’” he laughed, but cited one instance in which Jack Black, who plays Joseph Stalin in one sequence, was eager to meet his idol.
“I said, ‘Well, he’s not going to be on set, but I’m sure we could FaceTime him,’” Kroll recalled. “Hearing Mel thank Jack for being there, and Jack and him talking about [Brooks’ wife] Anne Bancroft and a play that Jack did in high school where Anne came backstage – it’s one of those moments where you’re like, ‘I can’t believe I get to even just be a witness to this!’”
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