‘History of the World, Part II’ Is a Mel Brooks Mixed Bag of Hits and Misses: TV Review
It took 42 years, but Mel Brooks is finally making good on a parody of a promise he never seemed likely to keep: Bringing “History of the World, Part II” to audiences far and wide. The filmmaker addresses that elephant in the room within the opening minutes of the new, eight-part Hulu series, admitting that he agreed to the project under two conditions — that there could be no repeat gags, and that he be made to look exactly like he did in the 1981 original film.
The show winks at both of those conditions by the end of the first episode, setting the tone for any unaware viewers that were expecting historical insight or veracity on world events.
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In “Part II,” a now 96-year-old Brooks returns as writer and producer, but aside from the aforementioned intro, he doesn’t appear onscreen. Instead, he picks up narration duties from Orson Welles, a gig that lessens as the episodes unroll. Now, it’s Nick Kroll who does most of the heavy-lifting, with directing, writing, producing and acting credits. He’s joined by actors-writers-producers Wanda Sykes and Ike Barinholtz, who are also ready to put their best Brooks impressions to the test.
Like its predecessor, “Part II” is anchored by characters based on historic people and events. It then pushes boundaries as far as possible in an array of sketches that range from fart jokes to word play to jabs at pop culture. Unlike the original, these sketches are snappier and designed for a TikTok-savvy audience (or Galileo’s “TicciTocci” in the world of this show). Audiences dive in and out of recurring worlds with a range of standalone bits in-between.
Kroll’s Schmuck Mudman character, for example, brings viewers in and out of the Russian Revolution, where an understated Jack Black plays a crooning, bullied Stalin character and Dove Cameron portrays Princess Anastasia as a social influencer. Meanwhile, Barinholtz’s boozed-up General Ulysses S. Grant dips in and out of the Civil War alongside a too-tall Abraham Lincoln (Timothy Simons), and Sykes stars in snippets of the sitcom parody “Shirley!” — a “The Jeffersons”-inspired take on groundbreaking Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
The faster pace is successful during those sketches when a joke lingers a little too long or the punchline falls flat. The crew is clearly playing the odds and throwing everything at the wall, taking on everything from “Real Housewives” to “Fiddler on the Roof.” If one or two gags land in a vignette, odds are audiences will keep watching to see what happens next. If not, the next sketch comes in hot, pulling viewers in a different direction. Add those sketches up and this isn’t a hilarious or groundbreaking show, but there are hidden gems that make it funny enough.
Star-spotting also becomes a bit of a game as the series progresses, with guest stars like Jason Alexander, Jay Ellis, Seth Rogen, Zazie Beetz, Taika Waititi, David Duchovny, Danny DeVito and Tyler James Williams appearing in random roles. It’s as though every comedian who was ever influenced by Brooks made it a point to stop by and have a laugh at themselves, whether their participation lands with audiences or not.
Kumail Nanjiani pitching his idea for the “Kama Soup-tra”? Sure. Jake Johnson as Marco Polo, offering to perform oral sex on himself so Kublai Khan (Ronny Chieng) will spare his life? Why not. Josh Gad reimagining Shakespeare as an idea-stealing showrunner in a writers’ room? Let’s do this.
That kind of range and speed ensures there’s something for everyone. But the comedy also risks alienating viewers who, say, love the cleverness and cameos in the “Curb Your Judaism” bit, but gag over Johnny Knoxville’s “Jackass” take on Rasputin (in which the self-proclaimed holy man chops off his own genitals while cameras capture all the angles).
That mixed bag is perhaps what makes this the perfectly imperfect Brooks sequel viewers have been waiting for. It’s updated enough to no longer feel like the now-problematic original and features far more inclusive jokes and bits. But it’s still over-the-top and simplistic enough in its design to appeal to the masses after a long day at work.
For Brooks, it’s a heck of a way to pass the comedic baton on his own terms. “History of the World Part II” features plenty of winks and nods to the filmmaker and his undeniable influence on comedy, but he only needs to be present enough to lend his stamp of approval as the next generation of satire-seekers take over.
In the words of the self-proclaimed national treasure, it’s good to be king.
Hulu’s “History of the World Part II” debuts on Monday, March 6 with two episodes premiering nightly (eight all together) through Thursday, March 9.
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