Great Men, Greater Gags: Talking with the Team and Cast of History of the World, Part II

Comedy Features History of the World, Part II
Great Men, Greater Gags: Talking with the Team and Cast of History of the World, Part II

Mel Brooks may not have been Hollywood’s public historian for two thousand years, but it’s safe to call him a kind of vaudevillian elder statesman. In the 1950s, Brooks and Carl Reiner debuted their “2000-Year-Old Man” routine, a two-hander that made audiences roar on The Ed Sullivan Show and culminated in the release of a full-length comedy album in 1975. Reiner, as the straight-man, interviews Brooks, a 2000-year-old man who is remarkably spry for his age. When asked questions like what he did for work back as a caveman, he answers, “Thousands of years ago, there was no heavy industry… We would take a piece of wood, see, and rub it and rub it and clean it and look at it and hit earth with it and hit a tree with it…” 

“For what purpose?” Reiner asks. 

“Just to keep busy!” Brooks replies. “There was absolutely nothing to do. We had no jobs, don’t you see?”

Brooks has always known that any account of the past is a reflection and referendum on the present, as he proved further with his 1981 sketch comedy film, History of the World, Part I. Co-starring Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, and a score of big-time guest stars, the movie spoofs on Great Moments and Great Men, including the French Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition. And, of course, Brooks stands at the film’s center, popping in and out to deliver such classic lines as, “It’s good to be the king.”

In this long-awaited sequel, aptly titled History of the World, Part II, Brooks is less the tight-gripping monarch than the friendly regal presence, guiding over the production with a CGI cameo and some voice-over narration. But the future of the history of the world… ahem, part II… belongs to a new crop of comedians, including the show’s three executive producer-writer-stars, Ike Barinholtz, Nick Kroll, and Wanda Sykes. The conceit is still recognizably Brooks’, as are many of the running gags: plenty of industry commentary, gleeful shattering of the fourth wall, and a character named Schmuck Mudman. 

But time has moved forward, and the references have kept pace. Political commentary mixes with gross-out humor, as Typhoid Mary (Mary Holland) hosts an online cooking show; her show is pretty divisive, while Galileo Galilei (Kroll) and the last Romanov princess (Dove Cameron) have perhaps more considerable Insta-followings. Meanwhile, Sigmund Freud (Taika Waititi) teaches a Masterclass between coke bumps, and great works of history and literature are writers’ room-ed and focus grouped into commercial pablum. Alongside these re-imaginings are contemporary interludes—advertisements for ancestry tests and monument removals—which are then woven in-between running plotlines around the Civil War, the story of Jesus Christ, the Russian Revolution, and Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 failed presidential bid. The result is a chaotic quadruple-plus helix of comedy, chock-full of cameos and reminiscent of the acid trip that was Kroll Show (Comedy Central, 2013-2015). 

As director Alice Mathias tells Paste Magazine, “Our task was to reconcile the Mel Brooks canon and making it feel authentic to his work with a modern sensibility and one that also has a touch of feeling updated and original and of-this-time comedically and socially.” And showrunner, writer, and executive producer David Stassen confirms for Brooks fans that there are “little Easter eggs throughout: Blazing Saddles, The Producers, [and] Spaceballs,” among others.

In putting together the series, their aim was never to be comprehensive (wise, considering that the History of the World title has always been, I think, a joke about the pompous nature of the historical endeavor). The question they always asked while writing, Stassen insists, was “Is it good enough?” This included whether they would revisit Brooks’ famous “Jews in Space” teaser from the original film, a punchline we won’t spoil here but that has been sixty-plus years in the making.

By all accounts, the show’s comedy standards were high, but the vibe on-set was light. In describing the chance to play Chisholm alongside George Wallace and other luminaries, never mind to play dress-up with the help of costume designer Beth Morgan, Wanda Sykes declares, “It was like camp for me!” Guest star Pamela Adlon raves, “I felt, like, young. And I think we all felt that way. It’s kind of appropriate, because I grew up with Mel Brooks. Like, he formed me as an artist… It’s just, like, in my bones. Mel is there, part of the reel in my brain.” Zazie Beetz and Jay Ellis giggled over “New York legend” Richard Kind’s terrible British accent, Beetz explaining how he turned it into “an improv bit.” With Kind and “J.B. Smoove going at it,” Ellis continues, “everyone is crying from laughing so hard.” And Josh Gad kvetches about how “Ike Barinholtz, who wasn’t even in my sketch, ruined every take from laughing… At a certain point, if you’re going to ruin it, you want that person to at least be on camera!” (This reporter confirmed the claims with Barinholtz: “I was very, very blown away by how funny Josh was that day.”)

But as goofy as the show presents the Great Men and Greater Mess-ups of civilization, Adlon notes: “This is the perfect moment for this piece. It’s satire and parody and it’s risky and it’s dangerous and it’s the only way to go. We are not rewriting history and we’re not erasing history, and that’s the most important part of doing something like this.” 

“It’s really scary,” Sykes echoes. “I believe that the majority of Americans get their news from monologues on comedy shows. It’s great that we have it, but it’s sad that we need it.” Mathias and Stassen met this challenge by “punching up” with their comedy whenever possible, Matthias telling Paste that “our villains were always people in power who are corrupt” and Stassen emphasizing that jokes had to be “funny…  and highlight something that’s fair and true.”

In a satiric reimagining of the Council of Nicaea—all the bishops are alums of MTV’s The State, kept in line by long-suffering comedy VIP Jillian Bell—the new “It’s good to be the king” catchphrase emerges: “We’ve got ourselves a franchise here!” The franchise is Christianity, but, while we’re at it: why not History of the World, Part II, Season 2? (Or Part III, though “Part II, Season 2,” is funnier, no?) 

Stassen, Matthias, and Barinholtz all stress their desire to continue the series, as there was so much more to cover. “Our last bigger story we wrote,” Barinholtz explains, “was all about Cuba: the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose. We were really, really gearing up for it… [but we realized] ‘Oh, we’re going to barely make this work, so let’s put that one on the backburner.” (“I think Ike just wanted to show off his español,” Sykes cracks. Paste Magazine can neither confirm nor deny.)

In a direct plea to Hulu, here is the casting for Season 2 of Part II (maybe just Season 3), requested by the actors themselves:

Ike Barinholtz as… Al Capone

Wanda Sykes as… Madame C.J. Walker

Jay Ellis as… “George Washington Carver, maybe Booker T. Washington?”

Zazie Beetz as… “Queen Elizabeth I, maybe and the second?” 

Josh Gad as… “a young Mel Brooks” (a “meta” choice by his own account)

History and comedy have a lot in common as ever-renewing, ever-changing fields of seeing the world. They both speak truth to power, and they both have a long memory. In this four-part series, History of the World, Part 2 reminds us to be critical of our past and hopeful moving forward. There will always be more battles to fight, more injustice to overcome, but there will also be opportunities to make fun of Adolf Hitler.

Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a freelance writer with credits in The Washington PostLiterary Hub, and Ms.. Her book, Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television, came out in January 2022 from the University of California Press. Follow her at @sayanniething.

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