From time to time, we gather to have an emergency discussion about something that’s been on our minds, and recently, that topic has been the pleasure of comedy that’s perfectly happy to make beautiful, imbecilic jokes. So today, Jackson McHenry and Kathryn VanArendonk sit down to talk about “TV Critics! In! Spa—” … sorry, Mel Brooks’s new History of the World, Part II revival series on Hulu.
Jackson McHenry: Friends, Romans, people who watched Mel Brooks films as kids with their parents and learned inappropriate jokes too early, we are gathered here today to discuss a new Mel Brooks project, which is not a movie, but a … miniseries on Hulu! History of the World: Part II, the long-awaited (?) sequel to Brooks’s 1981 film, provides a series of sketches about historical events featuring some of the goofiest comedians of 2023. My two main impressions from watching this show were that (a) it is funny they don’t try to keep everything chronologically later than the first iteration, and (b) the show is very dumb and prone to making me do spit takes. Not all the sketches hit, but I laughed a lot, especially when the premises were as basic and odd as possible: A whole bit about the Kama Souptra is just “What if the Kama Sutra was originally pitched around soups to pair with sex positions?” It’s surprising and impressive to see a show go as all-in on idiocy as this one does. Kathryn, what were your first impressions?
Kathryn VanArendonk: I was highly trepidatious not just because revivals are rarely good but because the specific idiocy of Mel Brooks comedy relies on gendered and bodily humor, cultural references, and a certain sense of flippancy about race and other hot-button issues. I remember watching History of the World, Part I on cable when I was probably too young and seeing Brooks stick his face into faux-18th-century cleavage while growling about how good it is to be the king. How does that sensibility play in 2023? I’m different now! The world is different!
When I started watching Part II and realized it’s just as stupid as Part I, I felt something wavering between glee and relief. Plus there was a lot of groaning. Kama Souptra! My God!
The very first sign it would work, though, was casting: Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, and Ike Barinholtz appear regularly throughout the series in a variety of roles. They’re all great performers with the ability to retain some of their own comedic identities inside the bigger umbrella of Brooks’s style. And the combination of those three core players plus very good guest stars — Kumail Nanjiani is in that Kama Souptra sketch; Johnny Knoxville plays Rasputin! — do so much to anchor the material to a more contemporary context.
JM: Yeah, there’s a crucial feeling that Sykes, Kroll, and Barinholtz are all riffing in their specific style inside Mel Brooks’s larger sensibility, which means that the three of them all push that sensibility in their own specific direction (Sykes loves big gesticulation; Kroll, a silly voice; Barinholtz, a character who just can’t read a situation; etc.). The three of them are also all executive producers, which feels like another sign they have a bit more agency. Sykes, especially, feels so crucial to what makes this version work because she is, as usual, all in on committing to some wild personas (there’s a bit where she plays Harriet Tubman leading people through an MTA-like underground railroad) but also satirizes things from a very dumb and goofy but specifically Black and female perspective. The recurring satire of a ’70s sitcom where she plays Shirley Chisholm is maybe as close as the show comes to targeted satire, a send-up of Shirley balancing the demands of being a Black feminist activist on her public persona, and it’s also just a way to do goofy sitcom tropes.
Kroll, meanwhile, reappears in a series of sketches about Russian Jews navigating the revolution, which falls squarely into the kind of wheelhouse Brooks has parodied before (see also a brief glimpse of “Jews in Space,” which was teased at the end of Part I) but done with great enthusiasm for getting in as many Intro to European History bits as possible. Princess Anastasia (Dove Cameron) has a beauty vlog, Stalin (Jack Black) does a musical number, etc. Barinholtz’s primary story line is about Ulysses S. Grant traveling with Lincoln’s son (Nick Robinson), which felt a little less successful to me if only because it doesn’t quite find a game that works well for the characters aside from them generally messing up at being undercover in the South. But even if specific sketches fell flat — and a good number of them do — the feeling that you’re getting a grab bag of different comedic voices at work eases the experience.
KV: Absolutely agree — Sykes’s Shirley! sketch allows Part II to feel as though it’s embracing its current existence rather than grumbling about how sensitive everyone is now or how kids these days just don’t understand. The premise of the whole series (and the original movie) often plays on recognizing all the ways culture has changed throughout history, which offers a quick, tempting road to condescension. But a sketch like Shirley! is a retroactive reconsideration of Chisolm’s impressive legacy while also mostly being a send-up of ’70s sitcom tropes and a reminder of Chisholm’s humanity.
So much of the challenge of sketch comedy is knowing when it’s funny to keep an idea going long after it’s become too ridiculous but, at the same time, knowing when a sketch has worn out its welcome. It’s so hard to hit that note exactly, and the season format allows them to stretch some of the bigger sketch ideas over multiple episodes. The mix of punchy one-offs (a familiar but still fun Shakespeare writers’-room sketch, for instance) combined with a few returning ideas keeps the rhythm from getting too tired or homework-y.
It’s not just that the sketches can take a break then return once you’ve started to miss those characters, either. One of my favorite devices is the way Part II takes one dumb premise — Kroll, J.B. Smoove, and Richard Kind play Jesus’ apostles (with Jay Ellis as Jesus) — and filter it through multiple silly frameworks. Jesus as a stand-up comedian was good! Jesus as the John Lennon figure in a send-up of the Peter Jackson Beatles docuseries? Even better!
JM: The moment I realized the Jesus sketches were shifting into a closely observed send-up of Get Back, down to Judas constantly throwing out the worst ideas like he’s the Michael Lindsay-Hogg of the situation, really made me howl. There’s a sense the writers had many different ideas about where they might take a sketch premise and just decided to use them all. Similarly, it’s fun to see the mix of actors like Ellis, who are mostly there to play the straight men among the comedians. I spent a lot of time thinking about the agents behind the scenes who were pushing to get their clients like Robinson and Charles Melton (playing Nick Kroll’s son in the Russian Revolution story line, primarily for jokes about how incongruous it is that he has a total hunk son) to show off their comedic chops. Melton’s agent also got him into Poker Face, and he was good there, too! Most of that kind of casting is fun in a “this is contemporary” sense, though not as fun as the better drop-ins from people cast specifically for the hilarity of their presence, e.g., Johnny Knoxville as Rasputin. The man cannot be killed, no matter how many stunts he tries, a joke that is both out of left field yet immediately obvious once you think about it.
KV: I love that Rasputin idea so much, and I could not get over how much that Get Back parody tickled me. Zazie Beetz shows up as Mary/Yoko, but even better, Richard Kind has to do a British accent to make the Beatles idea work, and he just cannot, and he almost immediately stops trying. I was in stitches.
I do also want to take a moment to sing the praises of Nick Kroll in this. The series takes advantage of his fondness for big, overexaggerated character work and the way he can twist his features into either sweet cluelessness or jerky cynicism. It’s easy to overlook how hard that can be, and he’s just so great at it, especially as minor villains or dumbasses. My favorite is a completely empty-headed sketch where Kroll plays an injury-lawyer-type salesman in what looks like a local TV commercial except his character is selling the removal of historically problematic statuary. It makes no sense, and then it makes even less sense when that premise becomes a crossover with a different ad for DNA testing that tells people whether they’re descended from Kublai Khan (played by Ronny Chieng). Who would film something so dumb and put it on Hulu? And yet! Also, Wanda Sykes does a very minor thing in that sketch where she just stands with her hands on her hips like a lady who’s not very good at being in a commercial, and I will think about it for the next month.
JM: Yeah, it’s the gestures like Wanda Sykes with her hands on her hips that really sell this revival for me. The whole Mel Brooks satirical universe rests on this idea that it’s just as funny to find a clever take to hang a sketch on as it is to send up some particularly mundane thing you saw someone do in an infomercial once. There’s a refreshing lack of comedic triage, I guess: Everything is as important to get to as anything else.
KV: Like a little cutaway gag where someone pulls an electric charger out of a horse’s ass!
JM: Or the bit in the Kroll statue-removal sketch where he just starts to bicker with his family! At that point, you’re so far removed from anything to do with history and yet here you are, still laughing. Maybe there’s some grand insight into human nature about that — that we’re all just fundamentally carrying on with the same foibles, and isn’t that grand — or wait, sorry, the orchestra is playing me off and it’s simply time to wrap up. Someone, please cut away from this conversation and back to the latest episode of Shirley!