History of the World, Part II
A few things have happened since 1981—unrelated to some wars, canceled breakfast cereals, and the gradual decline of democracy—when blockbuster comedian Mel Brooks made “History of the World: Part I.” For starters, he recovered from its lackluster box office by making good, funny movies again. Years later, the sketch feature died. But! Comedy became faster, shorter, and more TV-ready—YouTube, “Saturday Night Live” digital shorts, TikTok. Our golden age of watching a bunch of stuff all at once on the couch has melded a new golden crown for funny people, the viral sketch comedy series. Roger’s initial criticism of “History of the World: Part 1” has become a selling point: “Quick, disposable, television.”
With the help of Hulu and a whole bunch of people listed at the end of this paragraph, Brooks returns to the general set-up of facts-futzing comedy with “History of the World, Part II,” a four-night comedy revue. It’s genuinely too big to fail at getting laughs, given the many figures tackled: William Shakespeare, Shirley Chisholm, Rasputin, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Stalin, Gloria Steinem, and of course, Jesus Christ in a “Get Back”-inspired plot line. And if a certain sketch or arc doesn’t work, or if one framing device seems a little played out, you can be amazed at how the show tosses in its Google search-friendly roster of stars: [redacted], Pamela Adlon, Zazie Beetz, Jillian Bell, Quinta Brunson, Ronny Chieng, Rob Corddry, Danny DeVito, [redacted], David Duchovny, Josh Gad, Jake Johnson, Johnny Knoxville, Lauren Lapkus, Jenifer Lewis, Zahn McClarnon, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Ratajkowski, Sam Richardson, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, David Wain, Taika Waititi, Reggie Watts, Tyler James Williams, and [redacted]. (Certain people have been redacted per Hulu’s orders to ensure their primary purpose: a surprise.)
Watching all of these stars pop in and out of the series, it becomes apparent how much “History of the World, Part II” is a loving and tempered tribute to Brooks’ sensibilities. The show also wants to please everyone and goes mighty broad with its comedy, sometimes falling back on easy jokes and tropes. It’s not trying to push many buttons as Brooks’ spoofing comedy sometimes has. But with Brooks narrating, presenting, and being credited as a writer, it’s just proudly what it is—all the punny bits, irreverent anachronisms, and riffs on historically being Jewish a show can cram into eight 25-minute episodes. An enterprise like “History of the World, Part II” will be hit-or-miss by design, but it gets enough inspired sketches, game cameo appearances, and plainly laugh-out-loud moments from its clever silliness to recommend it.
Brooks does not appear in the series, but a few particular performers make this a platform for themselves, and it often works. Executive producers and writers Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz, and Wanda Sykes jump on the chance to play multiple characters and make their impressions fit their strengths (it’s a show that relies greatly on what performers bring to the material). If you don’t like their styles, there’s not a good chance you’ll be converted to what they do here. They are joined by behind-the-camera talent who bring their own pedigree, like directors Alice Mathias (“I Think You Should Leave”), Lance Bangs (the puking cameraman-turned-director from “Jackass,” referenced here in a winning fashion), David Stassen (“The Mindy Project”), and Kroll (whose impulses from his TV-surfing sketch series “Kroll Show” sometimes dominates this show).
For the thousands of jokes and dozens of premises in this event series, everything comes together most soundly in a recurring plot line dedicated to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for President of the United States. Her story is told through the yellow-orange fuzziness of a late ’60s sitcom called “Shirley!”, with Sykes playing the role. It’s the most consistently funny of all the arcs, as it echoes a bit of history about Chisholm’s history-making moves, hilariously contrasted with a live studio audience’s reactions and certain TV trope characters (portrayed by Colton Dunn and Kym Whitley). And for this series’ sometimes inability to say anything shocking or revelatory about the adversity its comedy often pokes fun at, “Shirley!” instead lets the history be more naturally bittersweet while presenting the character with the love of a biopic. It also has a “George Wallace” moment that got me hook, line, and sinker.
Instead of running with one joke for an extended period (like the elongated 50-minute Rome sketch in “History of the World, Part I,”) this series jumps between different elongated arcs over multiple episodes, which themselves lose a bit of their focus. There’s one storyline about the end of the Civil War featuring Barinholtz as Ulysses S. Grant, assigned to care for Abraham Lincoln’s son (played by Nick Robinson). The arc never really takes off despite getting far away from its origins, adding in more and more character arcs, and featuring a few good jokes about Abraham Lincoln (played by Timothy Simons) hitting his head on things.
And while some bits take up too much time, it’s also funny in the unfortunate way that other character-based arcs are too short. “History” is a little too good at leaving you wanting more from Taika Waititi’s version of Sigmund “Smoking is Cool” Freud or [redacted’s] singing version of Stalin, which more or less disappears. Still, the direct lampoons of historical figures are often the most consistently funny, especially if they offer goofy behind-the-scenes ideas of what made someone so popular: Andrew Rannells gives us the funny backstory about a famous but strange photoshoot with three world leaders. Whenever a sketch has a clear connection to the event or person it’s playfully asking “What if?” about, it usually leads to a laugh or three.
The ecosystem of ensemble comedy would never allow it, but it would be fascinating to see which sketches and jokes were initially conceived by Brooks. One can guess from certain premises (treating the Nicean council as a focus group for Jesus’ image feels very Brooks). But much of the series has the sense of a throwback to his type of comedy, especially when jokes are built around wordplay (a whole thing about the creation of “Kama Soup-tra,” starring Kumail Nanjiani). And maybe, just maybe, Brooks had something to do with The Andrews Sisters reference tossed into the Civil War sketch, in which someone says, “I’m the bugle boy of Company B!” That’s the all-humor-encompassing but not-aggressive experience the show offers: sometimes it’s going for laughs of recognition when Galileo posts on “TicciTocci,” and other times it’s sliding in a reference to the song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
And yet, while we may never know which writers to directly credit with what, “History of the World, Part II” flourishes from the work of its on-screen MVPs. Sometimes you get to enjoy them for a long time, like Sykes’ heartfelt version of Shirley Chisholm, or it’s brief but worthwhile, like a hilarious scene when Zahn McClarnon’s introverted character in the Civil War comes into his own by doing gut-punching stand-up about colonization. Brooks may only be so mortal with his muscular, bulked-up bod (as he appears in the first episode), but his comedy will persevere through new ways of being entertained, especially when he has so many talented descendants who give good shtick.
Full series screened for review. “History of the World, Part II” premieres on Hulu on Monday, March 6th, with two episodes. Two new episodes will drop daily, with the finale on Thursday, March 9th.