Mel Brooks is a comedic genius. Admired and respected for decades, the 96-year-old multi-hyphenate is universally beloved. If you love comedy, you love Mel Brooks. So when comedian Nick Kroll was personally chosen by Brooks to make the TV series History of the World Part II, a continuation of the classic film History of the World Part I, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“As someone who grew up in love with Mel Brooks, nobody is a bigger influence on me and my comedy career and my point of view than Mel Brooks. So I hope that we are continuing on in his tradition,” Kroll stated at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. He also added, “I don’t think it’s as tricky to navigate doing comedy right now as people would like to imagine. You just have to be funny.”
Unfortunately for Kroll, he turned out to only be half right. History of the World Part II certainly works as a loving homage to a comedy icon, with Brooks’ influence easy to see wherever you look. However, much like the 42-year-old film it’s based on, at times the show’s humor feels like it was written in 1981.
To be sure, there are several moments in History of the World Part II, which is narrated by Brooks, that are laugh out loud funny. Alexander Graham Bell being the victim of the first prank phone call, a Normandy Beach invasion barf-o-rama, and the Yalta Conference turning into an America’s Next Top Model style photoshoot set to the song “Finally” by CeCe Peniston are all hilarious.
A quick scene where Judas (Kroll) uses a human as a bathroom hand dryer had me laughing so hard milk shot out of my nose. And I wasn’t even drinking milk. This show has its moments, which is aided by an absolutely stellar roster of comedic stars and a fast-paced, attention-grabbing format.
Every person on the show is clearly committed to their bit. You may only see Jack Black, Taika Waititi, Quinta Brunson, Kumail Nanjiani, J.B. Smoove, Pamela Adlon, Danny DeVito, and other familiar faces in one or two skits, but when they are ALL IN for a joke, no matter how silly, it’s engrossing and helps sell the material. That level of commitment, including from producers and series regulars Kroll, Ike Barinholtz, and Wanda Sykes, is impressive. The use of quick skits, which range from a few minutes to the length of an average commercial, is also a clever way to keep audiences engaged.
Mel Brooks’ legacy of poking fun at people in power also remains secure. History of the World Part II is a globetrotting and time traveling parody. Abraham Lincoln, Kublai Khan, Harriet Tubman, and even Jesus are just a few people who are either the joker or jokee. If you are a historical figure, consider yourself fair game.
Right now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey this sounds great! So why the middling review score? I would think an occasionally crass, over-the-top series that pokes fun of historical figures would be right in the wheelhouse of a Gen-Xer.”
To that I’d say, 1) Stop stalking me and 2) You’re completely right. History of the World Part II SHOULD work. Yet it struggles because too often its humor feels so dated that anyone under the age of 45 (and many over it) will find most of the comedy too kitsch.
Everyone involved in the series is clearly a fan of Mel Brooks. And while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, when imitating something iconic from 42 years ago, more of an update than the one that was given to this series is required. The same style of joke telling from 1981 just doesn’t ring as true in 2023, no matter how many times you poke fun at easy targets like Influencers, one of several running gags with diminishing returns throughout the first season. Adding to the series’ uneven feel is when History of the World Part II deviates from its most successful format: short form storytelling.
This is a program that’s at its best when it gets in, tells a joke, then gets out. If you don’t like a sketch, just wait a couple minutes for the next one and you are likely to be rewarded. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always occur. There are multiple sketches that span several episodes, and after the second or third sighting of the same historical character, the joke feels played out.
When I first started watching History of the World Part II, I was giddy. I was 10 years old when the original movie came out, and like many from my generation, it’s near and dear to my heart. As I started the TV series, jokes were landing, spoofs of historical events blended with modern pop cultural references hit the mark, and subtle clues to Mel Brooks’ filmography felt like inside jokes only a few will understand. It was great! But as the series wore on, the laughter began to fade as the show’s weakness became readily apparent.
To its credit, History of the World Part II does Mel Brooks proud. His influence on multiple generations of comedians and comedic actors is obvious. However, the new Hulu series also makes clear that the comedy road in 2023 actually is harder to navigate than most people thought, especially when creating a program that’s ingrained with the DNA of a comedic titan.
History of the World Part II premieres Monday, March 6th on Hulu.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not making inappropriate jokes about historical figures, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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