A Worthy Sequel 41 Years Later
Feb 28, 2023
When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher decided to show the class Young Frankenstein. Not for any pedagogical reason, of course. It was the end of the school year, everyone was tired, and one of my classmates had talked about it enough that she thought we all seemed into the idea. My parents found out, were delighted I had enjoyed the film, and there began my love of Mel Brooks’ work. For all that Robin Hood: Men in Tights is probably my favorite of his movies, the one my family quotes the most is easily History of the World: Part I, which means my anticipation for the television sequel 41 years in the making, Hulu’s History of the World: Part II was at an all-time high. But did it meet my expectations?
Much like the original film, History of the World: Part II is divided into segments that span, well… the history of the world. But because the series is a four-night event, with two episodes airing per night, they have far more space to play with even more eras and more historical figures. The film was more a parody of the historical epics so prominent in the Golden Age, with the historical figures — Louis XVI, Emperor Nero, etc. — only forming a part of the larger narrative that mostly followed a group of everyday people.
Part II’s longer segments are mostly along these same lines. The “Civil War” segments follow a trio of soldiers working under Ulysses S. Grant (Ike Barinholtz), the “Russian Revolution” mostly follows Schmuck Mudman (Nick Kroll) who makes frequent food deliveries to Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders, etc. Even the segments following the life of Jesus Christ (Jay Ellis) mostly focus on those around him. The exception to this rule are the reoccurring segments featuring 1972 presidential hopeful Shirley Chisholm (Wanda Sykes) who is herself a historical figure, but one who is not as widely recognized as the others — make no mistake, that is the failure of history, not of Chisholm herself.
Image via Hulu
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While there are a few other repeated segments — some of which even cross over with one another — there are also many bite-sized comedic moments sprinkled throughout. These are more reminiscent of the “Spanish Inquisition” segment from the film, which put real-life nightmarish priest Padre Torquemada (played by Brooks) at the heart of a classic Hollywood-style musical number. Be it Sigmund Freud’s (Taika Waititi) Masterclass, or William Shakespeare’s (Josh Gad) writer’s room, the shorter one-off segments make the larger-than-life figures the butt of a very accessible joke.
The series also makes the very wise choice to skew the tone of the sketches to suit their new medium. They don’t have the epic scale of the old Hollywood films Brooks was parodying, because they have instead chosen to parody the wide range of programming we can find on television nowadays. The “Civil War” and “Russian Revolution” feel like the big-budget historical series you find on premium channels, while “Shirley Chisholm” is a cozy sitcom from the 70s (one I would absolutely binge if it were a real show), and the three separate segments about Jesus and his apostles are either direct parodies of existing shows or the type of film you’d see while channel surfing at 11:30 PM and decide to watch even though you probably own the DVD too. Many of the shorter one-off segments are presented like commercials, either from the present day or from the golden ages of TV past. What makes History of the World: Part II work so well is that it’s not a TV show trying to pretend it’s a very long movie. It thrives in the shorter medium. It embraces it and uses it to its best advantage.
Image via Hulu
A far-too-common argument I hear floated around is that Mel Brooks movies could never be made today. The thinking there usually begins and ends with the fact that Brooks’ earlier work sometimes contained phrases and depictions that we now know to be inappropriate. What they usually miss, however, is that Brooks’ work doesn’t punch down. The joke in Blazing Saddles is not that people hurl slurs at Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), but rather that this entire town is so blinded by their prejudice, they can’t conceive of a Black man doing his job properly.
History of the World: Part II keeps this spirit — the same spirit, in fact, that you can see spread throughout Brooks’ work. Those in power are always the primary target of the most scathing critique — always delivered with a smile, because this is a comedy after all. The jokes are, on occasion, a little obvious, but that’s honestly part of the charm (though the less I say about the rare bouts of toilet humor, the better).
Throughout the series, it is very clear that Barinholtz, Kroll, Sykes, and showrunner David Stassen have a deep respect and understanding for Brooks’ work. Though Brooks himself also served as a writer on the series, there are just enough Easter eggs and references to his earlier work sprinkled throughout that it is clear the project is very much a labor of love by those who recognize the 96-year-old comedian’s genius. What it winds up becoming, then, is not only a worthy sequel to one of Brooks’ best and most quotable works but a loving homage to his entire oeuvre. So did History of the World: Part II meet my expectations? In a word, yes. This review has reached its natural conclusion.
History of the World: Part II begins its four-night streaming event on March 6 on Hulu.
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