David Stassen & Alice Mathias on Sketch Comedy

Mar 16, 2023

If you’d said to any Mel Brooks fan even three years ago that we’d finally be getting a long-awaited sequel to History of the World, Part I, the epic parody film that took audiences through all of human history, they’d likely have called you crazy. But, in 2023, that vision is finally a reality, and the much anticipated History of the World, Part II, has finally arrived, shepherded in by writers, stars, and executive producers Wanda Sykes, Nick Kroll, and Ike Barinholtz.

The series continues the tradition begun by Brooks, framing each episode as a series of sketches covering the entire history of civilization — and then some. Among the many, many stories are tales of the Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and the Last Supper as a Beatles-esque recording session, all shepherded to creator by showrunner David Stassen and director Alice Mathias. Along with the team of Kroll, Sykes, and Barinholtz, they helped bring to life ideas like Harriet Tubman running a real underground railroad, Princess Anastasia as a 20th century influencer, and an Ancestry-style service that determines whether someone is related to the prolific Kublai Khan.
Collider was excited to sit down with Stassen and Mathias to talk about the show, and they got involved. During this interview, they discussed how the show came about, their first Mel Brooks films, and how the show’s zany structure was put together, both on set and in the editing room.

Image via Hulu

RELATED: ‘History of the World: Part II’ Review: A Worthy Sequel 41 Years in the Making

Check out the interview in the player above, or read a transcript below, and check out History of the World, Part II, streaming on Hulu.

COLLIDER: Mel Brooks has obviously been such a massively influential figure in both the film and the television space going all the way back to Sid Caesar in the ’50s. So, what was your first exposure to him, whether it was a film, a TV show, what have you?

DAVID STASSEN: It was History of the World on VHS tape, and then it was Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and then those three movies kind of on a loop in my house until I saw my first Mel Brooks movie in the theater, which was Spaceballs. So I just grew up…he was definitely my first comedy influence and [it was] really, really surreal to get to actually work with him many decades later.

ALICE MATHIAS: Yeah, I have probably a similar experience to Dave, although my household was really a Robin Hood: Men in Tights place. And I think also, I was a really big fan of Get Smart. And actually, separately, even was, we did it as a play in eighth grade and I got to play Agent 99, which was just the height of my comedic career to this day. So anyway, he was always an icon in my mind.

Yeah, Alice, you were the first person…I’ve been asking that to everybody [and] you were the first person to bring up Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which that and Spaceballs were mine, so I was happy to finally hear someone say that one. But I know that this started sort of as an idea that Mel had been holding onto and then brought Nick and Wanda on and then brought Ike and you on, David. But how did the rest of it come to be? Especially you, Alice? How did you end up involved with this?

MATHIAS: Well, I just got an interview with these guys, a Zoom interview in the middle of the pandemic when I was like, “Oh my gosh, I cannot believe how lucky I am to even have a meeting about this.” But I mean, I think the ambition was for the show to be a sketch show, which is obviously different than Mel’s film. And I have done a bunch of sketch comedy, I worked on Portlandia, and Documentary Now!, and I Think You Should Leave, and several other shows. And I think that these guys were looking for a sketch director, so I was on the list.

STASSEN: Yeah, we targeted Alice and just…we love her work. I Think You Should Leave is the most brilliant sketch show out there right now, and we had written this big massive stuff with big scope, and The Civil War and Jesus and Mary and the Russian Revolution, and we wanted the cinematic feel, and we knew Alice could do that and also do just the comedy of the stuff in the scenes as well.

Image via Hulu

And this is such a sort of, I guess, far-reaching, for lack of a better word, show. It covers so many different time periods. I spoke to Wanda and Ike, and they said that tons of stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. But David, in terms of bringing things together, how did you guys decide what was going to be those big overarching ones that ended up in multiple episodes, or just what kind of things you wanted to cover in general?

STASSEN: So before we got the room together, we knew what our tent poles were going to be, and we kind of built the show around those ideas of having these sketches that were going to be longer, thirty-five-page sketches we were going to break up and then pepper into different episodes, and put one-off sketches in between them. And then a lot of it was in editing, putting the puzzle together. How do we bounce around the world? How do we bounce around eras? We don’t want to be confined to the 20th century in America, too many sketches in a row, or any era. And then how do we remind the audience what happened last time we saw General Grant, or last time we saw Schmuck and his wife? So it was the writing of it. It was the shooting of it, and then it was a big post build.

Was there anything, for either of you, anything you shot, Alice, or anything that was written that ended up on the cutting room floor that you kind of wish had ended up in the show?

MATHIAS: I mean, I shouldn’t say this, but I want an entire episode of just the Beatles: Get Back [parody]. At one point in our editing process, I was like, “I want to see that 21-minute version of this,” because we had so much material, and to me, it was just endlessly fun and funny. What a great cast. Everybody brought something to that. JB Smoove was so funny. Richard Kind was so funny. Jay Ellis, Zazie Beetz, they were fantastic. The musical aspect of that was so fun, and I would’ve loved to see a full episode of it. And believe me, we had the material for it. But it’s okay. You’ve got to make some choices.

STASSEN: Yeah, I mean, I’m lucky. I think that we got so much of what we wanted. I mean, because the episodes could be 22 or 26 minutes. Hulu gave us some freedom. I don’t feel like we had to cut anything. We got to use all the good stuff, I think.

Image via Hulu

I like to wrap up with a couple of silly questions, but as a history nerd myself and as someone who grew up loving History of the World Part One, if you could go to any historical time period or talk to any sort of historical figure, what would it be?

STASSEN: Great question.

MATHIAS: I honestly, this is going to be…I would like to go to the era of the dinosaurs and just see what life was like before humans. I’m just so curious about what the Earth was like at that time. But I don’t know who I would talk to. Maybe just myself, I guess. Probably screaming as I ran away.

STASSEN: I would probably want to talk to a serf in England in the year 1150 because I’m just kind of obsessed with how hard life has been for human beings for 20,000 years. And I would like to see the daily struggle of just doing the most basic things, how hard it was for people up until about 80 years ago.

And one last question, even though neither of them are sort of particularly desirable, would you rather go to the Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles or the Rock Ridge in Part II?

MATHIAS: Oh wow, that’s a funny question. Well, I guess I would like to go to the Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles, just because I’ve already been to the Rock Ridge in Part II to some extent.

STASSEN: Yeah, I’m going to say Blazing Saddles too, just because it’s not bad people, but they’re not all Confederate soldiers, which probably are a little more disturbing to me than “telegram for Mongo”. Remember the huge football player cowboy?

History of the World Part II is available to stream on Hulu.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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