Mel Brooks Returns With A Sporadically Funny Event Series
Mar 1, 2023
It’s been nearly three decades since Mel Brooks released a feature film (1995’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”). He’s done some sporadic voice and TV work since then, including adapting “Spaceballs” into an animated series, but the 96-year-old legend has come out of his semi-retirement to produce his biggest project in a generation in the event series for Hulu, “History of the World, Part II.” Picking up with the same irreverent tone as the 1981 film, this 8-episode sketch comedy almost works like a collection of Brooks films cut together into episodic form in that there are recurring sketches that tell a full story. For example, you could pull out “The Civil War” chapters of each episode and almost convince yourself that you were watching a new Mel Brooks movie in 2023. At its best, it has the same vaudevillian sense of humor as the master’s great work, buoyed by talented sketch comedians who clearly admire how much Brooks changed comedy. At its worst, it echoes some of those late Brooks movies of the ‘90s in which the batting average of hits to duds wasn’t particularly high.
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After Brooks himself (sorta) introduces the show by saying there will be no repeats from the original film, the fun starts with “The Civil War,” which the show will then return to a few times an episode for the next several chapters. The format is unique for modern sketch comedy in that sketches typically stand alone on a show like “Key & Peele” or “I Think You Should Leave,” but the bulk of them here tell a continuous story that’s then intercut by the occasional one-off joke. This ends up being both a strength and a flaw in that the repeating sketches that work (“The Civil War” is consistently funny) kind of hold the show together overall whereas the ones that falter (“Shirley!” is shockingly humorless) pop up to drag things down every few minutes.
Mel Brooks himself is credited as a writer and executive producer, but he clearly handed a lot of creative control over to three people that he understandably trusts: Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, and Ike Barinholtz. Not only do they appear in the most sketches, but they’re a part of the huge team that’s credited as writers, and they each anchor at least one of the aforementioned multi-episode sketches. Barinholtz plays an alcoholic General Grant who gets into trouble during the Civil War just trying to find a drink. Co-starring Nick Robinson, Tyler James Williams, Zahn McClarnon, Timothy Simons, Scott MacArthur, and Tim Baltz, it’s a goofy send-up of the Civil War that recalls Brooks’ masterful “Blazing Saddles.”
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Also pretty hysterical in a way that echoes past works by Brooks (once quite literally in a very funny way) is the Kroll-centered look at the Russian Revolution, in which the comedian plays the wonderfully named Schmuck Mudman, who gets involved in history with his wife, played by the phenomenal Pamela Adlon. Jack Black plays a bullied Joe Stalin, who gets bossed around by Trotsky and Lenin as he plans his rise to power. Kroll is such a fearless comedian, willing to go broad in ways that recall some of the best Brooks collaborators of the past. They’re a perfect fit together. Although a recurring sketch in the second half of the season in which Kroll plays Judas in a series of bits in which The Beatles are replaced by Jesus and the Disciples in a “Get Back” spoof is one of the routines that go on much longer than they should.
The winner of that trophy though is “Shirley!,” a vehicle for Sykes to play Shirley Chisholm in a spoof of ‘70s sitcoms like “Good Times” that was “filmed in front of a live Black audience.” Accompanied by an awkward laugh track, the writing here can’t find a tone. It should be spoofing dated sitcom writing, but it often fails to do so, even with guest appearances by legends of the form. It’s just not funny. And it’s one of the few sketches that goes through almost the entire season, somehow dragging things down even more as it goes along.
“History of the World, Part II” fails even more when the writers try to tackle modern tech in their jokes. Galileo doing Cameo videos is going to date horrendously, and Princess Anastasia being a social influencer has a similar “old man yells at cloud” tone to it. Whenever the show feels like it’s trying to be current, and reference something outside of history, it hits with a thud. Even a bit that should be hysterical with the “Jackass” guys pretending to be Rasputin and his assassins is an idea in search of an actual joke.
Like most Mel Brooks movies, “History of the World, Part II” operates from a “comedy patience” rule: If you don’t like a joke, wait a second because there’s about to be another one that might work better for you. The highlights of this event series will hopefully bring young viewers back to his great films, some of the best comedies of all time, and maybe even provide a nice career boost for talented modern comedy writers like Kroll. It really feels like it needed one more voice in the writers’ room to iron out some of the bits that feel comedically rushed, like someone just accepted the first idea thrown up on a whiteboard and moved on. Maybe they’ll find that person and that patience for “Part III.” [C]
“History of the World, Part II” debuts on Hulu on March 6.
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