Fans of Mel Brooks have been eagerly waiting for more than forty years for the sequel to 1981’s History of the World, Part I, a film whose title suggested more was coming. A series of sketches parodying formative events throughout history comprised the entertaining but absurd film, which included an upbeat song and dance number about the Spanish Inquisition. Now ninety-six years old, Brooks has still got it as the creator and executive producer of History of the World, Part II, an eight-episode sequel series that melds Brooks’ dependable humor with a modern update.
The series includes a handful of recurring segments, including “The Civil War” and “The Russian Revolution,” which follow General Ulysses Grant on his quest to get a drink and the catering adventures of one Schmuck Mudman, respectively. Wanda Sykes stars as presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm in a mock sitcom, and Jesus gets a new treatment in “Curb Your Judaism” and a subsequent set of gospel recording sessions. Other bits are quick flashes, like JackRasp, a version of the popular Jackass series featuring Rasputin, and Galileo trying his hand at Cameo.
The timing of this long-awaited appendix to the original film is interesting since those who have been waiting longest belong to a generation that isn’t very represented in the series, which instead features many performers who were only born shortly before the film was released. Many of the actors will be best known to audiences that may not even be aware of who Mel Brooks is, and this show serves as a productive fusion between the boundary-pushing comedy he often utilized in films like Blazing Saddles and a more current appreciation of political correctness and the way in which that’s at least worth considering in broad send-ups of so much of what doesn’t look nearly as good upon reflection throughout history.
Brooks enlists a very competent core cast to lead many of the sketches and also serve as writers and executive producers. Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz, and Wanda Sykes make their mark with memorable turns as Mudman, Grant, and Harriet Tubman, among others, and are more than game for any over-the-top parody each sketch demands of them. The expansive cast includes many other standouts, including but hardly limited to Jay Ellis as Jesus, Zazie Beetz as Mary Magdalene, Josh Gad as Shakespeare, Seth Rogen as Noah, and Taika Waititi as Sigmund Freud.
Like with any sketch series, there are hits and misses throughout the eight half-hour installments that will premiere on Hulu two at a time over the course of four consecutive days. The longest recurring segments sometimes drag, but they’re also highlighted by great guest stars, including Pamela Adlon, Zahn McClarnon, Tyler James Williams, Tim Baltz, and Timothy Simons. Fortunately, there are also those that are fleeting and short, indicative of how funny doesn’t always mean drawn-out, and some of the sharpest humor can be conveyed simply without aiming for excess laughs (one caveman-era scene, for instance, learns its lesson from the miserable failure of ABC’s commercial-inspired 2007 sitcom Cavemen).
There are elements of much of Brooks’ work that don’t necessarily hold up under a present-day lens, like the overt racism portrayed in Blazing Saddles. But Brooks has always been intent on sending up as many groups of possible for their intolerance, and this show is hardly an apology for his past work. Instead, it smartly skewers a range of targets, including Christianity and white supremacy, while also parodying reality series and questionable movie marketing. Half-hour episodes made up of vignettes work well, and this series is just satisfying enough for exciting audiences to accept the reality that, given how long this sequel took, a part three probably isn’t coming, at least not for a long time.
History of the World, Part II debuts two new episodes on Hulu each day from Monday, March 6th through Thursday, March 9th.