Mel Brooks was always a sketch writer. He started out on the 1950s TV program Your Show of Shows, part of a legendary writers’ room that included Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and the late Carl Reiner, with whom Brooks would develop their decades-long 2,000-Year-Old Man routine. His sketch writing evolved into a highly inconsistent, often hysterically funny career as a comedy filmmaker whose movies’ quality depended on the level of their set pieces, ranging from great (Young Frankenstein) to abysmal (Life Stinks). His 1981 film History of the World, Part I was overtly a collection of comedy sketches. Last month, Hulu dropped eight episodes of a small-screen sequel, History of the World, Part II, which demonstrates how the whole concept belonged on TV to begin with. Just like Brooks’ filmography, the show is uneven, but on the occasions when it’s firing, it’ll make you laugh and laugh.
The most disappointing thing about Part II is the lack of a blowout musical number. There are songs, including a ballad by a young Joseph Stalin (Jack Black) about his dream of ruling the Soviet Union with love and kindness, but the production values are low. Maybe the showrunners elected to spend Hulu’s budget on actors rather than background singers and dancers, but even the best song — that would be the pleasantly funky campaign number by Rep. Shirley Chisholm (Wanda Sykes) — doesn’t rise to the level of “The Spanish Inquisition” from Part I, which has been living rent-free in my brain since my childhood. Brooks’ films always received a lift from their numbers, and this show really needed musical collaborations with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rachel Bloom, or those guys from Epic Rap Battles of History.
Brooks turns 97 this year, and you might wonder whether he’s still in touch with pop culture. Indeed, one sketch has Kublai Khan (Ronny Chieng) starring in a parody of Punk’d, a reference that’s a good 20 years out of date. Hipper stuff comes with The Real Concubines of Kublai Khan, in which Andy Khan (Andy Cohen) tries to interview all 10,000 women in the Mongol leader’s harem. The writers and actors are more diverse this time around, which gives the show more of world history to make fun of. Kumail Nanjiani turns up as Vātsyāyana, pitching the Kama Sutra as a book of soup recipes with a few sexual positions thrown in — his publishers have a note for him.
Unhappily, the recurring sketches contain the weakest material here. One series is about the Civil War, while another is about the Russian Revolution, and there’s a noticeable letdown whenever the show comes back to those. (Although the one-minute bit staging Rasputin’s murder as a Jackass stunt complete with that show’s cast members gave me the biggest laugh of the whole season.) The series about Jesus Christ (Jay Ellis) can’t decide whether it’s a parody of Curb Your Enthusiasm or a mockumentary with Jesus and his disciples in a rock band bickering among themselves like the Beatles during their breakup. Neither of those gambits works, and Quinta Brunson is wasted as Martha Magdalene, though it is funny when a focus group of bishops decides 300 years after Jesus’ death that he needs to be made into a buff white action hero (Brock O’Hurn) mowing down Jews.
Part II has deliberately avoided recent history, but it’s at its best when it uses history to comment on current events, like when Galileo (Nick Kroll) posts an apology video on TikTok — excuse me, “TicciTocci” — from his prison cell, looking like a canceled influencer as he begs forgiveness for saying that the Earth moves around the sun. Not so contrite is Typhoid Mary (Mary Holland), who spreads anti-vax memes on her cooking vlog and coughs into her corned beef and cabbage while her viewers set her comments section ablaze: “I like how she accepts her typhoid, so inspiring.” “Is she shitting while she’s livestreaming?” (Yes, she is.)
The Shirley Chisholm arc has its best moment when she visits Alabama Gov. George Wallace (played by the Black comedian named George Wallace) in the hospital after his assassination attempt — the actors break the fourth wall to tell us that this actually happened. After she doses him with painkillers, the drugged-up segregationist admits, “I’m scared of giving power to the people we’ve done so much harm to. I’m scared that I’m not really superior to anybody. And I’m scared of olives. They look like little witches’ eyes.” Moments like that make it worth sitting through Brooks’ jokes that go on too long. When he does History of the World, Part III in 2065, that’s what will keep me coming back.