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Spoofs are all about volume. Deliver enough punchlines and there are almost guaranteed to be duds — but if you get enough big laughs, viewers will be too busy wheezing and wiping away tears to notice.
With the possible exception of the Airplane! guys, nobody knows this better than Mel Brooks. There are jokes in Blazing Saddles that fall flat. You mostly don’t remember them, because so much of it is still a riot. And because so much of Dracula: Dead and Loving It is stagnant, the few punchlines that land are rarely mentioned.
History of the World, Part II
Cast: Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz
Executive producers: Mel Brooks, Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen
As Mel Brooks spoofs go, 1981’s History of the World, Part I is right in the middle. It has great bits — I quote “It is said that the people are revolting.” “You said it. They stink on ice!” in my head at least once a week — and flailing duds and stretches I think were memorable that were actually from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
While every sperm may be sacred — that’s DEFINITELY Monty Python — History of the World is less sacred than it is affectionately nostalgized. If you watch Hulu’s new History of the World, Part II with the impression that the original was untouchable, what the exceptional creative team led by Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz and Wanda Sykes have produced will probably disappoint. But more pragmatic viewers will recognize that the eight-part series is very much in the vein of what Brooks delivered. There are great things here and too many funny guest appearances to count and at least as many sketches that meander or lack edge or have been spread thin. I suspect every viewer’s hit-to-miss ratios will be different, but I found enough in the positive column to keep me going.
Brooks is an executive producer here, and he does an intro in which he says that one of his two requirements, when contacted by Hulu, was no repeating of sketches from the movie — a rule that’s broken within the first episode. There are also direct references to several other Brooks movies and beloved gags, while the 96-year-old American treasure — his words, but accurate — narrates, though with increasingly less depth as the series progresses. Mostly, though, this is all fresh takes on the history of the world generated with unquestionable devotion by the writing team and directors Kroll, Alice Mathias, David Stassen and Lance Bangs.
There are meta jokes aplenty, including commentary on the different experiences for regular Hulu viewers and those who prefer the ad-free experience. There are songs by Mark Rivers, including an exhaustive Fiddler on the Roof takeoff featuring Kroll and Pamela Adlon, as well as a delightful Jack Black playing Stalin. There’s ample Yiddish-based humor and plenty of tweaking of race and religion for those who might have concerns about political correctness seeping in. And then there are historical personages farting, vomiting and pooping their pants. It runs the gamut. Sometimes it’s just a two-minute idea that somebody thought was a hoot — keep in mind that several of the most referenced parts of the movie were in the trailer for coming attractions at the end — and then there are storylines that play out across multiple episodes.
Elongation from feature to series-length isn’t always a show’s friend, and the extended sketches end up being the show’s least satisfying. A Civil War story featuring Barinholtz as a boozy General Grant starts funny with Timothy Simons hilariously embodying the entirely too tall President Lincoln, goes fallow for multiple episodes, picks back up with a trio of Union soldier — Tim Baltz, Tyler James Williams and a wonderfully loopy Zahn McClarnon — and then goes nowhere. The ’70s sitcom parody Shirley!, with Sykes as Shirley Chisholm, has some of my favorite cameos from the season, but lacks any kind of pointed focus. On the other hand, the decision to recount the story of Jesus (Jay Ellis, in a dream rom-com pairing with Zazie Beetz’ Mary Magdalene) in multiple styles — the self-explanatory Curb Your Judaism is the only one I’ll spoil — pays surprisingly sharp dividends.
Watching the full season in a binge also underlines how much repetition there is, whether it’s the over-reliance on very direct pop culture references that already feel dated or sketches built exclusively around “What if Famous Figure X Were on Social Media?” premises. Typhoid Mary (Mary Holland) doing a YouTube cooking show? Funny! Galileo as a TikTok (or “TicciTocci”) content creator? Not funny! Princess Anastasia (Dove Cameron) as an influencer? Somewhere in the middle!
There’s a little bit of poor timing at work as well. A lot of the satirical targets got smarter and tighter treatment very recently in Charlie Brooker’s BBC Two/Netflix mockumentary Cunk on Earth, a show that did a better job of mixing actual historical information with its comedy. Disclaimer: I’m well aware that nobody is going to watch History of the World, Part II hoping to glean knowledge, though there are occasional, “Yes, this is actually true,” audience nudges.
It all results in a series that rarely coheres and is already showing creative strain with a rash of faux commercials by the end. Still, I appreciated the versatility and game enthusiasm of the core trio of stars and steady stream of drop-in performers, some so good that they’re best left unspoiled. History of the World, Part II is uneven, but there’s enough that works here that I’d happily watch Part III — perhaps even sooner than 42 years from now.
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