Mel Brooks came up with the title to his 1981 comedy feature “History of the World, Part I” as a joke. There were never any plans to make a Part II.
As the streaming revolution took hold, Brooks, his producing partner Kevin Salter and rightsholder Searchlight Pictures decided to explore a long overdue sequel, but in series form. That’s when they contacted Nick Kroll, who’s known for his sketch comedy (in addition to the painfully funny take on adolescence “Big Mouth”), to kick around a “Part II” that was four decades not in the making.
“There was something slightly more exciting about hearing from Mel Brooks, with all due respect to the wonderful folks at Searchlight,” Kroll says.
Kroll brought in Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz, and David Stassen to develop the 21st century take on the original. But they didn’t want to do a new “History of the World” without the king who started it all. As COVID kept everyone at home in lockdown, Kroll and Sykes called Brooks to invite him into the virtual writers’ room.
“First, it was a long-distance call, so I wanted to establish who was paying for it,” quips Brooks, still as funny as they come at 96. “And they said they were, so I said, ‘OK.’ They’re both crazy about ‘History of the World’ and they thought that a new ‘History of the World’ was actually needed. I was stuck in this COVID situation where you didn’t see people, where you were locked in a cave. So, this was a very welcome relief from isolation.”
Together, the comedians and the legend mapped out “History of the World, Part II,” an eight-episode series on Hulu that launched on Monday, March 6, with two episodes rolling out over four consecutive nights this week. Kroll, Sykes, Barinholtz and Stassen serve as writers executive producers, as does Brooks.
“When you throw a joke in and you get a laugh from Mel Brooks, it really is just like a hand of God giving you a little pat on the back,” Barinholtz says. Kroll adds that Brooks “is singularly the most important, influential person” in his own comedy.
Having worked over the decades as a writer, director, producer and actor on his projects, Brooks says he was happy to do whatever the new creative team asked, which included anything from narration, writing jokes, or taking out things that he didn’t feel fit. “[I’m] the Jewish advisor, ready to advise them on everything,” he says.
Brooks says writing for “Part II” reminded him of his days in the room on early TV shows like the 1950s variety staple “Your Show of Shows,” where he got his start. And he was excited to be back writing in the sketch format again: “Sketches are like little play-lettes,” he says. “It’s so different. They’re so different from ‘I just flew in from Chicago and boy my arms are tired.’ That’s funny stuff, but it doesn’t satisfy your soul.”
In keeping with the original film, each episode features a wide variety of sketches that delightfully skewer some of the most famous people and events in world history — including Jesus and the Apostles, World War II, Kublai Khan, the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and countless others.
Kroll, Sykes and Barinholtz also each took on a sketch that recurs across multiple episodes as their pet project for the season. Kroll focused on the Russian Revolution, while Barinholtz mined comedy out of Ulysses S. Grant and the end of the Civil War.
Sykes, meanwhile, created the biggest departure from the rest of the show’s format with her take on groundbreaking U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, done in the style of a 1970s sitcom.
“I just love multi-cams and it’s just so much fun to do stories in that Norman Lear style,” says Sykes (who happens to be behind one currently, the Netflix laffer “The Upshaws”). “We were just having fun with the whole genre of sitcoms and the tropes you can fall into. To tell Shirley’s story through that format just seemed like a perfect match.”
Barinholtz, a self-avowed “history nerd,” relished the chance to “really irritate the writers and bore them with esoteric facts,” including that Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally killed by his own troops. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that,” he jokes.
Fans of Brooks’ work will also notice some sly references to his other films like “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers” peppered throughout the season. “That was an early thing that we really wanted to do, which was, as we like to say, pay homage to the rest of the ‘MBU,’ the Mel Brooks Universe,” Kroll says.
Each episode also boasts an impressive batch of guest stars, which Kroll describes as a “murderers’ row of talent.” The quick time commitment of the sketch format allowed the producers to bring in so many big names, such as Jay Ellis as Jesus and Zazie Beetz as Mary Magdalene; Danny DeVito as Tsar Nicholas II; Josh Gad as William Shakespeare; Jake Johnson as Marco Polo; and Dove Cameron as Anastasia Romanov.
Sykes says that she was keen on having a Black man play Jesus, given the historical accuracy. “I was telling everybody, and this is also in my standup, that one of the earliest paintings or drawings of Jesus looks more like Teddy Pendergrass, not this blonde haired, blue eyed one we know,” she says. “They had to go with the Malibu Jesus to sell Christianity, basically.”
At this point in his life, Brooks has nothing to prove. He’s an EGOT winner, a Kennedy Center honoree, and the recipient of an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other kudos. He certainly didn’t need the money. So what drove Brooks at this stage of his life to revisit “History of the World?”
“I am deliriously happy to still be writing comedy and every once in a while, hearing people laugh,” he says. “There’s no greater payment for somebody in comedy than the audience breaking up. It’s just thrilling. There’s nothing like comedy. You don’t think about the time or throwing up or falling off the horse. You don’t think about bad things. You think about whether something is really funny and if it makes you laugh. It’s a bit of a miracle. I love it.”