‘I’m American treasureMel Brooks,” announces the writer, director, producer and comedy institution as he introduces his 40-years-in-the-awaiting “History of the World, Part II” on Hulu. “To some of you I’m a hero. To others, merely a legend.” As prepared as a viewer might be to laugh out loud, he or she will still laugh out loud.
If Mr. Brooks hadn’t titled his 1981 comedy “History of the World, Part I,” there wouldn’t have been decades of speculation about whether a sequel ever would be made. Why has Mr. Brooks produced one now, at the age of 96? “I was approached by somebody named Hulu.” But he had two conditions: one, that they had to make him look exactly as he did in ’81 (when he was the star of the first film and in his sprightly mid-50s) and, two, that the material be entirely new. “No repeats.” Neither condition is met entirely, but that was a choice of Mr. Brooks, who serves here as a writer and executive producer. Alice Mathias, David Stassen, Nick Kroll and Lance Bangs directed the eight-episode season.
The fun, easy and cheap way to review “Part II” would be to regurgitate all its good jokes. It’s almost irresistible. As fans of the previous film know, “History of the World,” as a not-so-prolific franchise, follows a sketch-comedy format and recounts a past that isn’t literally true, but isn’t Howard Zinn either. Or even “Drunk History.” In “Part II,” ancient times, and not-so-ancient times, are fed through a Brooksian processor that always renders a germ of truth amid anachronisms galore. For instance, Princess Anastasia (Dove Cameron), the last remaining Romanov in the series’ recurring “Russian Revolution” segments, is a social-media influencer, although her “device” is a film camera the size of a mini-fridge. When Jesus (Jay Ellis) meets Mary Magdalene (Zazie Beetz), he acknowledges that he’s a carpenter—and he performs miracles. “Oh,” Mary responds, “like finishing a project on time and being under budget?” In a “Mezo America” segment, the about-to-be-sacrificed “virgin” argues about what a filthy promiscuous life she’s led.
As uneven as “History of the World, Part II” can be, it’s always taking a chance and time is on its side: The sketches are only a few minutes long and each episode only about 30. (Two episodes premiere Monday with two more each night through Thursday.) Mr. Brooks has been hit or miss ever since he released two near-perfect comedies—“Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”—in the same year (1974) and then followed with some films that have become cult classics, such as “High Anxiety” and “Spaceballs.” His reboot of “The Producers” became a Broadway smash. The story told about the much-loved “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” perhaps apocryphal, was that Mr. Brooks needed to make a PG-13 movie and, as a result, the funniest stuff got cut. In “History of the World, Part II” there was nobody looking over his shoulder. And you can tell.
Mr. Brooks is not what you’d call a regular here; Mr. Kroll, as good as he’s ever been, is doing the Brooks roles, including Judas Iscariot and the recurring Schmuck Mudman, shtetl dweller and proto-caterer. (He also executes a note-for-note homage to the hysterical Gene Wilder/Leo Bloom in “The Producers.”) Pam Adlon, as Mudman’s pistol-wielding, Emma Goldman-inspired Bolshevik wife, is also screamingly funny, literally. Others in the cast include Jason Alexander, Fred Armisen, Finesse Mitchell, Rob Riggle, James Urbaniak, D’Arcy Carden, Rob Corddry, Danny DeVito, David Duchovny, Josh Gad, Richard Kind, Emily Ratajkowski, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Taika Waititi and dozens more, all of whom get to be funny and pay tribute, in their way, to Mr. Brooks. You know why they showed up.
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