Usually ranked well below Blazing Saddles but above Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Mel Brooks’ sketch-driven History Of The World, Part I was a guilty treat for late-night teenage viewing. It starts by spoofing 2001: A Space Odyssey with a group-masturbation gag (furry Neanderthals who discover their junk) and ends with a fake ad for Part II, featuring “Jews In Space” and “Hitler On Ice.” Between, writer-director-star Brooks unleashed a torrent of dick jokes, fart jokes, piss jokes, drug jokes, and punchlines targeting gay and Black people, Jews, and women. Like an R-rated edition of Mad Magazine sprung to life, History may be Brooks’ crassest, horniest film, which is saying something.
It’s also the hardest for audiences today to swallow—not just because of the sleazy vibe and equal-opportunity offensiveness. Unlike the timeless, subversive cool of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein or Cleavon Little in Saddles, the house style in History was broad, hysterical schtick: mugging, dumb puns, clowning. Today’s fashionable comic mode is the deadpan, the medicated, the awkwardly hip. Contemporary joke writing has to walk a minefield of uncovering humor without stepping on sensitive topics. Laughing at the past can be construed as endorsing oppression and suffering. All of which might explain the unfortunate failure of Hulu’s History Of The World: Part II, which is about as funny as a high-school textbook left out in the rain.
Headlined by the hard-working Ike Barinholtz, Nick Kroll, and Wanda Sykes, and narrated by Brooks, the cameo-packed series (which premieres March 6) strings along sketches about Jesus, the Civil War, and the Russian Revolution, with one-off vignettes and filler. The action takes place more or less in the Mel Brooks Cinematic Universe, with winking allusions to The Producers and Blazing Saddles that land with a thud (conspicuously absent: any variation on “It’s good to be the king”). When Nick Kroll’s whiny shtetl dweller Schmuck Mudman starts to quote Leo Bloom freaking out on Max Bialystock, it’s a meta-facepalm.
In the 1981 movie, Brooks burlesqued major epochs—the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, and so forth—through Boomer-era movie tropes: sword-and-sandal epic, Esther Williams–Busby Berkeley pool extravaganza, Rat Pack buddy flick. The scaled-down (read: cheap-looking) version for the series operates similarly: insert cast member or guest star in historical event, then parody TV show or internet phenomenon. So the Russian Revolution bits borrow from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Fiddler On The Roof, and Instagram influencers. Galileo (Nick Kroll) appears as a Renaissance Try Guy between sketches on TicciTocci. Johnny Knoxville is the host of JackRasp, playing infamous Romanov parasite Rasputin getting his dick chopped off. Sykes portrays the first Black Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, in a Jeffersons-style ’70s sitcom called Shirley! Jesus (Jay Ellis), the apostles, and Mary Magdalene (Zazie Beetz) pop up as nitpicking nudges in Curb Your Judaism, then in a weak-sauce mockumentary riff on The Beatles: Get Back.
Few of these mashups seem to have been developed past the pitch line and sit there at sub-SNL levels of satiric timidity. When not lampooning, the writing defaults to stoner absurdism: Noah (Seth Rogen) brings not two of every creature aboard the Ark, but an assortment of adorable tiny dogs. If you like history-based humor, there’s far wittier material in Cunk On Earth.
By the fifth episode, Part II starts to find a comic pulse when three Union soldiers (Tim Baltz, Zahn McClarnon, Tyler James Williams) sent to rescue a dipsomaniacal Grant (Barinholtz) and Lincoln’s idiot son distract a Southern lynch mob with stand-up and music. Their inspired banjo ditty “Fuck The North” almost approaches South Park degrees of inspired stupidity (even if musical numbers throughout are undercooked). Josh Gad scores zingers playing William Shakespeare as diva showrunner to a room of Elizabethan scribes. The spiciest walk-0n, god help us, is Jason Alexander as a notary public and part-time mohel who micromanages the signing of the treaty to end the Civil War. Alexander’s manic, Borscht Belt pizazz feels both antiquated and instructional.
Despite the disappointment this series will be to fans of the movie, there is a sobering lesson: The future of satire will depend on how ugly writers and performers are willing to get. Retrograde and lazy comedy punches down; virtuous, often smug comedy punches up; the truest sort (even History Of the World, Part I) punches in both directions to dismantle all pieties. Sadly, this limp coda to the Brooks oeuvre only lands a half-hearted knuckle sandwich on its own crotch.
History Of The World, Part II premieres March 6 on Hulu