History Of The World, Part II Review: A Delightfully Raunchy And Silly Mel Brooks Tribute

Mel Brooks is one of the few remaining living legends in pop culture to have survived so many generational shifts. He started as a comedy writer in the earliest days of television, helped shape and transform modern movie humor, and eventually ended up creating a sea change on Broadway as well with an adaptation of "The Producers," one of his first movies. And now, more than seven full decades after he started in TV, Brooks is back on the small screen, as glimpsed in the opening of the Hulu limited series "History of the World, Part II." But true to form, the Brooks we get a glimpse of is a joke in and of itself: it's a very "swole" Brooks (AKA a bodybuilder with a de-aged version of Brooks' face slapped in front of his own visage). It's a microcosm of this sketch series, as shameless and crass and incredibly funny as Brooks' own work.

The legendary comedian is listed as executive producer and primarily only heard as the narrator through each of the eight episodes of "History of the World, Part II" (I've seen all eight episodes, which will air two by two throughout the week of March 6). Aside from Brooks' voice introducing each segment, the common elements are three comic A-Listers: Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz, and Wanda Sykes. (They're credited as "guest stars" in each episode, but they're the only three performers to appear in each installment.) The basic nut of an idea of the series is much like that of Brooks' 1981 film "History of the World, Part I" — outlandish and deliberately ridiculous sketches set amidst different periods of world history. The Hulu sequel covers everything from the Civil War to Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign to the Russian Revolution, with a massive group of comic ringers showing up to lend a hand.

In that way, "History of the World, Part II" feels very much like a loving tribute to a comic mastermind whose influence ranges far and wide. Anyone familiar with modern alt-comedy is going to be pleased with the ensemble here, as well as the style of humor evinced in many of the gags. Fans of the State can rejoice, because members like Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, and David Wain show up. And anyone familiar with the world of "Comedy Bang! Bang!", either the TV show or the podcast (or its many inspirations), will recognize roughly...oh, half of the actors here, whether in bit parts (like Andy Daly as a Norwegian ambassador) or extended roles (like Tim Baltz of "The Righteous Gemstones" playing a Union soldier in the Civil War sketches spread out over a handful of episodes).

A sketch series that hits more than it misses

Arguably, as is the case with "History of the World, Part I," this sequel series is hit-or-miss in terms of how funny the gags are (and there are many, many gags strewn throughout each sketch), and how often the gags hit to begin with. Two of the continuing sketches focus on the Russian Revolution (through the point of view of a Jewish vendor named Schmuck, as well as from the Russian leaders themselves), and on the story of Jesus Christ (played here by Jay Ellis of the HBO series "Insecure"). Some of the specific sketches work better than others — Schmuck's almost gleeful shamelessness in working as a Putzmate vendor is a bit funnier than his wife's attempts to cause revolution. And the way the tone shifts almost implies the writing staff knew some gags were funnier than others. (The story of Jesus, which pops up often, shifts tones between an outrageous action movie, a very familiar HBO comedy, and a very recent music documentary, the latter two of which are funny enough that you're better off discovering the specific parodic inspirations for yourself.)

The strength of "History of the World, Part II" is such that when the comedy hits, it hits incredibly, incredibly hard. Though comedy is naturally subjective, some of the gags here are hilarious even days later. (Ellis' sheepish delivery to Zazie Beetz, as Mary Magdalene, of the line "Aw, my dad's back on his bulls***" is still making me laugh days later.) The show's generally at its funniest in how it mines modern culture to frame through historical events, from social-media riffs to reality TV gags. In this respect, "History of the World, Part II" is awfully reminiscent of Kroll's past Comedy Central program, "Kroll Show," with its continuing characters, commentary on current television, and high-intensity amount of gags, whether or not a ton of them work. The benefit to this approach, too, is that any sketches that may appear to overstay their welcome by a minute or so are bound to be quickly replaced by something snappier and funnier.

Respectful as possible to a comic icon

Granted, if you binge-watch the entire eight-episode run, the overall length will be something close to twice the length of "History of the World, Part I." (Even though none of this show's episodes surpass 30 minutes, when you add it all up, this is more than 3 hours' worth of comic content.) That isn't too overwhelming, thanks to the fast pacing of the sketches, the generally agreeable sense of camaraderie among the performers, and the witty vulgarities throughout. It helps that Kroll, Barinholtz, and Sykes are doing a Brooksian riff on a film that isn't automatically championed as the filmmaker's best. 

When comparing "Part II" to "Part I," there's really only one avenue in which this show comes up short, and that's the music. So many of Mel Brooks' films are defined by their music, whether it's "Springtime for Hitler" or the title song of the Western farce "Blazing Saddles" or his vaudevillian number from "History of the World, Part I" about the Spanish Inquisition. Though there are a few songs in "Part II," such as a deliberately offensive number sung by undercover Union soldiers to appease Confederate sympathizers, none of them are as instantly catchy as Brooks crooning about the Inquisition.

But "History of the World, Part II" otherwise survives the death-defying comparison to the work of Mel Brooks. This sequel series manages to be as respectful as possible to a comic icon pushing a century of life, while also happily skewering history in fresh and modern ways, whether it's a focus group arguing to shift the image of Jesus Christ to be as white as them or a Russian princess aiming for social-media clout and ignoring the death of her family in the process. "History of the World, Part II" is a mostly very funny collection of heavy-hitting comic performers delivering just enough of the goods to make the revival worth it.

"History of the World, Part II" premieres on Hulu on March 6.