In 1981, comedian Mel Brooks (“Spaceballs”) released “History of the World: Part I,” a film that retells foundational historical events through a comedic lens, offering alternative and blatantly incorrect explanations of how they happened. Although the movie features several hilarious bits that are still referenced to this day and Brooks is widely considered a comedy legend, it is also notorious for being potentially problematic with its shock humor and poor portrayal of people of Color, women and religious minorities in the U.S. At the end of the movie, there are jokes hinting at a sequel that presumably would never come. However, after 42 years, Mel Brooks has at long last returned to bring “History of the World: Part II” to life through a new television series.
Given how legendary “History of the World: Part I” was, there was no doubt that the revival would be incredibly popular. The show has several big-name writers such as Nick Kroll (“Big Mouth”) and Wanda Sykes (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”) and actors Jack Black (“Kung Fu Panda”) and Dove Cameron (“Liv and Maddie”). Though all of these actors perform their parts and lines incredibly well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the lines themselves are actually funny.
Brooks is known for his comedy method of throwing anything at the wall and seeing what sticks, and that is incredibly obvious in this series. It’s hard to believe that the same series contains a clever pun on the Kama Sutra originally being a book about sex positions and soup (Kama Soup-tra) and an entire three minutes of soldiers vomiting in a boat on D-Day. With the humor ranging from funny parodies of less Eurocentric history to bathroom jokes with no punchline, it’s clear that the hits are as big as the misses are with this show, having both hilarious elaborations on simple jokes and incredibly unfortunate bits that go on for way too long.
It’s also easy to tell that “History of the World: Part II” was made to get modern-day audiences interested in Brooks’ work rather than for his old fans. As Hulu released the trailer for the sequel, several complaints from conservative fans rolled out about Brooks going “woke” in the progressive push to stray away from offensive humor. This backlash not only indicates who Brooks’ humor was catered toward, it indicates how much the original movie and the series that followed differ.
From a baseline standpoint, “History of the World: Part I” was problematic because, in its attempts to satirize the experiences of marginalized communities throughout history, it mostly ends up punching down on them. It doesn’t help that it does so while being historically inaccurate in its depiction of marginalized groups in the time periods shown. For example, all of the people of Color in the movie are depicted as slaves or prostitutes in the “Roman Empire” segment, but the Roman slavery system was not based on race. A historical inaccuracy added in to further ridicule people of Color leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth at best and is a really bad “joke” at worst. Though there are some incredible hits, like “The Ten Commandments,” the movie overall is a product of its time and is hard to enjoy if one is not used to Brooks’ style of humor.
“History of the World: Part II” does much better in regard to representation while still keeping an atmosphere of hilarity. With the wide range of writers and the general filtering that Hulu tends to do for its shows, there are fewer occasions where humor surfaces that could be considered offensive. However, because there are so many more writers with so many different styles of comedy, the bits can either be incredibly funny or incredibly unfunny. Still, the show has a sense of continuity for some plot lines, making it easier to get through than the movie while also offering more opportunities for jokes regarding certain aspects of history.
It’s difficult to speak on the show as a whole series due to differences in writing, but overall, it is undeniable that making the sequel a TV series was the best move. Not only that, making the history less Eurocentric offers both learning and more original content for satirical enjoyment. “History of the World: Part II” is a little bit like “Family Guy”: easy to watch clips of, but entire episodes can feel hard to get through. The disjointedness of segments makes the hit-or-miss aspects with different types of writing all too obvious. Even so, the series still replicates the more hilarious parts of the original movie and is a respectable sequel given the circumstances and the modernization it underwent.
Daily Arts Contributor Adaeze Uzoije can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.