For as irreverent as History of the World, Part II might be, there was one person for whom everyone involved had great reverence: Mel Brooks, the man behind the original film being lovingly continued for the new Hulu sketch series.
“I think for many people in this project, our world centers around Mel Brooks,” guest star
Pamela Adlon tells Consequence. “I grew up with Mel Brooks as part of my DNA, he’s in my bones with Free to Be… You and Me. I learned how to do voices by imitating him and Marlo Thomas being babies. And then ‘The 2000 Year Old Man’ with Carl Reiner, Young Frankenstein, and History of the World, Part 1 — I don’t remember the first time I saw it, I just remember it being in my body. That’s what a huge Jesus Mel Brooks is to me and Nick [Kroll] and everybody else.”
Brooks might be 96 years young, but he still actively contributed to the new project as an executive producer, writer, and narrator, with executive producers Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz, and Wanda Sykes spearheading the project. According to showrunner/executive producer David Stassen, “We were just thrilled right away to meet with Mel. He already had jokes he’d been waiting 40 years to tell for the sequel.”
“It’s the most joyful thing, knowing that Mel is able to see this at this point in his life and we’re able to give him flowers. But it’s not passive, he’s actively involved. It’s a kind of a harmonic convergence, a perfect moment,” Adlon says.
While Brooks was present, the series represents a huge amount of collaboration between today’s funniest comedy voices, with nearly 100 credited guest stars from all spheres of entertainment. Some of those guest stars also contributed behind the scenes, because as Kroll explains in the full video interview above, key to making the series feel like something made today, but still true to the Brooks ethos, was the writing.
“How do you pay respect to what Mel’s work always was, which was funny and on the cutting edge and risky and silly and fun, and then bring that into a 2023 context? It really started with our writers’ room,” he says. “We tried to bring together all different kinds of folk, all under the guise of just bringing as many funny voices in as possible.”
This included writers who were present for the entire run, as well as guest writers like Los Espookys co-creator Ana Fabrego and Abbott Elementary star Janelle James. The room also included Community alum (and Shirley Chisholm expert) Adam Countee, The Mindy Project writer and Bros star Guy Branum, and Hacks co-executive producer Joe Mande.
Adlon says that she came on board the project after getting a text from Kroll, a longtime acquaintance with whom she works on the Netflix shows Human Resources and Big Mouth. “He says, ‘You wanna play my wife in History of the World, Part II?’ And I text back, ‘Voice or face parts?’ and he texts me back ‘Face parts,’ and I’m like, Ugh. And then I’m like, duh. Like, what do you say to Nick Kroll about anything? ‘Will you come clean my toilet?’ ‘Yes.’ You say yes to Nick Kroll. And so that’s how it began. Usually I never get to be part of anything cool unless it’s my thing. I feel still like I’m pinching myself.”
Adds Adlon, “These guys are genuine mensches — we gotta stay in the Yiddish. They have sechel. These are mensches with sechel and they get you right in the kishkes.”
The season features plenty of one-off sketches, but there are also several recurring storylines, centered around each one of the executive producers, as Kroll explains: “I did a story around the Russian Revolution and Ike did a story around the Civil War and Wanda did a story around Shirley Chisholm and her presidential campaign.”
While multiple directors contributed to the series, the tentpoles were directed by Alice Mathias, a veteran of sketch shows including Portlandia, I Think You Should Leave, and That Damn Michael Che. “Alice was top of everyone’s list because of her experience,” Stassen says. “And she said yes, and then reconsidered, but it was too late because she’d signed the contract and we made her do it.”
“Not true,” Mathias laughs, “But yeah, it was incredible. I mean, it’s such a great team — just meeting on the show was so exciting and to get the job was unbelievably cool. Then immediately thereafter I was like, really? I’m gonna do Mel Brooks? I’m carrying the canon of Mel Brooks into the second installment? What am I doing here? But it ended up being great.”
Another tentpole running throughout the season is the story of Jesus — or the stories of Jesus. Kroll says that taking on Jesus made sense because “you want stories that seem familiar to an American audience, but also hopefully there’s some new material inside of it. And I think the story of Jesus, and specifically Jesus and Mary, was something that felt like it would be familiar, but we could tackle from a bunch of different genres. That was what was most exciting, was when we cracked the idea of like, ‘Oh, each gospel will be different,’ whether it’s Curb Your Judaism, around a Curb Your Enthusiasm homage, or the Beatles Get Back documentary, which Ike and I were watching while writing and making the show, or The Notebook of Mary. It felt like a great opportunity to tell seemingly familiar stories, but from different genres and perspectives.”
Mathias says that when it comes to capturing different genres within each sketch, “you really turn towards the reference material and study it almost academically. I’m taking screenshots. I’m looking at how things are blocked. I’m looking at, you know, the production design and the mistakes — especially the mistakes.”
She also put in some time analyzing Brooks’ films in particular, to “see the themes of his work, whether they’re physical comedy themes or, like, breaking the fourth wall. Just really studying what he did and then seeing what we could do throughout our second installment to echo his work was really such a fun undertaking.”
When it came to making choices between authentic replication of projects like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Get Back, Mathias says that “you obviously can’t just reenact the source material and not have some kind of observation you’re making along the way. And so, we never prioritized the source material over something that’s funny. But I think that authenticity definitely heightens how silly you can get with it, if that makes sense. Grounding it in a reality of the source material makes room for things to get stupid.”
Stassen says “we were always asking the question ‘What would Mel do with this scene?’ He had rapping guys in the forest in Men in Tights, right? So you gotta call out that these apostles don’t all have great British accents, because also they’re in like Israel 2000 years ago. Why are they British? Just, you know, what would Mel do? Well, he would just look for as many jokes as possible.”
Brooks’ love of burying jokes in the production design helped Mathias solve one problem she was facing: When Jack Black, as Stalin, was about to break into song during a Russian Revolution sketch, she wanted a lighting change, so that “suddenly we’re in this dramatic spotlight Les Mis moment. But I was like, if it happens in a way that’s unmotivated, it’ll just feel like the filmmaking is just too present. And of course, Mel, he just has so many jokes in his production design that it was like, oh, the solution is to just have a button on the wall that he hits that says ‘dramatic light change.'”
While the Jesus sketches feature different styles, the casting remains consistent, with Jesus being played by Insecure star Jay Ellis. But there was no fear about taking on the subject of a Black Jesus — as Stassen put it, “It was like, yeah, fuckin’ A it’s gonna be a Black Jesus. We had never afraid of of blowback for better or worse. 40 years ago, you know, in Mel’s sketch of The Last Supper, he did it, he did it with all Caucasians. And so that was maybe one way we just wanted to update it.”
Says Kroll, “When we presented [Brooks] with a bunch of the material, he said we’re gonna get some letters, and that’s good. So much of what Mel has always done has been some provocative but not necessarily overtly political. And I think we tried to carry that ethos through into this show, which is to make something that felt fun and risque and also silly. I think that was sort of always our goal. Along the way, I’m sure you’re gonna hear from people who don’t love it, but purposefully our goal was to just have fun and really be silly, not take anything too seriously. So if individuals have issues with it, then of course that’s their prerogative. But the goal was for it to just be silly across the board. And hopefully, that comes through.”
In the Curb Your Judaism sequences, it’s Kroll (as Judas) in the Larry David role, and given how star-studded the cast is otherwise, it made sense to ask if David himself had been asked to participate. “We thought the nicest thing we could do was leave Larry alone,” Kroll said. “We kept being like, should we offer this to Larry? And it truly felt like no. Like, why make him say no to us? So truly we were like, let’s just leave him be and we’ll do this, and then he can not see it when it comes out, and we’ll be fine.”
That said, Kroll notes that “we truly don’t think we could have done [Curb Your Judaism] without JB Smooth. If JB had said no, I don’t think we could have done it. And the fact that we then had Richard Kind in there, there were a lot of pieces that had to happen to make Curb Your Judaism work. And JB and Richard were the most key to that.”
Stassen calls out the Get Back homage as a particularly successful one: “Alice and Kevin Atkinson, our DP, just nailed the the Beatles doc vibe. And that was, I think, the most fun the actors had. I feel like they just loved the hybrid of like, ‘I’m an apostle, but I’m also Ringo.’ That was fun stuff.”
“There was too much good stuff,” Mathias agrees. “At one point I was like, can we just have the whole episode that’s just the Beatles? Because it’s so good.”
Kroll directed the final beat of the Jesus arc himself, a big-budget movie trailer featuring a “reimagined” Jesus, following the Council of Nicaea. “He really was excited to do that one. It was always one that he had a take on and so it was great that it was in his hands,” Mathias says.
Again, all of this is in service to Brooks’s legacy, and Adlon hopes that bringing that legacy forward to today might help viewers reappreciate what comedy can be. “What I think is fundamentally wrong now with the way we execute things and look at comedy and storytelling [is that] you have to be able to play. You can’t be afraid to play,” she says.
Continues Adlon, “[Brooks] went to lots of really problematic, naughty, insane places where you do that now, it’s weaponized against you or against who you’re making fun of. And so hopefully this can make people go, ‘Oh my God, this is what satire and parody is. It’s all meant in good fun, and to make us laugh at ourselves and make us think.’ And that is Mel Brooks. That is his legacy, that lives and breathes in me as a filmmaker and a writer and an artist in every way. And I’m gonna continue to try to keep telling stories the way Mel Brooks taught me.”
History of the World, Part II is streaming now on Hulu.