They should have stopped at “Part I.”
The biggest joke behind 1981’s scattershot “History of the World: Part One” was, well, do we even have to spell it out?
Still, people seemed eager to see a sequel even though “History” remains one of Mel Brooks’s lesser films. (let’s pretend “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” never happened).
Yet this critic recalls working at a VHS rental store in the ‘80s where customers insisted “Part II” not only existed but they wanted to rent it then and there.
Now, that crowd can sign up for Hulu and see the bona fide sequel – 40-plus years later. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The eight-part “History of the World Part II” boats a trio of creators with Brooks’ blessing – Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes and Ike Barinholtz. The comedy icon is 96 and full of vigor, still, but his ability to pick collaborators has hit a wall.
The Hulu project will be greeted by stone faces for most viewers. The collection of sketches, which bounce around the historical calendar but include several recurring tales, is clever on the surface but rarely inspired.
Laughs? Squint hard and you’ll see a few … at best.
The first four episodes reviewed cover the life of Jesus Christ, the Russian revolution, Sigmund Freud (a modest highlight thanks to Taika Waititi) and even cavewomen discovering fire. The latter provides the most painful sketch, but it’s blissfully short.
Some bits arrive with promise – a “Good Times’” style sitcom based on the first black Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm (Sykes).
Others wallow, and we mean wallow, in potty humor without the benefit of laughter. Alexander Graham Bell getting punked by Watson is a prime example. So are WWII soldiers projectile vomiting en route to Normandy.
Kroll works overtime in multiple roles (as do Sykes and Barinholtz), but he brings the most comic zip to the series. It’s rarely in the service of smart writing, alas.
Verbal puns, meta references and other running gags abound, but they never gel into something worth our attention (AKA Funny). Even the most successful bit of the initial episodes, the life of Christ as seen via a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” parody, loses its bite after a spell.
The project’s woke bona fides hardly doom the series, but their presence suggests the creators cared more about scoring culture war points than laughs us. The show takes swipes at Florida, “white guilt,” and echoes Hulu’s factually funny “1619 Project” with this Harriet Tubman quip.
“We built most of the infrastructure of this county,” Sykes’ Tubman cries. Now, is that supposed to be funny or is it merely another woke talking point?
Standup comedian, writer and producer Nick Kroll has returned to TV as part of the cast of Hulu’s star-studded sequel to the Mel Brooks comedy, “History of the World, Part 2” https://t.co/bYNXlVIDDn pic.twitter.com/VW4h9fqdrB
— CBS Sunday Morning 🌞 (@CBSSunday) March 5, 2023
We also get race-swapped casting moves with figures like Jesus Christ (Jay Ellis) and Mary Magdalene (Zazie Beetz), among other figures. Having the great J.B. Smoove play a disciple alongside Kroll’s Judas is perfect, of course, given the “Curb” intentions.
Other bits, like Kumail Nanjiani pitching a Kama-Sutra project that combines sexual positions with soup recipes, is so dead on arrival it’s hard to fathom. Just be grateful it wraps up swiftly.
The series gathers so many recognizable faces, but almost none make an impression. A cast member we’re told not to share seems hemmed in as Stalin, while Pamela Adlon’s Jewish rebel is unpleasant in every scene without generating a smile.
Suffice to say no one can measure up to the original’s Dom DeLuise, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn and Brooks himself.
What’s unforgivable about “History of the World: Part II” is how cheap it looks. The production design resembles an ‘80s or ‘90s TV show, decades before studios pumped serious money into the format. “Part II” makes no effort to hide its tiny budget or drab direction, creating a chasm between it and the source material.
The few musical numbers cry out for a strong visual approach that never arrives.
The opening episode frantically copies Brooks’ broad, sometimes vulgar style, and it’s the most authentic part of this TV sequel.
Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine anyone sticking around for all eight installments.