Mel’s Still Funn. And Smart.

I’ve never known a world of entertainment without Mel Brooks, and, more than likely, neither have you.  I was first exposed to his unique brand of puns and humor with his 60s-era spy spoof GET SMART, one of the few shows I was allowed to stay up late for, and a favorite of my dad.  When he rose to even greater prominence as a filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s, buoyed by iconic hits like BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (Frah-ken-STEEN) and SILENT MOVIE, among others, I would never miss a chance to see his latest work in the theatres on opening weekend.  In more recent years, some of his more enduring works, especially THE PRODUCERS, have gone on to great success on Broadway, assuring his continued relevance even well into his eighth decade of making people laugh.

One of his less successful ventures during the tail end of his dominant era was a modestly reviewed and financially successful effort that as Brooks recalled via Wikipedia was essentially his way of answering a joking challenge:

“I was walking across the parking lot at 20th-Century Fox on my way to my office when one of the grips who had worked on High Anxiety shouted to me from the back of a moving truck. ‘Hey Mel, what’s next? Planning a big one?’

From out of the blue the biggest title I could think of popped into my mind: ‘Yes, the biggest movie ever made. It’s called ‘History of the World.’ Someone else on the truck yelled: ‘How can you cover the whole world in one movie?’

‘You’re right,’ I shouted. ‘Maybe I’ll call it ‘History of the World — Part I.’

And, sure enough, the last scenes of the 1981 release foretold a potential sequel :

The end of the film presents a mock teaser trailer for History of the World, Part II, “coming soon”. The trailer is narrated by Brooks, and shows clips of segments titled “Hitler on Ice“, “A Viking Funeral“, and “Jews in Space” (a parody of Star Wars).

Well, it took 42 years, but at long last Brooks has made good on his vow (or threat, depending upon your attitude) for said Part II, and he’s engaged a new team of talents to write, produce and star in this sequel, being released on Hulu over four consecutive nights, two episodes at a time, beginning last night and continuing through Thursday.  As VARIETY’s Joe Otterson reported, a huge Brooks fan and a pretty darn good comedy writer of more recent vintage took up the challenge of bringing out an actual sequel:

As the streaming revolution took hold, Brooks, his producing partner Kevin Salter and rightsholder Searchlight Pictures decided to explore a long overdue sequel, but in series form. That’s when they contacted Nick Kroll, who’s known for his sketch comedy (in addition to the painfully funny take on adolescence “Big Mouth”), to kick around a “Part II” that was four decades not in the making.  

“There was something slightly more exciting about hearing from Mel Brooks, with all due respect to the wonderful folks at Searchlight,” Kroll says. 

Kroll brought in Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz, and David Stassen to develop the 21st century take on the original. But they didn’t want to do a new “History of the World” without the king who started it all. As COVID kept everyone at home in lockdown, Kroll and Sykes called Brooks to invite him into the virtual writers’ room.

“First, it was a long-distance call, so I wanted to establish who was paying for it,” quips Brooks, still as funny as they come at 96. “And they said they were, so I said, ‘OK.’ They’re both crazy about ‘History of the World’ and they thought that a new ‘History of the World’ was actually needed. I was stuck in this COVID situation where you didn’t see people, where you were locked in a cave. So, this was a very welcome relief from isolation.” 

Having worked over the decades as a writer, director, producer and actor on his projects, Brooks says he was happy to do whatever the new creative team asked, which included anything from narration, writing jokes, or taking out things that he didn’t feel fit. “[I’m] the Jewish advisor, ready to advise them on everything,” he says.   

Brooks says writing for “Part II” reminded him of his days in the room on early TV shows like the 1950s variety staple “Your Show of Shows,” where he got his start. And he was excited to be back writing in the sketch format again: “Sketches are like little play-lettes,” he says. “It’s so different. They’re so different from ‘I just flew in from Chicago and boy my arms are tired.’ That’s funny stuff, but it doesn’t satisfy your soul.”   

And for Brooks to be reinvigorated by a new generation of colleagues at this point in his life is arguably an irresistable feel-good story.  He’s the last significant survivor of the iconic YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS writing staff that included the likes of Larry Gelbart, Sid Caesar, and both Neil and Danny Simon.  Heck, he’s outlived most of the cast of HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART ONE.  Not to mention his beloved wife Anne Bancroft and his best friend, the equally iconic comic legend Carl Reiner, which, if you were lucky, you’d often see him with at Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills at breakfast or lunch, “having a fress”, as Jews both in and out of space say, and from where in their later years they’d order in sandwiches and watch JEOPARDY! together nightly after they both became nonagenarian widowers.

Reiner and Brooks participated in one of the most enduring comedy sketches of their era, where Brooks portrayed “The 2000 Year Old Man”, with Reiner reprising his role as roving reporter which started on the Caesar-starring precursor to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE  to interview Brooks’ elderly shtick-talker.   It won awards and broke records for comedy album sales in its day, though it’s likely a lot of Hulu subscribers haven’t even seen it.

Well, Brooks isn’t quite THAT old, but he’s certainly at a point in life and in comedy where he has earned the right to educate and pontificate.  And to do so in a rollout that’s relatively unique to streaming–a de facto mini-series, the kind that was popular on broadcast networks when his comedy movies ruled the industry–is both throwback and groundbreaking all at once.

The first two episodes may not be your cup of tea.  And per Rotten Tomatoes, you may not be alone in that opinion– the sequel is currently trending at a modest 74% on the Tomatometer among critics, a modest improvement over the 61% the original received, and an even more underwhelming 29% among audience voters.

Still,  I laughed.  Sometimes at some truly corny jokes that would never qualify for Tik Tok memes.  And rhis probably won’t set any viewership records for Hulu.

But when a 96-year-old legend gets a chance to show what comedy can be without slurs, insults or slaps, it should at least be sampled.   And I’d truly encourage anyone not yet familiar with Brooks’ works to take this opportunity to rediscover his brilliance.  If you can’t laugh at Alex Karras punching a horse or a musical number celebrating The Inquisition, then you may be more lifeless than the geniuses and talents that have previously been elevated to comedy royalty.

And give this a shot, too.  Perhaps we might then get another visit from the 2000 Year Old Man.  Or at least one who will soon be 97, Baruch Hashem.

Until next time…


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