Warning: Spoilers ahead for “History of the World, Part II”
My first major heartbreak occurred after watching the 1981 movie “History of the World, Part I.”
My parents introduced Jewish comedian Mel Brooks early on in my sister’s and my preteen years — arguably a little too early — and of all his movies and stand-up routines, “History of the World, Part I” was far and away my favorite.
For the 90 minutes of my life which constituted my first viewing of the movie, I was in absolute awe of Brooks’ historical parodies. While I loved (and still love) all the sketches, my favorites of the bunch were the most Jewy: “The Old Testament,” in which Brooks-as-Moses descends from Mt. Sinai with three stone tablets, announces the 15 commandments, promptly drops one of the tablets (which smashes), and then announces the 10 commandments without skipping a beat; and “The Spanish Inquisition,” in which Brooks’ Grand Inquisitor Torquemada sings a ridiculous song about torturing and forcibly converting Spanish Jews. As a young Jewish kid in a rural, fairly non-Jewish area, it felt impossibly miraculous to be in on what felt like Brooks’ inside joke with other Jews. It was intoxicating.
But what I remember most from my first viewing of “History of the World” was the moment before the end credits. “Wait, where are you going?! Coming soon! Don’t miss: History of the World Part II,” Brooks’ voice enchanted me from the screen.
With promises of sketches like “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space,” I was delighted. I turned to my dad, “Can we rent ‘History of the World, Part II’ from Netflix next?” (Yes, this was in the days when Netflix was a DVD rental service via the mail.) He laughed, explaining that this was yet another of Mel Brooks’ bits — he never actually made a “Part II.” No “Hitler on Ice”? No “Jews in Space”? I was devastated, to say the least.
Fast forward a good 15 years, and my inner child is finally getting what it so desperately desired: “History of the World, Part II,” reimagined as a Hulu series, is debuting its eight episodes over the next few days. It’s everything I dreamed it would be, and more.
Executive produced by Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes and Ike Barinholtz, “History of the World, Part II” provides hilarious insight into historical moments and figures untouched by the original movie. This means all-new sketches about the Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Oslo Accords and the Last Supper, featuring characters like Shirley Chisholm, Sigmund Freud, Kublai Khan, Amelia Earhart, Galileo, Rapustin and the Romanovs, Jesus Christ and the Apostles, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin… and more. (Though Mel Brooks no longer plays a starring role, the 96-year-old still serves on the project as an executive producer, writer and narrator for the series.) Plus, the series features an all-star cast including the three executive producers, Taika Waititi, Hannah Einbinder, J.B. Smoove, Seth Rogen, Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Richard Kind, Pamela Adlon, Ronny Chieng, Jack Black, Josh Gad, Johnny Knoxville, Emily Ratajkowski, David Duchovny, Kumail Nanjiani, Sarah Silverman… truly, the list goes on and on.
While I’m beyond thrilled just to watch the show, “History of the World, Part II” has new significance for me beyond my enjoyment as a viewer: I’m now also a Jewish comedian. In the years between my first “Part I” viewing and the release of “Part II,” I started writing my own stand-up and sketch comedy inspired by my queer Jewish identity, became a regular contributor to Reductress (writing headlines like this Hanukkah-inspired one), opened for comedian Marina Franklin and hosted shows at The Fat Black Pussycat (sister showroom to The Comedy Cellar). I can absolutely and unequivocally say that this is because of Mel Brooks. In watching his movies from a young age, I internalized his sharp, irreverent and vaudevillian-Yiddishkeit comedic sensibility, sparkling effervescence and all-encompassing Jewishness. For my entire life, not only have I wanted to watch Mel Brooks play to camera on an endless loop — I also had to try it for myself. To even have the opportunity to attempt to replicate his chutzpah on a stage? Dayenu.
I’m just one of many Jewish comics — generations of them, even — who were in some way inspired by Mel Brooks. What’s so special to me about “History of the World, Part II” is that viewers now get to see these Jewish comedians in the show’s cast and writers’ room, working in tandem with Brooks to embody the ethos of his comedy and the original film, all the while making their own mark.
In “The Russian Revolution,” Nick Kroll and Pamela Adlon create entirely original Jewish character — Shmuck and Fanny Mudman, a Jewish food peddler and his wife from the shtetl (pronounced, according to a sign in the show, “Shit-hole”) — who move to Moscow and inadvertently get caught up in the revolution. In “Hitler on Ice” (yes, they did in fact incorporate it in the show), Ike Barinholtz’s announcer character utters my favorite line of the entire series: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if you put concentration camps in peoples’ countries, you better be flawless on the ice.” In “Noah and the Ark,” Seth Rogen plays the Torah character but refuses to save wild animals in favor of saving a bunch of adorable rescue dogs. “The Story of Jesus,” featuring Nick Kroll and Richard Kind, is envisioned as a Larry David-esque show called “Curb Your Judaism.” And in “The Oslo Peace Accords,” Michaela Watkins plays the ambassador from Israel, bickering with Palestinian, Turkish and Greek representatives over whom invented hummus.
Plus, outside of explicitly Jewish bits, Hannah Einbinder reimagines Amelia Earhart as faking her own death to build a lesbian bar in the Bermuda Triangle. Jack Black plays a submissive Joseph Stalin, dreaming of a day when he can become a ruthless dictator via musical interlude. And Andy Cohen plays himself — moderating a reunion of “The Real Concubines of Kublai Khan.”
Is the show hilarious? Yes. Does every sketch work? In my opinion, no. But truthfully, I couldn’t care less. For me, witnessing the amazing impact Mel Brooks has had on Jewish comedians is a beautiful act of l’dor v’dor that both makes me laugh and feel a deep, emotional pride in my people. That “History of the World, Part II” might bring Mel Brooks to a new generation of kids and inspire them to bring their hilarious Jewish selves to the stage, like he once did for me, is truly a blessing.