‘History of the World Part 2’ Hits the High Notes

At long last, Jews in Space

To all the people out there hating on History of the World, Part 2, and I see you, you’re just plain-bagel wrong. History of the World Part 2 is hilarious. It’s not perfect. Some of the bits run on and others just aren’t that funny to begin with, but you could say the same thing about History of the World, Part 1. I never much liked the French Revolution segment. And on a rewatch, Mel Brooks uses the word “fag” or “faggot” within five minutes of the Caesar’s Palace bit, a word that was on the questionable side even in 1981. But the Spanish Inquisition number remains one of the top five all-time great cinematic comedy set pieces, and lots of other jokes land like a kick in the balls. The sequel follows that lead.

History of the World Part 1 is so old (how old is it?), it’s so old that Orson Welles is the narrator and the cast includes Henny Youngman. History of the World Part 2 has one old Borscht Belt comedian in the cast, and that’s Mel Brooks himself. There’s a guy who looks like Don Rickles in the Episode 8 Teddy Roosevelt gag, but Don Rickles is dead, the last time I checked. The cast is Gen X or younger, though I guess Wanda Sykes is pushing 60, and it’s nice to see other middle-aged people paying homage to the all-time master.

Like Part 1, History of the World Part 2 centers around some longer narrative threads. There are extended riffs on The Civil War and The Russian Revolution. The show looks at The Story of Jesus from a bunch of angles. It also lingers on the 1972 Presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, almost endlessly. And then in between, they intersperse other history gags that also parody current pop culture trends. Kublai Khan shills for Khancestry.com. His many concubines appear on a Real Housewives-aftershow hosted by “Andy Kahn.” There are commercials for a Crazy Eddie-style statue removal salesman. Galileo posts on “Ticci Tocci,” and Typhoid Mary hosts a questionable YouTube cooking channel. In a polarizing and brilliant bit, Johnny Knoxville plays Rasputin, whose buddies murder him in a variety of horrific ways in several episodes of “Jackrasp.”

Most of the online disdain toward History of the World Part 2 exists because it’s hard to have a neutral opinion about Nick Kroll, who is definitely the driving force behind this show. The other executive producers and major stars are Ike Barinholtz and Sykes, who are not polarizing figures. But Kroll is actually a perfect choice for the material, because he shares Brooks’s broad, braying, and excessively self-deprecating Jewish comedic style. And he also has an excellent eye for what’s happening in the culture, what needs to be satirized, and how.

Kroll stars in the show’s most brilliant segment, an extended Curb Your Enthusiasm parody (‘Curb Your Judaism’)  where he plays Judas Iscariot as Larry David. The section co-stars J.B. Smoove and Richard Kind, essentially playing their Curb characters in Biblical form. It’s so note-perfect, such a hilarious satire of both Christianity and David’s cringey observational comedy style, that the rest of the show plays catch-up to it. The other Jesus segments, parodies of The Notebook and Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary, don’t work nearly as well. Why not just pick a style and go with it?

Along those lines, History of the World Part 2 presents the Shirley Chisholm story as a 1970s-style Black sitcom, which nails the style completely, down to having The Jeffersons’s Marla Gibbs in the cast. But it also drags on way too long, way overstaying its welcome, even though every segment has at least a couple laugh lines.

History of the World Part 2 suffers from a kind of historical dissociative disorder. The Mel Brooks movie worked as well as it did because it moved in chronological order. So the 11-year-old me was always thinking “where will we go next?” His Moses gag works as well as it does because it comes between prehistory and the Roman Empire. Whereas Part 2 has a Noah’s Ark sketch after we’ve already seen Shirley Chisholm, the Civil War, and the killing of the Romanovs, in no particular order. Pretty much everything about the Civil War and the Russian Revolution segments works, so it’s kind of frustrating to see the show split them up. Just give us a Civil War episode, with maybe a chronologically appropriate bit or two before and after. I know that this is 2023, and linear narrative is so 40 years ago. But if anyone who’s already watching can handle it.

History of the World Part 2 exists. We have actually seen Hitler on Ice and Jews in Space, and Jews In Space features a human-sized talking dreidel who says “I am Jewt.” Now I can die happy. Hopefully soon, so I don’t have to worry about all these bills.

All that remains now, for my childhood comedy dreams to finally come to fruition, is for the Zucker Brothers to make a proper sequel to Airplane! set in the modern day. If Mel Brooks can find allies to make History of the World, Part 2, then the Zuckers can do it. They can hit me up on Linked In. I have a lot of ideas.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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