Sequels of all kinds, part twos among them, are rarely a promising bet. A part two that comes forty years after the original, with limited involvement from the star-writer-director driving force of the first, is approaching Russian roulette territory. So, here it is: History Of The World, Part II, and what will probably be cited as the reason Part III failed to appear for another four decades.
Mel Brooks has ended up best known for parodies of some established form – Blazing Saddles doing the Western, Spaceballs as shameless riff on Star Wars, and the original History Of The World Part I as a carousel of different eras of historical epic. And for this reason there were significant patches of playing it straight, because these were all too clearly forms which Brooks knew and loved. These were affectionate parodies, dripping with their creator’s liking of the originals and then adding a little bit of his own shtick as a capper.
Brook’s gleeful intro declaration of ‘History of the world, part two!’, over the soaring, Hollywood-epic theme music seems like we’ll be following that tradition, only to then sucker-punch you with something like a lazy parody of an advert. With History Of The World, Part II, there is no baseline, no subversion of an established form which is worthwhile in and of itself – beyond human history itself, and even then it by nature gets pretty fuzzy.
Without Hollywood’s slightly tacky grandeur to poke fun at, History Of The World, Part II has to both paint the picture and then also defile it. It commits the double sin of reusing material from Part I, and not even making it good. Per example, the ‘Hitler on ice’ section, here expanded with a fairly flabby bit of faux-sportscasting tacked onto the end. Parts like that bring it close to being that most reviled of beasts, a sequel which retroactively taints the original.
(The ‘Part I’ of the original was at one time meant to be a joke.)
The comedy is very broad, all-comers stuff, with a preponderance of farts, bodily fluids, and rimshots. This is not some wacky departure, Brooks has always gone in for crowd-pleasing, end-of-the-pier material, but when it’s nothing but lowest-common-denominator, the half-life of its comedic returns can get very short indeed.
For this reason, the briefer sketches tend to be the better ones, able to get in, do their jobs, and get out of there while they still have some goodwill left. And what broadness absolutely cannot do is save weak material. Throwing in a nob or plop will not suddenly get a skit that’s badly floundering back on course.
The longer-form material, told in several bits over the course of the whole run, is naturally more sensitive to this. If it’s based on a half-decent idea, it can just about struggle through. But there’s no excuse for the desperately lame Beatles pastiche, which seems to begin and end with ‘American actors deliver tepid banter in what they think are Liverpool accents’, and which the show keeps going back to, long after it’s run out of all its five seconds of steam.
And the more topical material – all of a sort you could go out and find in a dozen crappy streaming shows – got old before it even began. It’s the kind of painfully clunky references to current events which think that constitutes a joke in and of itself. Though, with a list of writers as long as some works’ whole casts, we at least don’t have to lay this booby prize at Brooks’ own door.
(It’s unthinkable that the nonagenarian Brooks is responsible for the lazy references to Tiktok and Twitch, for instance.)
Despite the usual issue with topical material, that it will age like sour cream in a furnace, some of the bigger references are alarmingly outdated. At one point there’s a skit riffing on Jackass, which may have been a fairly iconic show in its day – but that day ended in 2001. The incongruity here forces me to think that History Of The World, Part II is merely the amalgamation of all the fan scripts Brooks received over the years until he finally threw up his hands and figured they now had enough to staple together a kind-of functioning whole.
Sure enough, History Of The World, Part II is uneven, even by the standards of sketch comedy, and while it plumbs some impressively awful depths this does not come alongside corresponding highs. For every chuckle, every half-decent moment, there’s three or four that will just make you feel depressed and ashamed.
Timothy Simons’s weaselly version of Lincoln is a highlight, but this in particular is a rare return to classic Brooksian parody, taking some iconic recognisable trope or story or figure (eg The Great Emancipator) and puncturing all that historical grandeur. History Of The World, Part II is rarely willing to give history the grandeur in the first place – and so when their cosplayed greats end up pooing themselves or whatever it might be, it cannot prompt much more than a shrug.
Meanwhile, Nick Kroll, as recurring actor across the skits, the production’s main character-with-a-thousand-faces (as well as being a writer and producer) is no sort of replacement for Brooks, who would traditionally be the one taking that role. An empty chair would be better than Kroll, because an empty chair would have a less annoying voice. Simply being loud and atonal doesn’t magically transmogrify you into Jerry Lewis.
I wouldn’t be singling Kroll out if he didn’t seem to gravitate towards the show’s weaker material, which here is very weak indeed. Seeing his face pop up eventually instilled a kind of Pavlovian reaction, making me groan and grimace as it went into another sketch that’s just Kroll in front of a greenscreen, droning on – and, the final insult, these skits often completely dispose of the framing device of being an episode of history.
(Kroll’s omnipresence also comes at the expense of some significantly better performers. Zahn McClarnon is practically relegated to an extra, Danny DeVito is only in one scene.)
The main saving grace is Brooks’ all-too-evidently limited involvement: afternoon in the recording booth, pick up the cheque. He presides over all in voiceover, although does appear onscreen in amusingly CGIed form, and given this role as introducer-narrator of unconnected stories, well, it’d be cruel to compare a 96-year-old to the Cryptkeeper, but I’ve done it now.
But note my tasteless metaphor only casts Brooks as the Cryptkeeper, not as the decomposing corpses he curates. History Of The World, Part II has its brighter patches, but for depressingly long stretches, it is basically just a bunch of off meat shambling about onscreen, which happens to sometimes hit its cues.
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