The best joke in “History of the World, Part I” is the tablets. Moses descending from the mountaintop, bearing 15 commandments, only to drop one of the three in his armful, is as simple and elegant as you can get. It’s in Mel Brooks’ delivery, but it’s also in the way that punchline plays in any area. Any era, from vaudeville to Vine, gets an equal shot at that laugh.
Arguably, the second best joke in “History of the World, Part I” is the quick epilogue that smushes together slices of ideas as a test case for what a potential sequel might have looked like. The stuff wedged into the end of that 1981 movie is weirder, more abstract, and, yes, shorter. For decades, the fact that “Part 2” never came only made it funnier in its own way.
42 years later, the new Hulu series “History of the World, Part 2” is a fulfillment of that promise. It arrives in an eight-episode season form, with many of the same hallmarks of its predecessor. For everything in that Mel Brooks movie that works, there’s plenty that the intervening years have rendered inert (and in some cases, actively counterproductive). This season-length “Part 2” arrives with the same fitting, mixed-bag approach to a history textbook: a decently entertaining but inconsistent mix of laughs and eye rolls.
If you’re going to pick someone to be all over your sketch-heavy sequel, you could do a lot worse than Nick Kroll, who’s got both the resume and the level of commitment that a show like this needs to not get in a complete rut. Surrounding him is a solid comedy cross-section, a too-long-to-list ensemble of faces familiar to anyone with an HBO Max subscription or more than a passing knowledge of UCB history. The show’s secret hook is its casting, ranging from the no-brainer (Timothy Simons as Abraham Lincoln makes almost too much sense) to the wild card (Danny DeVito as Czar Nicholas II) to the “give them more screen time please” (anyone in the boat for the show’s D-Day sketch).
Brooks takes over narrating duties from Orson Welles, announcing the title cards for everything from “The Story of Jesus” to “The Fall of the Berlin Wall.” Along with the man himself, the biggest connection between original and sequel is that it almost exclusively works in short spurts. With eight episodes of runway, there are a handful of segments that get stretched out far longer than there’s material to sustain it. Even though there are a handful of solid laughs in longer collections like the one about the Russian Revolution, there aren’t enough to justify returning to it again and again.
“History of the World, Part II”
What “Part 2” does have is a stellar group of writers and performers who really shine when they get a chance to play to their strengths. As plodding as the Ulysses S. Grant portions of the Civil War sections get, it does give the chance to sneak in one of the season’s clear bright spots: a surprising three-man team-up between “Abbott Elementary” star Tyler James Williams, the always dependable Zahn McClarnon, and improv circles mainstay Tim Baltz. Their energy as a trio isn’t reliant on a cheap reference or shoving someone from the past in front of modern technology. With Baltz as the straight men, McClarnon and Williams get to show off their bona fides and embrace a level of goofiness that their notable other roles don’t always give them.
Whether in design or execution, “History of the World, Part 2” isn’t really made to be revisited. There may be the odd detail that could pop out from the background on a second or third viewing, but this is a collection of sketches that’s meant to be digested in one quick gulp. And that’s not in the binge sense (watching all eight of these episodes back-to-back only draws more attention to how thin and same-y a lot of these setups are), but in the idea that a lot of these ideas still feel like rough drafts or brainstorms. “History of the World, Part 2” is theoretically the place where Ronny Chieng and Jake Johnson could face off as Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, but that possibility is where a lot of these begin and end. There’s a difference between comedy that has a clarity to it and comedy that’s designed to be fully understood and tossed aside after a single use. “History of the World, Part 2” often finds itself in the latter category, merely existing rather than adding to a novelty.
One thing entirely out of this show’s control is that it exists in the shadow of “Drunk History,” a not-so-distant version of “What if we got some of the funniest people alive to play famous historical figures?” That show thrived on a spontaneity that “History of the World, Part 2” rarely has the ability to muster. “Part 2” is so locked into parodies and fake commercials, a lot of these sketches are merely a few minutes of following through on a basic “what if x, but y” premise that the internet already in steady supply within a click or two. They’re Instagram Story-style quick pop culture quick hits that almost feel designed to disappear before any potential Season 2 rolls around. (There’s a handful of quick bites here that have Galileo on a 400-year-old version of TikTok. It never really extends out further than that basic idea.)
And you know what? That’s…fine. There’s too many accomplished comedians involved here for the floor to be embarrassing low. If the show gets more people to watch “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed,” that’s a net positive. If it gives Jay Ellis and Zazie Beetz more chances to be funny, that’s ultimately a good thing. There are a handful of tablets-style moments in “History of the World, Part II” (just wait until Richard Kind pops up). The problem is that mentioning any of them here would rob the show of a lot of its fun. For a long-awaited sequel with this much leeway to rewrite history, there should be more reasons to celebrate.
“History of the World, Part 2” premieres two new episodes every day on Hulu through March 9.
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