The comedy of Mel Brooks might as well be its own genre. It’s broad. It’s irreverent. It’s giddily absurd. And no more so than in the 1981 movie “History of the World, Part I,” wherein various events on the human timeline are filtered through this winking sensibility, transforming something like the Spanish Inquisition into a big splashy movie musical number, complete with an Esther Williams-inspired synchronized swimming routine. The Brooks mantra is blunt: Subtly is for suckers; the more elaborate, the better.
It also needs to be really funny.
Sketch comedy is generally the provenance of television, so perhaps it’s fitting that the movie’s sequel arrives, 40-plus years later, as a Hulu TV series.
At 96, Brooks is an off-screen presence except in voice-over, introducing each sketch. He’s also credited as a writer along with the project’s primary creative drivers: Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen. They have a clear affection for Brooks and his brand of over-the-top vaudevillian energy — and his overtly Jewish sensibility — which stands out because this specific alchemy doesn’t exist much in comedy at the moment.
There are cameos galore: Quinta Brunson and fellow “Abbott Elementary” co-star Tyler James Williams, Jason Alexander, Seth Rogen, Jay Ellis, Lennon Parham, Jack Black and Zahn McClarnon among them. “It’s all in good fun!” is the tone, which carries things a long way, even if there isn’t enough material strong enough to justify eight half-hour episodes.
Some of the sketches are recurring bits throughout the season (segments about the Civil War and the Russian Revolution suffer from diminishing returns) while others are one-offs, including an impassioned debate among diplomats about the origins of humus, or Josh Gad’s William Shakespeare as an Elizabethan version of the obnoxious Hollywood showrunner prone to stealing ideas: “You don’t understand the pressure I’m under!”
It’s a style of comedy filled with sidelong jokes at the margins. A muttered reference to Rasputin: “Who woulda known he would be my favorite Putin?” Or a Bible-era character holding up an hourglass: “It’s half past sand, someone’s late again.” Or Ulysses S. Grant strolling through his encampment and passing a medical tent where a doctor says to nobody in particular: “Can I get a dull saw?”
Not all of it works. In fact, a lot of it doesn’t. Maybe the misses are inevitable when the goal is an explosion of concepts and barrage of jokes; some won’t land. But the ones that do stick with you.
I love the season-long arc following Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 run for president, re-imagined here as a Norman Lear sitcom starring Sykes as “Shirley!” Mashing up TV comedy high jinks and actual history works better than I would have thought, particularly when Chisholm is stunned to learn that neither Gloria Steinem nor Jesse Jackson are backing her:
“We definitely want a woman, just one that can win — like George McGovern,” says Steinem.
“We definitely want a Black person, can’t you see? But just maybe a Black man — someone like me,” says Jackson, speaking in perpetual rhymes. It’s a pretty searing poke at both figures.
But it’s also just a terrific homage to the era. David Duchovny as Howard Cosell tries to corner Chisholm for an interview at the convention and she’s not having it: “Outta my way, Monday Night goofball!” That Marla Gibbs of “The Jeffersons” shows up in these sketches is just the cherry on top.
The other season-long sketch that stands out is the story of Jesus. The show plays around with a few different approaches that become progressively funnier as they go on, from “Curb Your Judaism” with Judas as a Larry David; to a riff on The Beatles documentary “Get Back” called “The Last Supper Sessions” (filled with mugs of tea, Mary Magdalene as Yoko Ono, the group’s very meta commentary on their wavering Liverpudlian accents, and a final performance on the roof of … the Falafel Hut); to the Council of Nicaea meeting of bishops (“Would you guys rather have the villains be the Jews or the Ro —” “The Jews. The Jews, for sure”); to a trailer for a summer blockbuster that includes the line “Apostles assemble!” to the sounds of “Back in Black” on the soundtrack.
Silliness can be underrated. It can also be deployed in ways that make you wince and think, why? (A sketch featruring Alexander Graham Bell copulating with a telephone — why?) But we need the kind of antic, good-natured spirit that the show is looking to channel, and if half of it falls flat, well so be it. An entire sketch more or less riffing on John Lennon’s comment that “we’re more popular than Jesus” more than makes up for it. And the bonus of streaming: You can fast-forward through the rest.
“The History of the World, Part II” — 2 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Hulu
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic