Peter Bart: Mel Brooks’ Outrageous ‘History’ Lessons Help Distract From Oscar Week

Mel Brooks History Of The World Part II
(L-R) Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, Mel Brooks, Ike Barinholtz and EP David Stassen Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup for Hulu

The verdict seems clear: Mel Brooks continues to thrive as the auteur of disorder. Further, his blasphemies on Hulu this week serve as a welcome distraction from the numbing debates that usually dominate Oscar Week.

Twenty years ago, insiders assured us that The Producers would never work because Broadway disdains sketch comedy. Later, skeptics said Brooks’ career would not survive streaming because his hit-and-miss routines need the shared guffaws of a movie theater.

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Still, History of the World, Part II was applauded this week by reviewers who seem delighted that a 96-year-old continues to deploy comic confusion, and wade into issues that might not survive even a Chris Rock special — yes, Rock’s new Netflix special is also a study in “selective outrage.”

Brooks and Rock have each provided welcome distractions as well as offbeat hits. The customary dialogues of Oscar Week usually focus on weighty questions like: Has this been a good year for movies or bad? (the answer: never good enough). Have this year’s Oscar campaigns been too sentimental (CODA) or perhaps too shrill (remember Shakespeare in Love?)?

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The sheer ubiquity of Everything, Everywhere All at Once has become discomfiting to those multiverse voters who are not yet prepared for interdimensional rupture.

By contrast, the blasphemies of Brooks’ world history seem deliciously dated, imbued as they are with pop media references. Where else would you find jokes about Henry Kissinger, Shirley Chisholm or Ulysses S. Grant?

Even Adolf Hitler registers a post-Producers comeback, this time as a champion ice skater. When that Brooks musical opened on Broadway, the fear was that its basic “plot” was both too inside and preposterous. Nathan Lane somehow led us through the incoherence.

Brooks is listed as writer-producer of the multi-part Hulu show but has limited screen time as the Orson Welles-like narrator. Among the other perpetrators are Ike Barinholtz, Nick Kroll and Wanda Sykes. Brooks, however, is alarmingly apparent in the first sight gag, his body digitally altered into a youthful, muscle-bound hunk. The implication: Brooks will have a lot of weight to carry around.

(L-R) Mother Mary (Ana Maria Horsford), Judas (Nick Kroll), Luke (J.B. Smoove) and Peter (Richard Kind) in ‘History of the World, Part II’ Tyler Golden/Hulu

Fortunately, most of the skits instantly define themselves in the joke genre, then mercifully move on before cultural sensibilities are hopelessly trampled.

All Mel Brooks vehicles guarantee their hit-or-miss comedic rhythm. The story of Jesus Christ begins with a parody of Curb Your Enthusiasm with a Larry David-like Judas riffing with the apostle Luke. Inevitably, Jesus feels the need to order up a bacon cheeseburger.

Like most Brooks shows over the years, the cast seems impatient for its big “third act,” like the one forcefully delivered this week by Rock. The Big Slap from Will Smith is a home run for Rock.

And may guarantee Smith a major role in History of the World Part III.

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