By Jackie Hajdenberg
This article contains spoilers for “History of the World Part II”.
(JTA) — In a scene that will soon stream on Hulu, a group of early Christian bishops gathers to set a promotion strategy for their newish religion — to “make the Bible an international blockbuster,” as one puts it.
But the plot is unclear: “Who are the bad guys in this story?” asks one. He and his fellow clerics consider two options: the Jews and the Romans.
“Let’s make them the Jews, for sure,” says a bishop. “They run everything,” says another.
And thus the First Council of Nicaea, a gathering in 325 C.E. that is considered the birth of Christian antisemitism, gets the Mel Brooks treatment in “History of the World Part II,” the long-awaited sequel to the classic Mel Brooks film that revolves around Jewish history — and skewers it. The new four-part series even has a Jewish premiere date — March 6, the eve of the merrymaking holiday of Purim.
As with the 1981 original — written, directed and produced by Brooks, who also stars — the new series is littered with Jewish subject matter, even in the sketches that aren’t about Jews. And although comedy mores have changed in the past four decades, the series aims to retain Brooks’ signature combination of sharp parody, vaudevillian vulgarity and Borscht Belt antics.
“We really tried to embrace what we loved about [Brooks’] work and apply that to the work that we were doing, whether that was the themes of funny character names, or breaking the fourth wall or anachronisms or certain kinds of playful blocking,” director Alice Mathias told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The kind of comedy work that I was doing up until this point was a touch more restrained and not quite as slapstick in places. So it was really fun to get a little sillier.”
And the creators aren’t concerned about a show with repeated send-ups of Jewish history at a time of rising antisemitism.
“Saying ‘the Jews are the bad guys’ is only funny because you’re making fun of the people saying it,” said showrunner David Stassen. “You’re punching up, you’re making fun of the bishops in power. That was the intent.”
Part of the series’ Jewishness is thanks to Nick Kroll, the Jewish comedian who had been interested in creating “History of the World Part II” for a very long time and “nudzhed” Brooks to agree, Stassen told JTA, using the Yiddish word for pester. Kroll is the co-creator of the critically acclaimed cartoon “Big Mouth,” which was largely based on his experience attending the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. He also grew up in a Conservative, kosher-keeping household.
Kroll joins Brooks, 97, Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen as a writer and executive producer, with Mathias of Netflix’s absurdist sketch series “I Think You Should Leave” as director.
“It wasn’t a matter of, is this the right time for this?” Stassen told JTA. “It was just like, how do we honor Mel? How do we do a show that’s different than current sketch shows, that is in Mel’s tone?”
“History of the World Part I” spoofs the epic films of the mid-20th century, with sketches including a musical number take on the Spanish Inquisition; an alternate history of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments; and cavemen discovering music. The new series puts a 21st century spin on that idea, reminiscent of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” (and featuring many of the same cast members, including Joe Lo Truglio, who plays one of the bishops at Nicaea) with hints of the Netflix series “I Think You Should Leave.”
Audiences will see comedic sendups of historical events including Black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for president; Marco Polo’s arrival at the palace of Kublai Khan in China; the Russian Revolution; and the signing of the Oslo Accords, the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Just a few of the Jewish jokes: Jason Alexander makes an appearance as a notary-slash-mohel who brings the wrong bag, full of his ritual tools, to the official signing of the Confederate Army’s surrender at the end of the Civil War.
“Useless. Unless somebody wants to take a little off the top,” Alexander’s character says, gesturing to his tools.
The story of Jesus Christ gets parodied via multiple genres and is arguably one of the most Jewish recurring sketches of the whole series. In a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-inspired sketch in the second episode, Judas (Kroll) and Luke (JB Smoove) realize that Jesus (Jay Ellis) has abandoned keeping kosher when they catch him publicly eating a bacon cheeseburger. A subsequent sketch spoofs the documentary “The Beatles: Get Back,” in which fans of the apostles eat matzah on sticks outside of the Apples & Honey recording studio.
And a recurring sketch focusing on the Russian Revolution and parodying parts of “Fiddler on the Roof” features a literal mud pie salesman named “Schmuck Mudman” who lives in an Eastern European shtetl. Mudman sells his wares via Putz Mates, a Yiddish play on the food delivery app PostMates. After moving from the village to Moscow, Mudman, played by Kroll, is surprised to find a meeting of the Mensheviks, the opposition to the Communist Bolshevik party, in his apartment.
“Your misery looks familiar to me. Are we from the same shtetl?” Mudman asks one of the Mensheviks in a depressing round of early 20th century Jewish geography.
“No. I get this all the time,” the man responds. “But I’m a miserable city Jew.”