The world of comedy has changed quite a bit since Mel Brooks first premiered History of the World Part 1 in 1981, and even then, comedy could be divisive (as evidenced by the mixed Metascore of 47 that film received from critics upon its release). But that doesn't mean that when History of the World Part II, the eight-episode series followup to the film was coming together, the process to create the satirical humor within it was drastically different.
"Mel's ultimate goal was always to poke fun at those in power and how greedy and stupid they were, and so, doing a show about history now when we are reexamining the past, how things went down, it became, for me, a very easy through line of just continuing Mel's legacy of poking fun at people in power. And that became our guiding light in making the show," Nick Kroll, actor and executive producer, said during a Television Critics Association press tour panel for the show.
Kroll admitted that in any comedy writers' room today, there are moments where the writers do question if a joke or idea feels "itchy." But it is the responsibility of those in charge of the room to "create a safe word" and a safe space where they can examine what makes them uncomfortable about the humor. Is it what the joke says specifically, in words, or is it what is being discussed thematically?
"You can still say and do insane things, you just have to be a little more thoughtful about how and why you're saying them," he explained. "I don't think it's as tricky to navigate doing comedy right now as people like to imagine."
This new show boasts telling the "untold" history of larger-than-life figures from Grigori Rasputin to Jesus Christ, but in doing so most of the sketches satirize and "try to find humorous ways to take them down" because they are rich and powerful (and often institutions).
The challenge was finding the "happy medium" of pieces of history that people are familiar with but are also funny, Kroll said.
The characters are played by everyone from Kroll himself to his fellow writers and producers Wanda Sykes and Ike Barinholtz, as well as Taika Waititi, Kumail Nanjiani, Jenifer Lewis, and Dove Cameron (among so many others).
Kroll shared that getting the cast together was made easier by how much affection everyone had for Brooks himself, but personal relationships between the comedians making the show and the actors they brought on were important, too.
Johnny Knoxville (who plays Rasputin), for example, texted Kroll the day the announcement of this show was made to offer his services because of his love for Brooks, but of course being able to text Kroll because they've known each others for years helped. Similarly, Sykes has had years-long relationships with George Wallace and Marla Gibbs, which helped booked them for pivotal roles in sitcom-style sketches about Shirley Chisholm. (Spoiler alert: Sykes plays Shirley, while Wallace plays the former Alabama governor with the actor's same name, and Gibbs plays Shirley's mother. Additionally, Colton Dunn plays Shirley's husband.)
Brooks was, of course, involved, too. He serves as a writer, executive producer, and narrator for the series, and Kroll credited him with the Civil War sketch joke when Jack McBrayer plays Robert E. Lee and ends up knocking all of his soldiers in their balls with his (literal) sword.
"He's 96. His comedy mind is still so sharp, he's still so funny," Kroll said of Brooks, noting he had the pleasure and sweat-inducing experience of directing Brooks. "There's nothing better than hearing Mel Brooks say, 'Oh good idea.' There's nothing more crushing than pitching Mel a joke and hearing Mel say, 'No, I'm not saying that, that's bad.'
"The guy's got an insane life force, and he's still got jokes," he continued.
History of the World Part II premieres with its first two episodes March 6 on Hulu, and the subsequent six episodes stream two at a time each day leading up to and including the finale on March 9. Watch the first teaser for the new show here.