Watch “The History of the World, Part II” on Disney+

Nick Kroll leads an all-star comedy cast in The History of the World, Part II, the long-awaited followup to Mel Brooks' outrageous 1981 comedy

Absurdity through the ages

With his notorious anthology film History of the World, Part I, Mel Brooks shocked viewers in 1981 with his unique take on the sword-and-sandal epic, as well as his colourful interpretations of events like the French Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition. But as the Hollywood legend and comedian Nick Kroll embarked on the film’s TV sequel, History of the World, Part II, would “an all-out assault on taste and taboo,” as one critic referred to the original, fly four decades later? 

History of the World, Part IIDisney+According to Kroll, not only is it still perfectly fine to lampoon those that were once in power, it might be more important than ever to shine a light on the inappropriate behaviour of past leaders and institutions. “What was so exciting about doing the show and continuing Mel’s legacy was that Mel’s ultimate goal was always to poke fun at those in power and how greedy and stupid they were,” says Kroll. “Doing a show about history now, at a time when we are re-examining how things went down, it became a very easy through-line to just continue Mel’s legacy.” 

History of the World, Part IIDisney+Which is not to say that writing comedy that doesn’t “cross the line” in 2023 is not a challenge. “I personally think right now in comedy 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,” Kroll muses. “Any comedy writers’ room you’re in now, there’s going to be moments where you’re like, ‘Ehh, does that feel…?’ You know, you try to create a space that’s open and honest where people can be like, ‘That makes me feel a little itchy.’ And then you examine it. You figure out, is it the joke that you’re telling? Is it the words that you’re using? Is it the target? If you take that extra time to think about that, then you can still do pretty wild things.” 

Luckily, Brooks and Kroll had competent help in that department. Joining them in the writers’ room, and as producers, are Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen. The eight-episode anthology series that satirizes Sigmund Freud, Noah of the Ark, Marco Polo, Harriet Tubman, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, just to name a few historical figures, does so with the assistance of a wildly impressive cast that includes Danny DeVito, Taika Waititi, Seth Rogen, Johnny Knoxville, Sarah Silverman… basically, any comedic actor who considers Brooks a living legend. “As soon as the show was announced, people reached out saying, ‘Mel Brooks is a huge influence on me.’ Like Johnny Knoxville. I got a text from him five minutes after the announcement was made: ‘Anything I can do. Mel Brooks is my hero,’ ” Kroll says. “Well, let’s figure out a fun place for Johnny to be in the show. We have Rasputin, who everybody tried to kill a million times. Who would be better to play Rasputin than Johnny Knoxville? The only difference is Johnny’s been trying to kill himself in Jackass.” 

History of the World, Part IIDisney+Despite the old History of the World being named Part I, and that famous sizzle reel at the end of the film teasing its sequel, Brooks had never intended to do a Part II, until inspiration struck in his 90s. And naturally, when Brooks came to Kroll with the idea of a follow-up, the comedian jumped at the chance. “History of the World, Part I is, like, one of three VHSs that we had in our house,” says Kroll. “I knew the whole movie by heart. Whether we even made the show or not, just the idea that Mel knew who I was and trusted me to do this is truly one of the highlights of my career.” 

History of the World, Part IIDisney+Kroll recalls another high point from his interactions with his idol. “I actually met Mel for the first time many, many years ago at a Jewish humour awards [show]. I was fresh out of college and was just starting comedy. I told him that I had an idea for a remake of The Producers—this was before I knew about the play—and he said, ‘Do your own thing’ and walked out of the room,” Kroll recalls. Even now, having his pitches turned down by the legend is a thrill. “He’s 96 and his comedy mind is still so sharp. I had the privilege and deep fear of directing Mel doing voiceover. There’s nothing better than hearing Mel Brooks say, ‘Oh, good idea.’ And there is nothing more crushing than pitching Mel a joke and him being like, ‘No, I’m not saying that. That’s bad.’ The idea of Mel Brooks directly telling you that your idea sucks is one of the great privileges of my life.” 

The History of the World, Part II premieres Monday, March 6 on Disney+