Arts, Culture

Inspiring Mayhem At 96, Mel Brooks Is Ready For His Slightly Outrageous Closeup

IN Hollywood, comebacks are not uncommon.  Who will ever forget that image of Norma Desmond, the well-past-her-prime movie queen (played by Gloria Swanson) in the l950 classic Sunset Boulevard? Imperiously—as the final credits are about to roll—she delivers that unforgettable line: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

At 96, comic genius Melvin James Kaminsky—better known as Mel Brooks—is also making a comeback and is more than ready for another of his inimitable close-ups.  Well sort of.

Mel is now the inspiration (and front man) for a new TV series on the Hulu network appropriately titled, The History of the World Part II, a sequel (kind of) based on his big 1981 hit, The History of the World Part 1.

Mel Brooks, the host of the show, insisted that he should be made to look exactly the way he looked when he did “The History of the World Part 1” nearly half a century ago. Hulu did a little “photo enhancement” and the young Mr. Brooks’ head shows up on the head of a magnificent body!

Now please fast forward 40 plus years to the Television Critics of America (TCA) conference in Pasadena, California, and up pops Mel on a giant screen, looking a wee bit older but still with his inimitable dry delivery.  Only this time Mel is the show’s producer and narrator (you could also call him the ringmaster), a role he relishes with undisguised delight.

Of his comeback, Mel tells Daily Variety: “I can’t wait to once more tell the real truth about all the phony baloney stories the world has been conned into believing are history!”

And this time, unlike in his original movie, he decides not to play any of history’s outrageous characters as he did in the first outing.  Remember Mel as Moses, hefting the Fifteen Commandments down the Mount—until he trips and smashes five of them?

He was also the Spanish inquisitor Torquemada in the Inquisition skit. “We have a mission to convert the Jews,” Brooks sings as Torquemada slides down a banister, Broadway-style, to greet his prisoners in the torture chamber.

And who can forget Mel as King Louis XVI tossing out that unforgettable line “It’s good to be king”?

Alas none of the old Mel gang are around to reprise their roles in classic Brooks movies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Back then his supporting cast included comedy legends like Sid Caesar, Dom DeLuise, Shecky Green, Jackie Mason and Cloris Leachman

Now there are lots of new, younger faces, and except for the brief and funny opening segment, Mel dodges the camera.

The new historical characters in these sketches include Wanda Sykes, Nick Kroll, Ike Barinholtz along with Pamela Adlon, Zazie Beetz, Quinta Brunson, D’Arcy Carden, Ronny Chieng, Rob Corddry,  Josh Gad, Jake Johnson, Richard Kind, Johnny Knoxville, Joe Lo Truglio, Jason Mantzoukas, Ken Marino, Jack McBrayer, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Ratajkowski, Sam Richardson,  J.B. Smoove, Taika Waititi, David Stassen, Kevin Wand and Reggie Watts.

Yes, the good news is there are a handful of more old familiar faces including David Duchovny, Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogan and good old Danny DeVito.

I am happy to report after watching several of the episodes that Mel’s inimitable funny fingerprints are all over the place.

Brooks and his Crazy Gang have not lost their touch. The show is cringe inducing and contains enough material to upset just about every religion, nation and political taste. Part II is an equal opportunity insulter. 

I don’t want to give away too many punchlines—so let me be deliberately vague about what I viewed.

The series is pure comedic larceny and maliciously funny and—not surprisingly—often off color.  Following in the footsteps of the 1981 film, Brooks is a low-class Alistair Cooke/Masterpiece Theatre host, introducing sketches from those different periods in history. Brooks also takes credit as a co-writer along with an army of writers big enough to fill a stadium.

Along his merry way he joyfully unveils a motley crew of characters culled, of course, from bygone centuries:  The too tall Abraham Lincoln, Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Sigmund Freud, Harriet Tubman, Alexander Graham Bell, Rasputin, Ulysses F. Grant, along with a narcissistic William Shakespeare. The introduction of Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offers more modern malarkey. Their appearance, if you can believe it, transformed into ‘60s sitcom characters.

Some of my favorites: Hitler (yes that guy) skating on ice in Olympic competition! And the segment on cavewomen discovering fire. Also, Shakespeare bossing his writing team without mercy.

Of course, the series is tastelessly over the top (don’t miss the Kama Sutra segment which is a bit X-rated). It’s bizarre, even antic at times.

Mostly indescribably funny, inventive—and did I mention outrageous? Well worth a visit.

Ivor Davis

author of 

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