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Mel Brooks serves up more delightful surprises in 'History of the World: Part II'


This is FRESH AIR. In 1981, Mel Brooks wrote, directed and starred in a movie collection of short comedy sketches called "History Of The World: Part I." Now, 42 years later, he's presenting an eight-episode TV sequel for Hulu called, predictably, "History Of The World: Part II." Two episodes premiere daily through Thursday. And our TV critic, David Bianculli, has seen all of them. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: First, a little historical perspective on Mel Brooks in general and "History Of The World" in particular. Mel Brooks earned his first big writing credit for television on the classic sketch variety series "Your Show Of Shows" back in 1950, when he and TV were much younger. Three decades later, after giving us such brilliant screen comedies as "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," he wrote, directed and starred in the sketch comedy movie "History Of The World: Part I." He played many other roles, but my favorite was his brief, unforgettable appearance as Moses. Moses descends from a mountain with three stone tablets carved with rules from God but drops one.


MEL BROOKS: (As Moses) All pay heed. The Lord - the Lord, Jehovah - has given unto you these 15...


BROOKS: (As Moses) Oh. Ten - Ten Commandments for all to obey.

BIANCULLI: And now, after another four decades, Mel Brooks is at it again. He's 96 years old. And he's presenting an eight-episode Hulu sequel called "History Of The World: Part II," a sequel that he jokingly promised at the end of that first movie. Hulu is unveiling two episodes per night beginning tonight, with Mel Brooks as the narrator and as one of the 15 credited writers. Others include Wanda Sykes and Nick Kroll, both of whom star in several sketches. As for Mel, he appears only as host in the opening episode. And he uses CGI to make himself look like a cartoonishly younger and more muscular version of himself. But he sets the proper irreverent tone. And the rest of the shows more than live up to it.


BROOKS: Hello. I'm American treasure Mel Brooks. To some of you, I'm a hero, to others, merely a legend. Over 40 years ago, I wrote and directed "History Of The World: Part I," a sketch comedy movie that showed the real side of history. I also starred in it - maybe a mistake. So when I was approached by somebody named Hulu to make a sequel, I had two conditions. One, they had to make me look exactly how I did in 1981. And here I am - exactly what I looked like. Who knew there were muscles here? Anyway, my other stipulation was all original material, nothing from "Part I." No repeats. So without further ado, I present to you "History Of The World: Part II."

BIANCULLI: This new series has a bit of the flavor of Comedy Central's "Drunk History" and the catch-all approach of a "Groove Tube" or an "SCTV." But it has even more of the flavor of the very Mel Brooks movie it's emulating. Some sketches are very brief and are quick here-and-gone ideas. Others are continuing narratives running over many episodes, like the Civil War.


BROOKS: (As narrator) The Civil War was in its final days. We're talking about the one in the 1860s, not the one coming up in 2024.

BIANCULLI: Jesus as a subject gets the most screen time over the eight episodes and in several different comic treatments. One of them imagines Jesus and some of his apostles as versions of The Beatles. It's a spoof of the "Get Back" documentary that has them trying to record an album of inspirational music with Mary Magdalene as Yoko Ono. The musical numbers, like others featured in "Part II," were not written by Mel Brooks, but with songs and lyrics by Mark Rivers, they're funny enough. Another Jesus-centered recurring sketch has the apostles in a Larry David-style setting complaining about little annoyances in a segment called "Curb Your Judaism."

Every episode serves up some delightful surprises in terms of the cast. Jason Alexander, Josh Gad, Quinta Brunson, Jack Black, Fred Armisen, Seth Rogen all pop up at some point, and many scenes are stolen by guest stars you wouldn't expect, either as participants or in their chosen roles. David Duchovny portrays Howard Cosell and somehow nails it. And in a recurring sketch on the Russian Revolution, Danny DeVito plays one of the ill-fated Romanovs, and Dove Cameron is laughably oblivious as a self-centered Princess Anastasia. She's upstairs shooting an online makeup video while downstairs, her family says goodbye to a smelly Rasputin, then gets shot by soldiers.


DANNY DEVITO: (As character) Ras P. Utin (ph) - who would have known he'd be my favorite Putin?


DEVITO: (As character) Ah, the White Army. It's about time. You've come to escort us to the Winter Palace?

DOVE CAMERON: (As Princess Anastasia Romanov) Just, like, really load it up.


CAMERON: (As Princess Anastasia Romanov) Guys, can you please stop shooting out there? We're shooting in here.


CAMERON: (As Princess Anastasia Romanov) Oh, my God, you guys. You know what? One second. Oh, my God. OK. You guys, I'm, like, literally dead right now because my whole family is literally dead right now. I feel like I have to go into hiding. So watch this space and follow along with my journey, hashtag #lastromanov. But most importantly, before I go, please do not forget to use my code Anastasia for 10% off your next Potsmates (ph) order, you guys, OK? It's really important. OK. I love you. War and peace. Bye.

BIANCULLI: A few of the comic concepts are truly inspired. Sigmund Freud hosts an online masterclass. Architects of the pyramids pitch a literal pyramid scheme. And the Underground Railroad, operated by Wanda Sykes as Harriet Tubman, is an actual railroad. Fans of other Mel Brooks films will be rewarded, too, with clever callbacks to both "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers." What this series does with D-Day and with the Kama Sutra has to be seen to be believed. But it's consistent with the approach and the outrageous humor of Mel Brooks over more than 70 years of provoking big bursts of laughter. "History Of The World: Part II" is barely historical, but it's fairly hysterical.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new Hulu series "History Of The World: Part II." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Jimmy Carter on Jimmy Carter. As he spends his remaining time at home under hospice care, we look back on his life through a series of our interviews with him about entering politics, his presidency and productive post-presidency, his faith and aging. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "DOUBLE DEAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.