Mel Brooks Monday: History of the World: Part I

There is no History of the World: Part II. How funny you find that fact may largely determine your enjoyment of Mel Brooks’ odd grab bag of history-themed shorts, History of the World: Part I.

The jokey title suggests that Brooks is spoofing the classically overstuffed historical epic, so large and unwieldy that it had to be split into multiple parts. In aping these types of films, the movie itself is a bit of a jumble; it never settles on a consistent tone, and alternates between brilliantly hilarious and maddeningly unfunny.

History of the World is Brook’s strangest film by a mile. It’s essentially a tour through the history of man (or the first half of it anyway), narrated by Orson Welles. The initial humor comes from the dichotomy of Welles narrating the events as serious fact while the actors are doing very goofy, stupid things. The movie has five main segments, from the dawn of man to the French Revolution, and I think it’s best to review the film by discussing each of the segments.

The first segment concerning the dawn of man is rather short, but pretty amusing. It follows a group of cavemen discovering fire, creating art (and, in a hilarious scene, the art critic) and hunting. It’s funny enough and makes good use of Welles’ narration, although, at this point in his career, you would think Brooks could afford some decent looking effects and costumes. Everything looks laughably cheap and fake, and I’m not sure if that’s due to budget constraints or somehow it’s part of the joke. If so, it’s not very funny.

The second segment, The Old Testament, is literally one joke, starring Brooks as Moses. It’s a classic Brooks gag, but if you’ve never seen it, I won’t ruin it for you.

The third segment, focusing on the Roman Empire, receives the most time and attention, and is easily the film’s highlight. Brooks stars as “stand-up philosopher,” Comicus, who, along with his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), befriends a black slave named Josephus (Gregory Hines, channeling Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart). After the trio offends Caesar (Dom DeLuise) during a stand-up routine, they are sentenced to death in the arena. They attempt an escape with the help of a Vestal Virgin named Miriam (Mary Margaret-Humes) and her boss, Empress Nympho (a magnificent Madeline Kahn).

This segment is just plain fun, even as it cribs jokes straight from Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Brooks has gotten to a point in his career where he can start ripping off his own jokes. No, they’re not as funny the second time, but there are plenty of other original jokes that land big laughs (like when Josephus creates a giant doobie to “mellow out” his pursuers and throw them off the chase). For every tired, unoriginal joke, there’s a funny and surprising one. It’s a strange brew—a bit of a head-scratcher, actually, but it works.

History of the World is a strange brew; sometimes funny, sometimes dull and forgettable.

History of the World is a strange brew; sometimes funny, sometimes dull and forgettable.

This is also Brook’s raunchiest movie, and it shows throughout. I’ve always thought that Brooks was one of the original masters of the dick joke. Today’s comedies, thanks to the likes of Judd Apatow and the like, are too obvious with their phallic humor, putting them out for the world to see. Brooks understood well that penises themselves are not funny, but the subtle suggestion of them is. It’s almost like the audience gets to lean in on a secret: “did they really just say…was that joke really about…?” They may not immediately grab the attention like in today’s raunchy hits, but they’re infinitely funnier and well-earned.

The Roman Empire section ends with a great joke involving Comicus’ encounter with Jesus during the Last Supper, but then, just as the story is getting interesting, we’re whisked away to the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a jarring shift, but it’s hard to complain when Brooks manages to make something as grim as the Inquisition so damn funny. Here, Brooks leads an elaborate musical number as the infamous Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. In its cheery interpretation of tragic events, it recalls the classic “Springtime for Hitler” number from The Producers, and deserves mention in the same pantheon of classic Brooks moments. It’s a brilliant number, and Brooks is having so much fun, it’s infectious. This is the kind of offensive-yet-warm, biting, genius humor that is missing from so much of the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, the final lengthy segment, set during the French Revolution, is actually pretty terrible. Here, the movie stops being funny and just gets distasteful; the sex jokes go into overdrive, and the humor takes a big nosedive. It’s essentially a take on The Prince and the Pauper when the French King Louis XVI (Brooks again) finds a “piss boy” who looks just like him and, under the advice of the Count De Monet (a tragically underutilized Harvey Korman) switches places with him, so he can run away while the peasants, caught in the fervor of an uprising, cut off the head of the doppelganger instead.

Would you ever find a gang rape funny? Well, there’s one here, and it’s supposedly played for laughs. I found it incredibly mean-spirited and pretty graphic, a complaint you can’t level at most Brooks films. It doesn’t get much better. I’m kind of baffled at how tone-deaf this section is, and how much of a drop in quality it is from the rest of the film. Harvey Korman is literally playing the same cheesy villain he did in Blazing Saddles, and the movie uses all of the same jokes (no one can pronounce his name right, he attempts to kiss a woman but bumps his head instead; the list goes on). Cloris Leachman should be typically brilliant as revolutionary leader Madame Defarge, but she is given precious little to do.

The sorry affair attempts to end with a meta-joke on the level of Blazing Saddles, but it isn’t nearly as successful. In fact, much of History of the World seems like an attempt at recreating Blazing Saddles in a different setting, but the majority of the effort rings false. There’s only so much you can do when you’re copying yourself, and this movie has none of the warmth, heart or originality of that far superior comedy.

History of the World is a strictly middle-of-the-road Brooks film. It works well as a collection of individual scenes, but falls quite flat as a complete film. Brooks seemed confused about the kind of movie he wanted to make, and the result is an occasionally brilliant, maddeningly inconsistent mess.

It might save you some time and frustration to skip the movie and just watch the amazing Inquisition musical number, which you’ll find below: