History of the World, Part II Showrunner on Mel Brooks: ‘I Get Chills Every Time I Say His Name’
May 18, 2023
Editor's Note: This interview took place before the 2023 WGA strike.
The year was 1981. Not sure if I should admit this, but I’m old enough to remember going to the movie theater, not the kind with stadium seating, but the kind with sticky floors and rows of seats that were barely raked, meaning someone’s head was always blocking the lower third of the screen. The movie was Mel Brooks’ comedy History of the World, Part I. It blew my kid mind.
It's Good To Be the King
Fast-forward four decades and finally, there’s a sequel to the original film in the form of an eight-part TV show called History of the World, Part II that is streaming on Hulu – executive produced by Mel Brooks. At 96 years old, the fact that Brooks is still kicking around, writing jokes and making fun of historical and Biblical figures blows my adult mind.
And the show is hilarious.
I was lucky enough to chat with the History of the World showrunner David Stassen (The Mindy Project) to find out what it was like to work with Brooks, lampoon history for a modern audience while holding true to Brooks’ comedic style and celebrate the silly.
Like me, David Stassen remembers watching History of the World, Part I as a kid – only not in the theater, but at home on something miraculous called a VHS tape. He admits that maybe too much of his knowledge of history came from Mel Brooks.
“I don’t know much more about the [Spanish] Inquisition than what’s in that musical number,” says Stassen, adding, “[Brooks] was an educator as well – for better or worse. I was 7 or 8 the first time I saw it and it was probably good to see people being tortured for their religious beliefs through the lens of, ‘Oh, this is funny!’”
An idea from Wanda Sykes and Nick Kroll
Stassen says the idea to do the TV show came from the brilliant comedic minds of Wanda Sykes (The Upshaws) and Nick Kroll (Big Mouth) who approached Brooks about the project – he loved the idea.
“Nick and Wanda teamed up with him at first. Because they are very busy and show-run other shows, they brought in me and my partner, Ike Barinholtz, to be guaranteed anchors, executive producers in the writer’s room.”
Working together, they broke down the concept of the show: they would write big, tentpole sketches that were 20 to 30 minutes long and break them up with other comedy bits. “We’d throw in random, fun sketches whether it’s Shakespeare or the D-Day boat scene or the Kama Sutra – we knew that was kind of our thing. We’ll get Nick, Wanda and Ike to play big characters and then do a Jesus story – that will be our four tentpoles. We presented this idea to Mel and he gave us his blessing,” he says.
Brooks made many contributions throughout the process, delighting Stassen. “Mel would hear ideas and immediately give us jokes. That’s how his brain works. We told him we were doing a Civil War story, he said, ‘You’ve got to put in this joke, I’ve been waiting 40 years. When General Robert E. Lee surrenders, and he bends over and turns, his sword has to hit all his lieutenants in the balls!’ Hearing that, I got chills,” recalls Stassen. “Mel held onto that joke for 40 years and we got to do it.”
Brooks in the Writers Room
Stassen says that Brooks would come into the writer’s room via Zoom every few weeks to check in and give the writers in the room the thrill of a lifetime. Brooks would also watch rough cuts and give support throughout the entire process.
But getting input from Brooks amounted to much more than just adding jokes and boosting morale. “When we heard that joke [about Robert E. Lee],” Stassen says, “it was obviously great to know that Mel still has it. But it was one of the things that helped us shape the tone of the show, which is: pack it with jokes, nothing is serious, and any mention of anything, can we make it a joke?”
Stassen gives an example from the scenes about Abraham Lincoln, who was famously 6’4” and towered above everyone else. “Abraham Lincoln stands up and hits his head on a chandelier. Abraham Lincoln points to something and knocks over a vase. Let’s make a joke immediately. Mel likes visual jokes so it was fun to think in that medium for the whole process.”
The show had to reflect Brooks’ signature style of physical comedy mixed with wordplay and overall goofiness we know from his other movies like Airplane! and Naked Gun. But it also had appeal to a modern, streaming audience and feel au courant. Adding references to social media and new technology bridged that gap.
Choosing the Best Moments in Time
One hilarious example is the sketch about Typhoid Mary, played by Mary Holland (Golden Arm).
The premise is that Typhoid Mary is live-streaming a Twitch-style cooking show called “Eat, Drink and Be Mary.” Typhoid Mary is hilariously obtuse about how she’s spreading disease.
“Uh oh, I’ve got something cooking. No, it’s not in the oven. It’s in my pants. I’ve got to go have a shit,” says Typhoid Mary. But the social comedy comes from the user comments to the right of the screen. One comment says, “I like how she just accepts her Typhoid. So Inspiring.” In this world, even Typhoid Mary can be accepted as her authentic self.
Another update to the History of the World franchise comes with exploring non-Western history. “The first one was all Western civilization, and we didn’t want to do all Western civilization. We wanted to include Asia and Central America and wherever else we could come up with humor,” says Stassen.
The sketch “The Real Concubines of Kublai Khan” mashes up the conquering of China in the 13th century with The Real Housewives reality TV show. Adding Andy Cohen and RHOBH star Crystal Kung Minkoff is a stroke of genius.
But there are many other sketches that stand out, like “Jews in Space” starring Sarah Silverman which was teased in the original film, complete with flying Stars of David.
“Shirley!” Is a throwback to 70s-era sitcoms and stars Wanda Sykes as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. Adding to the true story is when the show depicts Chisholm visiting her presidential rival George Wallace in the hospital. Here, George Wallace is played by Black comedian George Wallace (Clean Slate) and couldn’t be more self-referential and funny.
How to 'Punch Up' History
There’s “Jackrasp,” a Jackass parody starring Johnny Knoxville as Grigori Rasputin who, despite everyone’s greatest, most embarrassing and painful efforts, simply cannot die.
Stassen says the key to finding the humor in historical figures is the concept of “punching up.” Stassen explains: “Whenever you have a person from history who’s very revered, just remember they are also a flawed human being. It comes from a place of wanting to undercut those in power or those in history we all remember.”
Take the sketch about Galileo and the show he does on his fictional app Ticci Tocci. If you exploit his flaws, i.e.: his vanity and ego, the humor comes from how he sees himself vs. how the world actually sees him.
Stassen says he would love to do a season 2 of History of the World, Part II. “We don’t know if it’s going to happen yet, but we’re hopeful.”
Overall, Stassen says it’s been an incredible privilege to work with Mel Brooks. “It’s as big of an honor as I’ll probably ever get in my career. I get chills every time I say his name. I can’t believe I know him and he knows who I am. I’ve been to his house and eaten Jewish pastries in his living room. So I think I’ve had a very lucky career to have experienced some time with Mel,” Stassen says.
He had this advice for anyone trying to make it as a TV comedy writer:
“Write a pilot that showcases your voice. Rewrite it 20 times, make it better and better. Then write another one because I truly believe you get better when you move on to your next project. Getting representation is hard so getting a job in the industry while you’re writing is the way to make connections. That is often more helpful than having an agent blindly submit you to producers who don’t know who you are,” Stassen says.
History of the World, Part II is currently streaming on Hulu.
Written by: Shanee EdwardsShanee Edwards is an L.A.-based screenwriter, journalist and novelist who recently won The Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer and was honored to be mentored by actress/producers America Ferrera. Shanee's first novel, Ada Lovelace: The Countess Who Dreamed in Numbers was published by Conrad Press in 2019. Currently, she is working on a biopic of controversial nurse Florence Nightingale. Shanee’s ultimate goal is to tell stories about strong, spirited women whose passion, humor and courage inspire us all.
- Show Runner