Black Jesus and 'Jews in Space': Inside the funniest sketches in 'History of the World, Part II'
Hulu's sequel series brings back one of Mel Brooks's most famous sketches.
Just like history, comedy sometimes repeats itself — but in the case of History of the World, Part II we're not complaining. The long-awaited sequel to Mel Brooks's 1981 sketch comedy favorite ends with a callback that's sure to send fans of the original film into the stratosphere. In the closing moments of History of the World, Part I, the comedy icon behind Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs teased a second installment that would blast off into the far future when the next-next-next-next generation of Jews would be soaring through the cosmos in Star of David spaceships.
Jump ahead 40 years, and History of the World, Part II finally fulfills that tease... with another tease. The eighth and finale episode of the Hulu sequel series closes out with another "Jews in Space" trailer that promises further adventures to come. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Nick Kroll — who produced, wrote and stars in the History sequel alongside Ike Barinholtz and Wanda Sykes — says that boldly going back to that comic frontier was a no-brainer.
"When it got announced that we were doing the show, the first question everybody asked was: 'Are you doing 'Hitler on Ice' and 'Jews in Space?'" Kroll recalls, teeing up a joke about a certain rapper who has made his own feelings about Jews disturbingly clear. "And it was always Kanye [West] asking me about it! I can finally tell him we're doing it, and that's great because we're having dinner tonight, and our kids go to the same synagogue."
Seriously, though, Kroll really was thrilled to both revisit and add onto the pre-existing "Jews in Space" mythology with a sketch that features himself, Barinholtz and Sykes along with a very special cameo by Sarah Silverman. (A new version of "Hitler on Ice" starring the central trio was featured in an earlier episode.)
"We always wanted to make sure that we were paying respect to the original, but also doing our own thing," he explains. "I think we found a fun way to tip our hat to both sketches in a way that feels like a continuation of what Mel had done, but also something new. It also ties everything up in a fun way that I was very excited about."
But don't get your hopes up for a feature-length "Jews in Space" installment should Hulu proceed with History of the World, Part III. "The joke is always: 'Let's just keep teasing 'Jews in Space,'" showrunner David Stassen notes. "The thing is, it basically is its own sketch, and we only act like it's a full movie coming later."
"I just want to keep kicking that can down the road and treating the audience like Sisyphus," Stassen continues. "You're gonna keep trying to push that boulder up the hill, but you're never gonna actually get there." For the record, you're never going to see those Star of David spaceships get updated with next-gen CGI imagery either. "It's cheaper that way," the showrunner jokes when praised for leaving the vintage 1981 visual effects in place.
Should "Jews in Space" return, Kroll & Co. are going to have to make room on the bridge for fellow Jewish comic actor, Josh Gad. The Frozen star has a small role as William Shakespeare in the series, but wasn't invited to be part of the "Jews in Space" skit — and he's still smarting over being omitted. "I didn't even know that 'Jews in Space' was going to be in this, but now that I know, I'm super-pissed," Gad says in mock offense. "I'll be calling Nick, Wanda and Ike to ask many a question."
Informed of this impending phone call from Gad, the trio preview the line of defense they'll be using. "It was a tight ship," says Sykes, who is not Jewish, but does play the important role of the designated Red Shirt. "We only got, like, four people," Barinholtz adds. "Luckily, we got Josh to plays Shakespeare and he really killed it. We were all bigger Gad-heads than we were before."
History of the World, Part II also puts a new spin on one of history's most famous Jews, Jesus of Nazareth, who was played by the late John Hurt in a memorable Last Supper inspired skit that appeared in Brooks's film. But the sequel series takes its cue from actual history by casting breakout Insecure and Top Gun: Maverick star, Jay Ellis, in the role, while Atlanta's Zazie Beetz plays his love interest, Mary Magdalene. That casting reflects the current consensus among most historians and religious scholars that if Jesus and Mary really existed, they would have been darker-skinned and not white — as they've traditionally been depicted in religious art and feature films.
"I just played him as Jesus, because in my mind he was always Black," Ellis says about his hilarious turn as the Son of God. "Nick and Ike called me and said, 'We think you have all the virtues of Jesus, and we would love for you to come bless us with your talent.' And I said: 'Of course my sons!' They created such a fun, open space to play where I could just be goofy."
Jesus and Mary are part of two long-form sketches that run throughout the series. The first storyline is a rom-com version of how they met and fell in love, while the second is a spot-on parody of Peter Jackson's recent Beatles documentary, Get Back, featuring the duo in their John and Yoko phase during the so-called "Last Supper Sessions."
"We shot that a month after Get Back came out, so it was very much in the zeitgeist" Beetz recalls, laughing. "I would say it was a very realistic depiction of how those sessions went."
Casting Ellis and Beetz as Jesus and Mary also opened the door for a skit that specifically takes aim at the way religious history has been whitewashed over the centuries. The eighth episode features a recreation of the First Council of Nicaea, a fourth century gathering of early Christian leaders where key decisions were made about how Jesus's story would be told going forward. In the series, the assorted council members agree that Jesus's dark skin should be erased from the record in favor of an ultra-buff, ultra-Caucasian action hero type, played by actor and model, Brock O'Hurn.
"That whole sketch is about speaking truth to power and showing how the Council of Nicaea is made up of dumb a**holes who basically whitewash history," confirms History of the World, Part II director, Alice Mathias. But she also makes it clear that Ellis's casting wasn't simply the set-up to that punchline. "Jay is a damn star, and so watchable. He and Zazie are so funny together, and so important to our cast this season."
"The writer's room were all big Insecure fans, so we all had Jay in mind already," adds Stassen. "What's great about him is that he's not known for comedy, and sometimes you'll get a dramatic actor who's a little too thirsty and is like, 'Give me more jokes!' But Jay is so mellow in his comic approach, and it really paid off because everyone around him can be kind of crazy."
Watch our interview with the History of the World, Part II cast on YouTube:
History of the World, Part II is currently streaming on Hulu.