History of the World Part II stars break down Jesus and Mary romance sketches and 'monster' Shakespeare
You haven't seen a comedy quite like History of the World Part II before... or at least, not in the last 42 years.
When Mel Brooks' film History of the World Part I came out in 1981, it spoofed the course of human history from the time of the caveman to the French Revolution. Now, its sequel, which has been turned into an 8-episode Hulu series by Nick Kroll, Wanda Sykes, and Ike Barinholtz, is doing the same, turning Shakespeare into the world's greatest hack and Jesus and Mary Magdalene into both The Notebook-style lovers and versions of John Lennon and Yoko Ono along the way.
The sketch comedy series thus provided a unique opportunity for its stars to stretch some comedic muscles in new ways all while under the watchful eye of Brooks. Here, Jesus, Mary, and Shakespeare — that's Jay Ellis, Zazie Beetz, and Josh Gad — talk bringing these historical figures to life and what it was like playing in comedy that's "almost been extinct for many years."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Walk me through finding out you were going to be a part of this series, and what it meant to you.
ZAZIE BEETZ: I don't remember what I was doing. But I certainly was really excited to be working with Nick and Ike and Wanda, and I mean, everybody. I mean, the whole cast is so good. And to also be reviving this 40-year-old story essentially, I was very excited and flattered that they thought I could contribute.
JAY ELLIS: I was definitely home in LA doing absolutely nothing waiting by the phone for Nick and Ike to call. Like, I would check my phone every three or four minutes. I'm literally checking my phone right now just to see if they're gonna call me. I remember getting the call and just being super excited about it, and hearing what their take on it was. And similar to what Zazie said, as they started running through the cast and all the folks they were getting to come play, it was just like icing on top of this Mel Brooks cake. We're all gonna get to go be a part of something that has probably played in front of us on a screen somewhere who knows how many times, and has made us laugh and influenced us, and then to get the opportunity to be under Mel Brooks' tutelage is so amazing.
JOSH GAD: The conceit of the question à la "where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot," I'm trying to remember where I was. I don't remember. But I do remember the same sensation of being like, wait a second, they're doing a sequel to History of the World, and Mel Brooks is doing it? And similarly, I was like, it doesn't matter who they want me to play, I'm in, by virtue of the fact that I absolutely respect all of the people involved. But also Mel Brooks is a personal hero and to be able to get to play in his universe in his 96th year with us was a pretty incredible honor.
So it sounds like you all knew what was in store for you, being familiar with the original film?
ELLIS: Oh, yeah. I think we were probably all like, "How is this gonna happen in a way that we all still can get jobs after?" [All laugh] We're definitely all curious about that. But yeah, I think we all for sure were aware of what we were getting into.
GAD: I watched the original about, I want to say like 70 times. It was one of the first VHS tapes along with like Karate Kid and The Goonies that I just remember watching again and again as a kid.
Aaron Epstein/Hulu; Hulu Zazie Beetz, Jay Ellis, and Josh Gad on 'History of the World Part II'
Josh, as an actor, did it feel sort of blasphemous to portray Shakespeare as a hack?
GAD: This is the Shakespeare where it's sort of like how Daniel Day-Lewis found the real voice of Lincoln. I did a lot of research, spoke to surviving family members, and this was the real guy. This was the real dude. And I wanted to show it warts and all. I didn't want to hold back. I want it to be true to not how history remembers, but how he truly behaved, like a real monster. [Laughs] I'm just grateful that there's no one around to sue me. Like, that's it.
Jay and Zazie, you get to play two different spoof versions of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — the more traditional version, if you will, and a John Lennon/Yoko Ono version. What was that like?
ELLIS: They were both a lot of fun to do. I mean, they were just so wildly different. Getting to see how much fun and lightness and also this cool, mysterious vibe that John Lennon has in the Beatles doc, and getting to base a Jesus off of that, was so much fun. And then obviously getting to have Zazie there as Mary/Yoko to play with and play off of, who was equally just as out there… It's like, there were things that made me realize I could go further… [Beetz laughs] In a good way, Zaz, come on.
BEETZ: It's actually a really nice thing to hear, thank you.
ELLIS: In a good way. And so they were equally as fun. And then I think for the Book of Mary, I mean, going back and watching The Notebook and scenes from the movie was also just a fun thing to play off of and thinking about that version of Jesus as well.
BEETZ: Yeah, it was fun to play two different versions of this one character. I feel so fortunate that we got to have this group ensemble experience, because I feel like the group of actors we got to work with was just so good. I mean, everybody was, Quinta Brunson and J.B. Smoove, and just everybody. It was overall a really, I have to say, for me, actually a very freeing experience because, on set, I feel like I can always get so fearful of failing, of not just being out there and vulnerable. But I think everybody really encouraged me to just play and that was one of the most positive experiences I've had on a set. Just so joyful and free. So I had a great time doing both.
I imagine with a show like this there's a lot of breaking going on. Was there one moment in particular that sticks out to you where you just couldn't stop laughing?
GAD: I did a couple of takes where I literally lost my mind where I was waiting for them to say cut because it just went down a rabbit hole of insanity. But what was so joyful, and I was talking to the guys about this earlier is like, you don't get to do this type of comedy anymore. This is a genre of comedy that has almost been extinct for many years. Whether it's sort of that Mel Brooks or Zucker brothers style of humor, there's no version of that that exists anymore. So getting to do comedy like this, it was one of those things where you're like, holy cow, not only can I do this, this still is funny. Like, this kind of comedy still works.
BEETZ: I remember with J.B. Smoove there's a part where he had chickens. And that just as a combination really did it for all of us.
ELLIS: Zaz brought this up earlier and I kind of completely forgot about it. But Richard Kind popping up in the music booth, he's recording us, and he pops out and like, I don't know if he even knew we were actually rolling on a take, or if it was truly a question. And he literally, like, comes out of the booth, and he's like, "Are we giving up on the accents?" And everyone just kept going because we were rolling, but it literally just became a thing. And it was so funny.
BEETZ: He didn't know if we should keep doing it. It was so funny.
ELLIS: It was awesome. And Josh brought this up earlier and it just made me think, but Ike has this really amazing thing when he breaks —
GAD: Oh god.
ELLIS: He does it in a way where it's like sometimes, it is in character that he's breaking, and so he literally would just like look down at his drum kit and start laughing, but it was like you couldn't tell if he was laughing at Richard in character or if he literally just broke. It was just so seamless sometimes.
BEETZ: [All laughing] Yeah, you had to have been there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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