Jennifer Caplan reflects on Mel Brooks’ long-awaited new television series.
This week, comedy fans finally got the fulfilment of a promise 42 years in the making as Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part II came into being. Unlike its predecessor, which was a single, sketch-based film, Part II harnessed the power of the changing media landscape and ran as a four-night event on the streaming platform Hulu, which aired two episodes a night for a total of eight episodes. The quality of the sketches, especially compared with the original, is questionable and much has already been written about the potential stain to Brooks’ legacy if this becomes the final piece of comedy to bear his name.
I am not interested in passing judgment on the series as a whole in this essay, but instead to explore the implications of the way two of the three primary producers and performers in the series divided their roles. The main creative voices behind the project were comedians Wanda Sykes, Nick Kroll, and Ike Barinholtz. As primary producers of the project, at least one of the three of them was in almost every sketch (and some of the best material happened when all three were together in a sketch).
Some sketches were one-offs, while others were segmented across multiple episodes. Kroll’s primary segmented roles were as Judas in a series of Jesus-based sketches and the fictional Shmuck Mudman, a shtetl resident during the Russian Revolution. Barinholtz’s biggest role was as General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War sketch, while he also played Teddy Roosevelt in a one-off and was a smaller part of the Jesus sketches.
Kroll and Barinholtz are both Jewish, and yet with Shmuck Mudman they leaned into traditional nebbish tropes. Kroll uses a nasal whine for the character, who is a henpecked husband (Pamela Adlon plays his wife, Fanny) and cuckold raising another man’s son. He takes a backseat to everyone from his family to the local Cossacks to Vladimir Lenin, he trades in wares no one wants or needs, and he is small, weak, and flatulent. Barinholtz, on the other hand, is cast as two of the most rugged figures in American history, and certainly two of its most traditionally masculine presidents in Grant and Roosevelt. Although his character in the Jesus sketches is Jewish, insofar as the apostles all were, he’s just a background member of the apostles where Kroll plays Judas, initially, as though he were Larry David (and Kroll nails many of David’s facial expressions and inflexions). Judas is cheap, untrustworthy, conniving, and disloyal. The only time Barinholtz plays an obviously Jewish character comes at the very end of the series after the series appears to have ended when we finally see “Jews in Space.” Kroll is, incongruously, in space as Shmuck Mudman, spaceship captain while Sarah Silverman plays a shomer Shabbos pilot and Barinholtz is a yarmulke-wearing engineer.
Comedy always trades in stereotypes, but it is worth considering what is at stake in using Kroll for stereotypically nebbish characters and Barinholtz for more rugged ones. Barinholtz is 6’2’’ to Kroll’s 5’9’’. Barinholtz is fair-haired and lighter-skinner whereas Kroll is darker. As debates continue to rage over the casting of Jewish characters (especially the trend of casting non-Jewish women in Jewish roles) it becomes apparent that part of that ongoing debate is likely the same reason that Kroll and not Barinholtz is still the go-to for a character like Shmuck Mudman, while Barinholtz is left to portray the more rugged, manly, non-Jewish roles.
The problem (if this even is a problem) is that by continuing to conform to expectations around who does and does not “look Jewish”, comedy like Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part II sets back the important and inevitable shift in public perception around how Jewish comedy looks and feels. Jewish comedy (and Judaism in general) is increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, so comedy that keeps its nebbishes small and dark is behind the times in terms of Jewish representation.