I really love Mel Brooks movies, and History of the World: Part I has always been one of my favorites. I’m a bit of a history buff (my yearly reading lists are often heavy with non-fiction), so this movie is right up my alley. The first time I watched it as a teenager I was thrilled to find a film full of fun, clever historical references. It was one of the first times I realized that comedy is incredibly tough, precisely because you have to be really intelligent to do it well.
History of the World is not a traditional movie. It’s really a collection of sketches, each set in a different historical period and really only linked by the fact that Mel Brooks keeps popping up as different characters in each. By all accounts this probably shouldn’t work. It’s not the type of thing that should sustain itself for an hour and a half straight, and yet it does. Easily. I can never get bored of watching this film.
Brooks’ trademark humor is on display here for sure. He’s such a solid comedian, and one of the few who can be counted on to deliver a great movie every time. Much of it is such a silly blend of slapstick, puns, and “dad jokes” that I’m amazed it holds up today. I think what really holds it together is the fiercely intelligent wit that flavors all of Brooks’ stories. Some of it’s funny because it’s stupid, but most of it is funny because it’s smart.
All Brooks’ romps assemble a cast full of hysterical comedians, and History is no different. There are a lot of funny people rounding out this cast: Dom DeLuise, Madeline Khan, Gregory Hines, Cloris Leachman, Sid Caesar, Harvey Korman. And the things they are doing… everything from pretending to be cavemen to choosing their escorts for a Roman orgy. Everyone is perfectly cast, including Orson Welles, who narrates the entire thing. Who else could get a Hollywood legend to be a part of something this silly?
History of the World is smart, but it’s really just a lot of fun. You don’t have to be a history expert to enjoy this movie. It might help (how can you laugh at the Spanish Inquisition without knowing what it was?), but there’s enough hilarity here to reach a wide audience. Such is Brooks’ genius: knowing exactly how to balance references to the French Revolution with fart jokes.
I am always wary going back and watching old comedies. History of the World is a film that is beloved, but I have found that many comedies from different eras just don’t hold up today. Their humour has become stale, or things that were cutting edge back in the day just are not that way anymore. A great example is The Simpsons. Here is a show that was considered risky and cutting edge when it was first produced, but when you watch that show now, while it is still funny, it is certainly not on the cutting edge like it was. Shows like South Park and Family Guy have taken what they did one step further, making The Simpsons seem tame by comparison. Even as I write this, I feel like I’m not giving Simpsons enough credit, that show is still hilarious, but my point is, what was once incredibly risqué, cannot be that way decades later as society has evolved. This is definitely the case with History of the World. I’m sure when this was first released church groups and parents alike screamed blue murder that this was something their kids might be watching (it was rated R, but who has time to read certifications these days). The film is quite tame by today’s standards, but still very funny. Brooks is able to make films that transcend generations. Many of his films are still hilarious today, and History of the World is no different.
History of the World plays like a skit show. Brooks and his pals perform different skits set in different time periods, from cavemen to the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. Brooks performs several roles himself such as Moses and King Louis. Also appearing are Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Each scene takes place in a different era and is made fun of outrageously by Mel Brooks.
In some ways, this doesn’t really feel like a movie. It is more like an episode of Saturday Night Live. A really funny one. I enjoyed the cavemen scenes, and the brilliant musical number about the Spanish Inquisition.
Brooks has shown yet again that he is able to make comedy that will still be funny generations later. There are not many comedians that are able to show something they did thirty years ago and still have a new audience in stitches. Jerry Seinfeld and The Simpsons are two of the few that come to mind, but it is a rare feat. The fact this movie from 1981, can still make me laugh over thirty years later is quite an achievement.