Across the Timeline

History of the World, Part I

There is no doubt that Mel Brooks is a funny guy. He's he performed is stand up act, "The 2000 Year Old Man", worked in television co-created Get Smart, co-created and directed Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs. He is, absolutely, a comedy legend... but he has a number of big misses on his resume. When people talk about the works that didn't quite succeed for Brooks (along with his outright bombs), the first real loss for him has to be History of the World, Part I.

While many of his movies are random and silly, with more than a few skits scattered throughout their runtimes, History of the World, Part I feels less like a movie than a random comedy special, a collection of scenes thrown together not for a story they would tell together but just to riff off of whatever random jokes the creator had in mind. It's a film written and directed solely by Brooks and, if nothing else, it lets him play in the vaudevillian theatrical style he seems to enjoy. But it also shows, quite clearly, that the director worked much better with someone than on his own.

History of the World, Part I, as the name implies, is a film documenting scenes from human history. It's done in sketch comedy format, with a new act coming along every few minutes, documenting some new era of (Western) civilization. Heck, the film starts with the evolution of apes showing them standing up to greet the sun... and then jerk off to it. The film, really, manages that level of comedic tone throughout the rest of its 90 minute run time.

From the Stone Age we move on to the Old Testament (for a brief gag), the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, an then, finally, the French Revolution. This is not a film looking to document all of human history in detail, and from the eras chosen it doesn't even cover much of Western history all that well, either. Really, it's just a quick survey, a fun series of riffs to carry you along, all with a thin connective tissue of "this is humanity, more or less (and really less, but who cares when you're having fun?").

As much as the brief runtime and number of eras covered would seem to indicate this film will move at a quick pace, sometimes it struggles to do that. Far too long is spent in the Stone Age for a series of gags that feel tired even the first time you watch the film. The gags are expected, the pay off is bad, and none of it amounts to much of anything. The Old Testament is better, if for the fact that it's both only a couple of minutes long and had one solid joke ("oy!"). Then we get into the Roman Empire and the strains of the film really begin to show.

Make no mistake, there are very funny moments in this sequence, but they come few and far between. Much of the human here is based on the idea of "what if the Roman Empire, but we treat it like the modern era." Our protagonist here, Comicus (Brooks), is an out of work Stand Up Philosopher who finally gets a gig performing at Caesar's Palace. He bombs after he calls Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) fat and stupid. He's saved by a vestal virgin, Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes), goes on an adventure with singing and dancing Josephus (Gregory Hines), and ends up getting painted into Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" after serving as a waiter for Jesus. It's very broad and exceedingly dumb.

The bright spot during this era is, hands down, Madeline Kahn as (sigh) Empress Nympho. Although her bits aren't much better than anything else in this overly-long sketch of a era, Kahn is able to see everything she does with her pitch-perfect delivery. Seriously, her material is awful but she nails it every time. Rome is boring whenever she's not on screen, but for a few, brief moments it all comes together. This whole era, frankly, should have been about her.

From there we head into the Spanish Inquisition, an era I both love and hate. On the one hand, the bait and switch of this section is great. You think it's going to be a dreary bit about torture but, instead, it becomes a bright and shinny song-and-dance number. That is fantastic and it does help perk up the film after the tediously long Roman Empire. However, the song and dance goes on for a tad too long, and by the time the nuns come in, doing their synchronized swimming number I had already started to tune out again.

That finally leads us into the French Revolution, which is an even more threadbare sketch than anything else seen so far. The whole of the bit is urine and sex, and that's about it. The film barely explores its idea of having a lowly piss taker (Brooks) swap places with King Louis XVI (also Brooks) before the revolution happens and its off to the guillotine. We either needed more time with this era (which sounds dreadful) or it needed to be cut and replaced with something better thought out. But then, legitimately, I feel that way about most of the material here.

In fairness to the team that made this, everyone on screen clearly is having a grand old time. There's an exuberance to the performances that can't be denied even as the tired and hoary material is trotted out again and again. You want to like this film even as bad joke after groan-worthy riposte is told. The spirit of the cast is willing, the production is just weak. And no one can be blamed more for that than Brooks, the mastermind of this film. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and in this case Brooks's crown for this film was made of lead.

When I was 12 and first saw this movie I did like it. Like many later-day Brooks films, it feels like it's geared right towards the 12 year old in all of us. All it really has a bad puns and jokes about sex and peeing. Like, I get it. It hits that chord hard and the little version of me loved it. Now, though, this film is just a chore to get through. History of the World, Part I is a film you grow out of, and I did.