Nick Kroll on the Influence of Mel Brooks and 'History of the World'

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Nick Kroll. Corey Nickols/Getty

"I think in general, culturally, we are taking a fresh look at history from so many different perspectives."

If you're going to add on to the legacy of a classic Mel Brooks film, you've got to do it with a parade of superstars (and, of course, the blessing of Brooks himself). That's exactly what Nick Kroll has done with Hulu's History of the World: Part II (March 6). "You can expect an insane cast." We're talking Wanda Sykes, Taika Waititi, Jay Ellis and Sarah Silverman, among others. "Our goal was to continue to be provocative, but not necessarily preachy and political." And even if they aren't political, Kroll says Brooks' target in his work "has almost always been those in power, and how they are largely dumb and greedy." Part of the reason why Brooks, Kroll and the other producers wanted to do this was to expand on the diverse set of voices and stories that need to be told from history. "There's just so many interesting stories that we all sort of take for granted." And there's even something for fans of Brooks' other films. "We really try to pay're going to hear jokes from The Producers, from Young Frankenstein, from Spaceballs, like little Easter eggs and callbacks."


Why do you think now is a good time for a History of the World: Part II?

I think in general, culturally, we are taking a fresh look at history from so many different perspectives and points of view. And obviously, Mel [Brooks] was doing that 40 years ago, and he's really been doing it throughout his career when you look at his whole body of work. While Mel is not overtly political, his target has almost always been those in power, and how they are largely dumb and greedy. And so I think doing this History of the World: Part II now fits very well within what Mel was has always been doing and what we culturally and as a society are doing more and more of. And so it felt like it was well aligned to take another look and reexamine some big events and people in history.

Nick Kroll on Mel Brooks
Nick Kroll as Galileo in 'History of the World: Part II' on Hulu. Aaron Epsteon/Hulu

The fact that Mel Brooks, at 96, is aware that we should be telling more broad stories about history is just amazing to me.

He has jokes involved throughout the show and we obviously worked with him and ran every idea, big and small, by him. We did the first read through of a bunch of the sketches and he said a bunch of things, but one thing he said was we're gonna get some letters about this, and that's good. He's not afraid, he was never afraid to sort of be risqué and I hope that we have continued to be provocative. I think our goal was to continue to be provocative, but not necessarily preachy and political inside of what we were saying.

So what is new about this new iteration?

First you can expect an insane cast. We've assembled some massive comedy superstars. Obviously, it's me, Ike Barinholtz and Wanda Sykes who are producers and star in the show, but then you've got just an incredible cadre of [talent] from Jack Black as Joseph Stalin, Johnny Knoxville as Rasputin, Taika Waititi as Sigmund Freud, Zazie Beetz as Mary Magdalene and Quinta Brunson as her sister and Jay Ellis as Jesus.

Jay Ellis is a perfect Jesus. Like, Jesus should be hot.

He is a perfect Jesus. Jay Ellis is hot. I guess when you're that attractive, you can be that kind. He's just lovely and for him I think it was fun because it's all of these different versions of Jesus, it's Curb Your Judaism which we did sort of a Curb Your Enthusiasm parity to the Beatles' Get Back documentary parody to an homage to The Notebook where he's more of like a f*** boy, he's just so versatile in what he can do and can play all those genres well. Zazie as well in her role as Mary Magdalene. So you've got this insane group of talented performers, but then the stories you know, but not from the angle you always think of them as, whether it's Noah's Ark or the story of Jesus and Mary or the Civil War or Shakespeare's writers room, all these different kinds of things. These classic stories but with, hopefully, a sort of a fresh funny take on them.

Nick Kroll on Mel Brooks
Jay Ellis (left) and Nick Kroll (right) in 'History of the World: Part II' on Hulu. Tyler Golden/Hulu

How did you get all these stars involved?

So much [of comedy is] about relationships, and between Wanda and myself, we have a lot of relationships in comedy. Also just Mel Brooks, his name just brings in so many people. Hannah Einbinder [from] Hacks made it very clear if there's anything that's in this [for her], "Mel's my hero, History of the World is my favorite movie." We need Amelia Earhart, Hannah would be great. My favorite casting is George Wallace the comedian as George Wallace the racist Alabama white Governor George Wallace. And also Marla Gibbs, the idea that we got Marla Gibbs to be in a sort of Norman Lear-esque homage for the Shirley Chisholm story, those castings tickled me tremendously.

It really is the diversity in casting on all levels, but especially in terms of nostalgia. Like when would Jay Ellis be in the same thing that Jack Black is in, etc.

It's the same as when you watch Mel's movies where you've got Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise as the sort of recurring characters in his ensembles. And then you've got these incredibly fine actors mixed in, Peter Boyle is Frankenstein, etc. Throughout the show we really try to pay homage to all of Mel's movies, it's obviously History of the World, but we called it the Mel Brooks University. If you're familiar enough with his work, you're going to hear jokes from The Producers, you're going to hear jokes from Young Frankenstein, you're gonna hear jokes from Spaceballs, like little Easter eggs and callbacks. It was amazing that Jay was kind enough to do this. He's in the middle of a literal world press tour for the biggest movie in the world [Top Gun: Maverick] and then coming in pretending to be some weird version of John Lennon and Jesus, but I think for for him and Zazie who do some comedy but also are doing drama, getting in there with Richard Kind and J.B. Smoove, I think it was a real fun departure for them to be able to play in these spaces. Even like Emily Ratajkowski, she was like, "I'd love if there was a little more than just the hot girl thing." I love when people come to us with that, is there something a little more in this to make it just slightly more interesting? And then it challenges us to do that.

Nick Kroll on Mel Brooks
Colton Dunn (left) and Wanda Sykes (right) in 'History of the World: Part II' on Hulu. Tyler Golden/Hulu

What influence has Mel Brooks has had on you as a comedian?

There's just nobody more important to me in forming my comedy sensibility. Only in retrospect, I realize how much of my work is driven by genre, less parody and more homage. It's not just parody, it's so much deeper and richer than that. I hope that my work, when you look at it, feels beyond just the rhythms and the jokes that he's making and the broad big jokes, he manages to also always have these like very funny visual jokes that are visual gags but then also just incredibly precise, funny writing. He's just a massive influence on me.

If you had to choose, what do you think is the funniest period of history?

I think the Bible is really rich, the New Testament and the Old Testament. We scratched the surface with the story of Jesus. There's just so many interesting stories that we all sort of take for granted. Then you go back and you're like, "Wait, what was going [on]? What was that story?" They all seem familiar, and then you go into it. We just scratched the surface with Noah's Ark. Seth Rogen as Noah and the story of Jesus, it's never ending. So that period is funny. I mean, the hope is really any period can be funny. We really tried to cover a broad swath of it. And our show is for an American audience, so we have stories that we felt would feel familiar to an American audience.

Nick Kroll on Mel Brooks
Taika Waititi in 'History of the World: Part II' on Hulu. Aaron Epstein/Hulu

There's this line in the Bible I'm obsessed with. Now I don't know much about the New Testament, but it's Doubting Thomas whenever Jesus comes back, and he says something like "stick your finger it," which I know is meant to be serious, but I always giggle a little bit.

We have Doubting Thomas in here as well, that's more of just a Mel [Brools] joke like, "I doubt it," you know what I mean? You just have those little things that, again, as also as a Jew, like a lot of the Jesus stuff was kind of new to me and I needed someone to be like, "Can someone tell me...are know what I mean? Have we gone too far here?" I needed some of our Christian folks to be like, "I think this is okay." Mel Brooks never really worried about that. It's been interesting because the word is always you could never do a Mel Brooks movie now, you could never do it that. And I hope we've shown that you can be provocative and take some risks, but also be aware of what time and culture that you're making something.

Speaking of Mel Brooks movies, outside of History of the World, if you could be in any other Mel Brooks movie, which would you choose?

For me, the original Producers family owned History of the World on VHS, and that was big for me. Then I started watching Blazing Saddles when I was very young, and I was probably like, 13 or so. When I started watching The Producers I watched that movie 500 times. I love it. There's a moment in the show where I'm having a scene with Pam Adlon and it wasn't planned, but she's sort of on the ground and she's on top and I was like you're gonna jump on me. I basically do that moment from The Producers, like Leo Bloom does with Max Bialystock. And I was like, oh, this is the closest I'll come to being in The Producers. But my first job ever in Hollywood, I was an extra when Larry David on Curb [Your Enthusiasm] was playing Max Bialystock on Broadway. I was an extra in the crowd. So I guess now doing this, where I'm doing a homage to The Producers and doing career Judaism, I guess my whole career has come full circle at this point.

You had a great and diverse 2022, with comedy and drama and big films and much. What are you eager to do next?

I've been so fortunate throughout my career, but I guess you're right, this last year I've gotten to do such a broad spectrum of work. And I'm building a production company, and helping other people develop and make shows. I want to keep acting and making animation obviously, and doing this bigger comedy/sketch stuff like History of the World, but I really am excited about building a company that helps others produce and make film and television. I think I'm far enough into my career where I think I have a pretty good sense of how to make things and help people make things and help people navigate the process of making shows and films. So that is very exciting to me. I'm just excited about continuing to be able to do the broad spectrum of work I get to do, because every time I get to do something like History of the World—my roots are in sketch and historical-related sketch, and it's really fun. And when that's done, I get to go back to do some acting or continue to make Big Mouth and then go act in someone else's project. I think the variety of work is what continues to be so interesting and exciting. I'm incredibly fortunate to have all these different kinds of opportunities.

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