History of the World, Part 1 Turns 40, and It's Still Good to Be Mel Brooks
By Salon .com
This post originally appeared on Salon by Matthew Rozsa.
"What's in a name?" William Shakespeare once wrote. To which comedy legend Mel Brooks might sagely reply, "It's one of the best jokes in History of the World, Part 1."
There is no Part 2, and no serious plans ever seem to have existed to make one, which is a shame because History of the World, Part 1 is one of the all-time great spoof comedies. Its genius can be seen right there in its title, which playfully juxtaposes the promise of a lofty message with the grubbiness of Hollywood's shameless sequel-baiting. Appropriately enough, History of the World, Part 1 parodies big-budget historical epics like Spartacus and The Ten Commandments. In the process, however, it also reveals a great deal of wisdom about the painful truths of history—and how we can laugh even at the roughest stuff.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release on June 12, 1981, it is useful to examine why History of the World, Part 1 has stood the test of time.
Unraveling the timeline
Perhaps the most important comedy element of History of the World is that it doesn't have a linear story. It is a series of sketches covering the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution, closing with a mock teaser trailer for the nonexistent sequel. Consequently, like the similarly intellectual sketch comedy film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (which was released only two years later), History of the World is freed from all narrative constraints and able to tackle its subject on a more ambitious conceptual level. While The Meaning of Life is about philosophy, however, History of the World is about history. Brooks casts his comedic eye at humanity's past and, if the sketches are any evidence, seems to view our story as one of the big guys keeping little guys down.
To quote the film's most famous line: "It's good to be the king."
This is a movie where King Louis XVI (Brooks) goes clay pigeon shooting with peasants, where a man is thrown in prison for saying the lower classes "ain't so bad," and where the Roman Senate angrily shouts "F**k the poor!" Brooks doesn't merely lampoon economic injustices. Sexism, racism, antisemitism, and human cruelty, in general, are all satirized.
The other major world leaders depicted here, aside from Louis, are the Roman Emperor Nero and the Spanish Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. If there is a running theme in Brooks's view of major historical events (at least from Western history; non-Western history isn't featured after the Stone Age sketches), it is that people with money and power have great lives. For people without those things—or who belong to marginalized groups in general—life stinks.
These are obvious points to some, but not all, and the genius of History of the World is that it manages to subtly convey Brooks's social critiques in the packaging of a zany Borscht Belt comedy. The cast includes Brooks regulars like Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, Cloris Leachman, and Harvey Korman, who are joined by the criminally underrated Gregory Hines (replacing Richard Pryor). The script is stuffed to the gills with witty zingers, visual gags, puns, cheerful slapstick, silly mugging, and fourth-wall breaking—pretty much everything you'd expect from an American Jewish comedian mentored by the likes of Sid Caesar (who also cameos). Brooks's comedy philosophy was to throw as much at the wall as possible and see what sticks.
"I agree with you about the vaudevillian interpretation and because of that there's a kind of a scattershot, hit-or-miss quality to it," Larry Charles, a comedian who wrote for Seinfeld and directed the first Borat movie (which also had a funny title: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), told Salon. "It's like a joke-to-laugh ratio and some of Mel Brooks' comedies have amongst the highest percentage of joke-to-laugh ratios." Charles expressed affection for Part 1 and recalled many funny moments, although he felt there were other Brooks films with even higher joke-to-laugh ratios.
"The Spanish Inquisition is a great piece and I do love the King Louis XVI piece," Charles told Salon. "'It's good to be the king.' I would say those are my two favorites."
Pushing the limits of taste
Those are among mine as well, since they contain some of Brooks's most cheerfully vulgar gags. Brooks has never been one to shy away from vulgarity—once famously bragging that his films rise "below vulgarity"—and this perhaps partially explains Part 1's lukewarm critical reception at the time it was released. Yet the lowbrow comedy can be defended on two levels. First, even when it isn't making a larger point, it is often quite funny. Brooks's big song-and-dance number about the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, holds up as hysterically tasteless in the tradition of Brooks's "Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers, even if it doesn't have much depth. Yet some of the crass jokes educate you even as you chuckle. Take the wordplay that uses a 12-letter epithet to reference Oedipus, a character from Greek mythology; if you know the classics, you'll get the joke.
Or look at a throwaway gag in which a Roman inventor excitedly hawks his new invention, indoor plumbing, by trying to blow people's minds at the mere idea of something that can "pipe the s**t right out of your house!" This one always makes me guffaw because it works on two levels. The joke involves toilet humor and naughty words, to be sure, but indoor plumbing truly was a revolutionary invention when it came to personal hygiene. The gag here isn't just the use of vulgarity; it is the fact that one of the great moments of human technological progress involved something that can easily be reduced to a potty joke.
That simple joke in many ways epitomizes Brooks's seemingly paradoxical, but nevertheless quite effective, approach to comedy: It's smart yet silly, juvenile yet sophisticated, transgressive and edgy while being a quaint throwback to a style of comedy not seen as much in this era of realism.
Michael Price, a comedy writer known for his work on The Simpsons and F is for Family, recalled seeing Part 1 in theaters 40 years ago, when he was still a college student.
"I was a huge Mel Brooks fan, going back to seeing The Producers when I was pretty little on TV and thinking it was funny, and then they screened it at my college and I remember just losing my mind over it how great it was," Price recalled. "Then I saw Blazing Saddles much later because I was too young when it came out. Then of course Young Frankenstein, I loved them both. And then I was a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan, so I remember seeing High Anxiety like the day it came out and loving it and really getting into it." Like Charles, Price did not feel that Part 1 was his favorite Brooks movie—he also described it as "kind of hit or miss"—but he still has a high regard for it.
"Watching it again last night really brought back a lot of warm memories because he just filled them with all these guys and people and actresses that were really funny," Price told Salon. "He has his regular people like Madeline Kahn—who was really super funny in it, I forgot how funny she was in it—[and] he has Cloris Leachman, who is great. He has Harvey Korman, who is so great and I wish he would have done more in terms of movies."
Price identified many great moments from the French Revolution sketch: The pun in which Louis responds to news of the peasants revolting by saying they "stink on ice" or Leachman complaining that the peasants are so poor they can't even afford their own language and are stuck with a "stupid accent." He appreciated how Korman's character was named Count de Monet, both a reference to the greed of the elites and a callback to his character from Blazing Saddles, who also had an easily mispronounced name.
Some of the comedy, unfortunately, has become problematic with the passage of time. In particular, there are rape jokes that make you cringe instead of laugh, as well as two characters who are offensively mincing gay stereotypes. On some occasions, the comedy can be defended as criticizing characters' actions: For instance, when Louis sexually assaults a number of women, he is obviously acting the part of the lecherous heel. At the same time, it is impossible to excuse things like giving a homosexual character a name that is literally a homophobic slur. Some of his tastelessness is especially sour years later. It is a risk that all comedians run—that their work won't age well—and in that respect, there are elements of History of the World that remind of the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup (another classic subversive satire which had a few problematic jokes). For the most part, it is brilliant, but every so often it becomes an uncomfortable product of its time.
A well-meaning mensch
Yet History of the World still works because for the most part it supports the underdog and has an overall tone of good-natured sweetness. As Charles explained, this is reflective of the man who made it.
"No matter what he does, no matter how savage his satire or his jokes are, there is a quality that Mel Brooks the person has and that his movies have, which is a certain amount of sweetness," Charles explained. "His movies always have a sweetness to them because that's who Mel is also. I think that's kind of a very unusual quality for actors to have, for the writers to have and the filmmakers to have. And that's something that all his movies, that's one feeling that always exudes: There is a kind of a sense of sweetness."
Charles also located Brooks's humanism and comic sensibilities within the context of American Jewish comedy culture.
"He's a working-class guy," Charles said. "He's from the same neighborhood as Larry David [fellow Seinfeld scribe and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator] and myself. He's a generation ahead of Larry or two generations ahead of Larry. But again: parents from Eastern Europe, comes to Brooklyn, has nothing, works his way through the Catskills kind of like an ambitious young Sammy Glick."
This is part of the reason why, reflecting back on the 40-year anniversary of History of the World, I would never dream of doing to it what the world's first art critic does to the world's first artist in that movie: Urinate on his work. (Price identified this as one of the moments that made him laugh out loud upon re-watching the film.) Quite to the contrary: If climate change and pollution destroy the human race, and an alien civilization was to find just one work of art to understand the human condition, I can't think of anything better than History of the World.
This is not being said in jest. History of the World captures one of the greatest joys of human existence—the ability to laugh—even as it recounts some of the most important events in our collective story. Perhaps most significantly, it chronicles the stupidity and selfishness that will have led to our downfall. Figuratively speaking, Brooks's Louis is absolutely right about one thing:
It's good to be the king. Anyone else? Not so much.