History of the World, Part 1
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that sex-based humor and bathroom-level gags abound, about flatulence, urination, erections, and other body functions. There is regular swearing, with one use of the f-word. Certain dirty jokes (like the opening masturbation scene) will call for uncomfortable explanations for young audiences; others -- like reference to showbiz icons Irving "Swifty" Lazar and Henny Youngman -- will need historical enlightenment. There is a lengthy marijuana gag, in which a gigantic joint (rolled by the only black character) mellows out antagonists. Some scenes make fun of nuns and Catholic iconography. Jesus Christ shows up in one sketch, but actually gets treated more or less respectfully. Moses is not so lucky, oy veh.
What's the story?
Around the high point of his Hollywood box-office marketability, comedy specialist Mel Brooks wrote, directed, and played multiple roles in this hit-or-miss grab-bag of sketches spanning human history, starring actors who worked for him regularly (including himself). Sid Caesar is a hapless caveman who bumblingly tries art, music, and invention. During the Roman Empire, Brooks himself is a "stand-up philosopher" named Comicus, who ends up playing a significant role in the Last Supper. During the French Revolution Brooks reappears in dual roles, as the spoiled, lust-driven King Louis XVI, who escapes the guillotine by switching places with a mild-mannered, lookalike urine-bucket servant. Gag coming attractions of the (never-made) History of the World, Part 2 include a skating "Hitler on Ice" and "Jews in Space." Surprise celebrity appearances throughout include John Hurt (as Jesus Christ), Jackie Mason, Bea Arthur, and Hugh Hefner.
Is it any good?
The critics who (like a Roman emperor) gave HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART 1 thumbs-down probably got spoiled by Brooks' preceding masterpieces: Knowing, affectionate Hollywood-genre spoofs like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. This doesn't even try subverting old gladiator flicks or epic movies (neither did Epic Movie). It's just Mel having fun with puns, big sets, period costumes, and fave actors for 90 minutes, offering up some hoary clunkers, ("walk this way..."), comedic brilliance (a laugh-out-loud cameo by Moses), and a few ebullient song-and-dance routines -- like a keeper production number on the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
Clean jokes and tasteless gags bump around in equal measure (if the PG-13 had existed in 1981, this could have dodged the R), sometimes funny, sometimes not. The French Revolution segment, pretty much the third act, is the weakest. Every funnyman knows you need a big finish.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about what parts kids thought were funny or not, and why. What makes a good spoof? Which are your favorites?
Explain the "Borscht Belt" brand of Jewish-American humor and the classic TV comedy revue Your Show of Shows, that was the cradle of so much Mel Brooks jocularity.
The French Revolution segment is the first many American kids may see of
madcap Irish comic-author-poet-playwright Spike Milligan (as the old
prisoner). A cohort of Peter Sellers and a UK favorite, Milligan's
bizarre freeform surrealism inspired a whole style of humor (and
influenced Monty Python).