IIt took a little over a decade for Ike Barinholtz to become fully successful in Hollywood, with starring roles in big movies like Blockers and high profile streaming shows like the after party. Now with History of the world, part IIit goes back to its sketch comedy roots.
In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, the second city and MADtv alum shares how he ended up being one of the driving forces behind his comedic hero Mel Brooks’ pursuit of the 1981 classic and how he thinks about what it means to be “offensive” in 2023. Barinholtz also shares stories about MADtv go against SNL in the early 2000s, convincing Mindy Kaling that he was really Russian on East and downhis breakthrough cinematic performance in Neighbors, and much more.
When Barinholtz appears on the screen for our conversation, his celebrity hazard the trophy is displayed prominently in the background. “Oh, is it here?” he asks with a smirk. “Just to remind people, if you’re arguing with me, I’m probably right.”
Jokes that it’s the first award he’s won since a baseball trophy in 1988, the actor insists he’ll soon be moving it to a less “auspicious” location. “I care about awards, but only awards I’ve won,” he adds.
Barinholtz has a long way to go to achieve the EGOT status of his latest collaborator, 96-year-old comedy legend Mel Brooks. So how did he end up getting the chance to write, produce and star in History of the world, part II?
“Like most good things, it all started with a phone call from Nick Kroll,” he explains. As a huge Brooks fan and “huge history buff,” Barinholtz said yes the second he heard the pitch. Estimating that he’s seen the original movie somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred times, he explains, “We really kept coming back to it, the movie is our North Star,” promising, “If you liked the movie , I think you’ll like the show.”
We start by talking about the enormous responsibility of continuing Brooks’ legacy and reviving a vast genre of parody that has mostly fallen into disuse in recent years. As a student of comedy and history, it’s a challenge Barinholtz was better prepared than almost anyone else to take on.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to it all subscribe to the last laugh on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google, embroiderer, Amazon Musicor wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they come out every Tuesday.
How did you think about updating the parody genre, staying true to (Brooks’) vision but also trying to make it your own or something that audiences could now really connect with?
That’s an excellent question. I think Mel’s themes still ring very true today. I think Mel, throughout his films, makes fun of people in power, makes fun of them. The protagonists are often the common man. But I also think, tonally, he was the first R-rated film comedy writer. So I think now if you do something R-rated, you have a direct line to Mel. But when it comes to some of the jokes, there’s a breadth to Mel that you know you don’t quite see these days. And so we knew that’s something people aren’t used to. But you can’t really do Mel unless you do that kind of big, global, wide tone. And it was incredibly freeing and fun. You don’t have to worry about trying to look cool. We always said to the cast that came through, you don’t want to be the only person caught playing small on the show. You have to come and play big, like Madeline Kahn or Gene Wilder or Gregory Hines. You have to put everything there. And I think everyone really bought into that.
So all that to say, I hope people like it. I’m sure some people will say, “This isn’t the kind of comedy I’m used to seeing!” But it’s the kind of comedy I always like to see. I still laugh uncontrollably when I watch Mel Brooks movies, when I watch Naked gun. If I look Plane, it’s always hilarious. So I think it’s time for him to come back. Because the world is so ridiculous and crazy, you kind of have to match that energy.
We hear Mel’s voice and kind of see him at the beginning and it’s really great to have his presence there. How involved was he in this process? Because, on the one hand, it is getting old. But every time you see him talking, or when I had the chance to talk a bit with him, it is still as lively as ever. What was it like getting some of that collaboration with him?
It was surreal. When we all talked about what we thought the show could and should be, Nick (Kroll) said, let’s phone Mel and talk to him and make sure he approves of you. And I was like, can you imagine if the comments were like, “Mel just didn’t like you.” I would just like to move to Antarctica and work at one of these research stations. But the first time I met him, he was incredibly warm. He was very excited that this thing he did 42 years ago was coming back now. And when we started pitching him what we wanted the big stories to be, he just kept getting more excited. He was very honest. If there was something he didn’t like, he’d say “Hey…” But if you laughed, you’d hang on to it all week. If one of your kids got mad at you, you could say, “Well, Mel Brooks thinks I’m funny.
Were there any sketch ideas that you remember he really stuck to?
I remember he instantly added to what we presented to him. When we first said, “We want to do a Civil War thing with a bunch of these sketches and the last one, maybe, is Appomattox,” he said, “Great, great, in Appomattox, when Robert E. Lee bends down to sign the treaty and he turns around, making his sword hit everyone in the balls.
It’s so Mel Brooks.
It’s so Mel Brooks and it’s on the show! So yes, he contacted us every two weeks or so. And he would be very available to us, which again was just crazy. I didn’t want to disturb him. But he was so great about it, so cool whenever we needed voiceovers, whenever we needed him to do things, he was like, ‘Sure, sure. There aren’t many like him left. He really is just one of the greatest.
“Every time I see someone say, ‘You could never do Blazing Saddles these days!’ it’s like, yeah, you can’t do a lot of things that you did a long time ago. It’s another era.”
— Ike Barinholtz
Speaking of updating her style for today, one of the things that comes up all the time is this idea that you “could never do” something like Blazing Saddles today that it would be too offensive to people or you would never get away with some jokes. What do you think about how his work has aged or if it’s still okay to do the kind of humor he really became known for in the beginning?
You better be OK! Because we have a whole TV series coming out. I mean, look, I think there are absolutely words and jokes that wouldn’t play in 2023. I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon. I think there were comedians and writers in 1975 who said, “You can’t say what you could say in 1955!” But I think thematically we continue to do what he did, which is to go after the stupid hypocrites who always seem to rise to power. And surprisingly, we really have a lot of skits about diarrhea and vomit and penises and dildos and assholes and boobs and cum. There are a few sketches in there that are absolutely disgusting. So I’m someone who believes that there are modular things that change over time, which has always happened.
But the kind of humor that Mel pioneered in the 70s carried over into the 80s with Stock exchanges And Vacation And Coming to America. These would never have been made without Blazing Saddles. And then in the 90s with the Farrelly brothers, then in the 2000s with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow and Adam Mckay and Will Ferrell and it continues to evolve that way. So I think, aside from the words and maybe a few moments, it’s still the same thing. It’s still stupid and rude and hopefully funny. And also hopefully a little smart too. So every time I see someone say, “You could never do Blazing Saddles these days!” it’s like, yeah, you can’t do a lot of things that you did a long time ago. It’s another era. Just like you couldn’t have done Birth of a Nation in 1950. There were people in 1950 who looked like “birth of a nation, now that was a movie! So to me, funny is funny at the end of the day. I’m sure there will be people who will watch this and be offended. I’m sure there will be people watching this and saying, “They didn’t say any of those horrible words I was hoping they would say, that’s woke comedy!” And if you watch our show and conclude that she’s awake, I don’t know what to tell you. Then literally everything, for you, is awake.
I think it was always about finding the right targets, how Mel Brooks always mocked people in power, like literal Nazis in The producers. He was always this very prominent Jewish comic figure and played a big role in the fight against anti-Semitism throughout his career. I wonder if you think about that with the recent rise of anti-Semitism in culture. Do you use comedy to combat this?
Yes. There’s a lot of Jewishness in this show, between me and Nick Kroll. I mean, he has a character named Schmuck Mudman. As for your general point of view, yes, I think it’s very good to try to use humor to make fun of anti-Semites, because they are almost for a person who is just very stupid. It gets a bit exhausting. I can laugh at Kanye West and say he’s a fuckin’ loser and his music sucked for years and A wound sucked shit and it was terrible and his brain is completely fried and he got yelled at by Candace Owens which is the most embarrassing thing in the world. But after a while, you get tired. Like, oh fuck, we’re still doing this shit 46 years into my fucking life! But as far as you are concerned, yes, I think it’s good to try to use humor to overthrow some of what now seem to be institutions of racism and bigotry. And on the show, we tried to do that. We have a “Hitler on Ice” moment and having Nick Kroll’s announcer character like “I hope Mussolini falls down and breaks both fucking legs like a little shit” was very funny to me.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google, embroiderer, Amazon Musicor wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they come out every Tuesday.