In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, the other city and MADtv alum talks about how he ended up being one of the driving forces behind the sequel to his comedy hero Mel Brooks’ 1981 classic, and how he thinks about what it means to be “offensive” in 2023. Barinholtz also shares stories about MADtv goes up against SNL in the early 2000s and convinced Mindy Kaling that he was indeed Russian Eastward and Downwardhis groundbreaking film appearance in the Neighbors, and much more.
When Barinholtz appears on the screen for our conversation, his Celebrity Jeopardy the trophy is clearly displayed in the background. “Oh, this?” he asks with a sly smile. “It’s just to remind people that if you get into an argument with me, I’m probably right.”
Joking that it is the first prize he has won since a baseball trophy in 1988, the actor insists he will soon move it to a less “auspicious” location. “I care about awards, but only awards that I’ve won,” he adds.
Barinholtz has a long way to go to reach EGOT status as his latest collaborator, 96-year-old comedy legend Mel Brooks. So how did he end up getting the chance to write, produce and play along World History, Part II?
“Like most good things, it started with a phone call from Nick Kroll,” he explains. As both a massive Brooks fan and a “huge history buff,” Barinholtz said yes the second he heard the pitch. He estimates he’s seen the original film somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred times, explaining, “We just kept going back to the movie is our north star,” and promises, “If you liked the movie, think I, you’ll like the movie. the show.”
We begin by talking about the great responsibility of both carrying on Brooks’ legacy and reviving a broad genre of parody that has mostly fallen out of fashion in recent years. A student of both comedy and history, it’s a challenge that Barinholtz was better prepared than almost anyone else to tackle.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to it all by subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon musicor wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they come out every Tuesday.
How did you go about updating the parody genre, staying true to (Brooks’) vision, but also trying to make it your own or make it something that audiences could now really connect with?
That’s a good question. I think Mel’s themes are still very true today. I think that through his films, Mel is making fun of those in power, mocking them. The main characters are often all people. But I also think he was the first R-rated movie comedy writer. So I think now if you do something R-rated you have a direct line to Mel. But as far as some of the jokes go, there’s a breadth to Mel that you know you don’t quite see these days. And then we knew that it is something that people are not used to. But you can’t really do Mel unless you do that kind of big, all-encompassing, broad tone. And it was incredibly liberating and fun. You don’t have to worry about trying to look cool. We would always tell the actors who came through that you don’t want to be the one person who gets 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 it all out there. And I think everyone really stuck to that.
So all this to say, I hope people will like it. I’m sure some people will be thinking, “That’s not the kind of comedy I’m used to seeing!” But that’s the kind of comedy I still like to watch. I still laugh uncontrollably when I watch Mel Brooks movies when I watch Naked gun. If I see Airplane, it’s still fun. So I think it’s about time it came 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 nice to have his presence there. How involved was he in this process? Because on the one hand, he is getting up there in age. But when you see him speak, or when I have done it got the chance to talk to him a bit, he is still so sharp. What was it like getting some of that collaboration in with him?
It was surreal. When we were all talking about what we thought the show could and should be, Nick (Kroll) was like, let’s get on the phone with Mel and talk to him and make sure he approves of you guys. And I thought, can you imagine if the feedback was like, “Mel just didn’t like you.” I just wanted to move to Antarctica and work at one of those research stations. But the first time I met him, he was incredibly warm. He was very excited that this thing that he made 42 years ago was coming back. And once we started pitching him what we wanted the big stories to be, he just got more excited. He was very honest. If there was something he didn’t love, he’d say, “Eh…” But if you got a laugh, you’d hold onto it all week. If one of your kids got mad at you, you might think, “Well, Mel Brooks thinks I’m funny.”
Were there any of the sketch ideas that you remember him really sticking to?
I remember him immediately adding what we put him as. When we first said, “We’re going to do a Civil War thing with a lot of these sketches, and the last one might be Appomattox,” he says, “Great, great, at Appomattox, when Robert E. Lee bends down to sign the treaty, and he turns, have his sword hit everyone in the balls.”
It’s so Mel Brooks.
It’s so Mel Brooks and it’s in the show! So yeah, he checked in with us every two weeks or so. And he would be very accessible to us, which again was insane. I didn’t want to bother him. But he was so great about it, so cool, when we needed voiceover, when we needed him to do things, he’d be like, “Sure, sure.” There aren’t a whole lot left like him. He really is just one of the greats.
“Every time I see someone say, “You could never do Blazing Saddles these days!” it’s like, well, you can’t do a lot of things that you did a long time ago. It’s a different time.“
— Ike Barinholtz
When we talk about updating one’s style for today, one of the things that comes up all the time is this idea that you “could never do” something like Burning saddles today that it would be too offensive to people or you would never get away with some of the jokes. How do you feel about the way his work has aged, or whether it’s still OK to do the type of humor that he really became known for in the beginning?
It better be alright! Because we have a whole TV series coming up. I mean, look, I think there are definitely some words and some joke constructions that wouldn’t play in 2023. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. I think there were comedians and writers in 1975 who said, “You can no longer say what you could say in 1955!” But I think thematically we’re still doing what he did, which is going after the stupid hypocrites who always seem to come to power. And tonally, we really have a lot of sketches about diarrhea and vomiting and penises and dildos and buttholes and breasts and puss. There are a few sketches in there that are absolutely disgusting. So I’m a believer in modular things that change over time, which has always happened.
But the type of humor that Mel started in the 70s continued into the 80s Trading locations and Holiday and Coming to America. They would never have been made without it Burning saddles. And then in the 90s with the Farrelly Brothers and then in the 2000s with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow and Adam Mckay and Will Ferrell, and it continues to move that way. So I think, apart from words and maybe a few moments, it’s still the same. It’s still stupid and gross and hopefully fun. And hopefully a little smart too. So every time I see someone say, “You could never make flaming saddles these days!” it’s like, well, you can’t do a lot of things that you did a long time ago. It’s a different time. Like you couldn’t have done Birth of a Nation in 1950. There were people in 1950 who were like “birth of a nation now, that was a movie!” So to me, fun is fun at the end of the day. I’m sure there will be people who will see this and be offended. I’m sure there will be people , who sees this and says, “They didn’t say any of the horrible words that I was hoping they would say, this is woke comedy!” And if you watch our show and your takeaway is that it’s woke , I don’t know what to tell you, then literally everything, for you, is awakened.
I think it’s always been about finding the right targets, how Mel Brooks would always make fun of those 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 even think about it lately the rise of antisemitism in the culture. Are you thinking of using comedy to fight it?
Yes. There’s a lot of Jewishness running through this show, between me and Nick Kroll. I mean he has a character called Schmuck Mudman. To your point overall, yes, I think it’s very good to try to use humor to kind of make fun of anti-Semites, because they’re almost for someone who’s just very stupid. It gets a bit exhausting. I can make fun of Kanye West and say he’s a fucking loser and his music has sucked for years and A wound sucked shit and it was horrible and his brain is completely fried and he’s been wormed by Candace Owens which is the most embarrassing thing in the world. But after a while you just get tired. Like, oh, hell, we’re still doing this shit 46 years into my fucking life! But to your point, yes, I think it’s good to try to use humor to bring down some of these what now seem to be institutions of racism and bigotry. And in the show we tried to do that. We have a “Hitler on Ice” moment, and to have Nick Kroll’s speaking character say, “I hope Mussolini falls and breaks both of his messed up legs like a little piece of shit,” that was very funny to me.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon musicor wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they come out every Tuesday.