David Stassen grew up on Mel Brooks movies when he was a kid so perhaps it was fate that would later put him in the position of serving as showrunner of the long-awaited History of the World, Part II, which is now streaming on Hulu.
Stassen is a longtime writing and producing partner of Ike Barinholtz, who also writes, produces, and stars in the series alongside Nick Kroll and Wanda Sykes. In addition to writing and producing, Stassen also directed many sketches in the series. He didn’t specify which ones while talking with Above the Line but he did open up about how casting posed a major challenge for the show, as there are some 300 people appearing in front of the camera over the course of eight episodes, though everyone was game.
Above the Line recently spoke with Stassen, who opened up about his first Zoom meeting with Brooks and which joke the legendary comedian waited 40-plus years to include in the show. He also discussed the challenges of running a writers’ room on Zoom, where writers provided Brooks with updates, allowing him to come up with jokes right there on the spot.
Above the Line: I was laughing hysterically watching History of the World, Part II. Did you ever think in a million years that you would be involved with the sequel to History of the World, Part I?
David Stassen: Short answer, no. Literally, just when you asked me the question, I again got goosebumps. Every time I think or say Mel’s name, I get goosebumps. I had been saying that Mel Brooks was one of my first babysitters. When my parents would go out or have people over, it was me and my brother with a bunch of VHS tapes downstairs watching History of the World, Part I, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, and to work with him as an adult is completely surreal.
ATL: I’ve got The Mel Brooks Collection somewhere over here and I won’t even touch baked beans because of Blazing Saddles.
Stassen: Yeah. Oh, my g-d, as a 7-or-9-year-old, watching them on repeat, that was just… I mean, his humor is timeless. It’s simple stuff he does. He is like a relatable and common part, I think, of everyone’s brain. Blazing Saddles is maybe my favorite besides History of the World, Part I. Also, that’s a movie that really changed comedy, I think. I think it was the first, like, really hard, hard comedy.
ATL: Indeed it was. So how did you first become attached to working on this Hulu series?
Stassen: Ike Barinholtz and I are a writing and producing team. Nick [Kroll] and Wanda [Sykes] were producing the show with Mel, but they wanted another team who were going to be completely day-to-day [and] be in the writers’ room and see the project through from start to finish. Wanda has her own show, The Upshaws, and she also is really successful comedian. Nick has Big Mouth and also tours as a comic. They wanted just a couple more producers to really be there day-to-day, and Ike and I jumped at the chance. That was kind of how it came to be. We had to Zoom with Mel to get approved and that was a career highlight. Every time we Zoom with Mel [has] been amazing. He’s still funny. I think the first time we Zoomed in with them, he told us that he was only doing History of the World Part II for the healthcare [benefits]. I was like, ‘oh, yeah, it’s still Mel Brooks.’
ATL: Oh, to be a fly on that wall!
ATL: How did it feel when you were talking with Mel Brooks over Zoom for the first time?
Stassen: Again, when he says your name, you get goosebumps. He’s like, ‘Alright. I gotta go. Goodbye, guys. Ike, Dave, I love you. We’ll talk to you soon. G-d bless you.’ [I was like,] ‘Oh my g-d, Mel Brooks knows who I am. This is surreal.’ He had jokes that he was waiting 40 years to put in Part II. We put — you’ve seen the whole series, right?
Stassen: When General Lee (Jack McBrayer) bends down to sign at Appomattox and he turns and his sword hits all of his lieutenants in the crotch, that was Mel’s idea. He’d been waiting 40 years to do the sword going across — like coconuts — the Confederate soldiers’ groins. He was holding onto that joke, and that just speaks to Mel’s brain and his work ethic. We were just happy to take anything he gave us and put it in the show.
ATL: What was the atmosphere like in the writers’ room as you were putting the series together?
Stassen: It was really great. I will say it feels a little bit harder. It was on Zoom. We [couldn’t] do it in person. You just get a better sense of the tone everybody’s going for in person, but we really lucked out with the room. Once we got to know each other — which [was] harder over Zoom because you can’t have side conversations [and] you can’t turn to the person on your right or left and catch up on their weekend while two people are doing the same thing across the table — it was such a fun, nice group of people. It was great.
It was just so fun to just — all of us, all day, just on Zoom, spending all day on Wikipedia, just Googling weird historical facts or things about Shakespeare or when the Kama Sutra was written — all these things that we were getting paid to learn about. Most of us just seemed like we were kind of history buffs in the room. It was so much fun to do that and share hilarious stories that we were reading.
It was also very freeing, after how politically charged everything has been for the last 5-7 years, just to be doing a straight comedy — a show that was just pure funny. We just felt like, for better or worse, we didn’t have to say anything about the current political or social climate. It’s like, let’s just make fun of history. Let’s just find jokes that Mel would like, whether it’s puns or something like the Spaceballs-combing-the-desert stuff. Let’s find classic Mel Brooks-isms and just focus on comedy. It was really fun.
ATL: As Hulu kept announcing more and more cast members, I was like, ‘who is not in this series?’
Stassen: I had never worked on a sketch show, so the casting was such a different beast, because you would be like, ‘Oh, my g-d, we got Seth Rogen!’ And then you’re like, ‘oh, that’s [just] one day. We have to fill tens and tens of sketches.’ I think we cast about 300 people [in] total. Once we got into production, besides shooting the show, rewriting it, and directing [it], casting was really the lion’s share of our time commitment because there were so many parts to cast. Everybody we reached out to was game. Everybody wanted to do it — it was just a matter of scheduling. It’s just a testament to Mel and to the Mel Brooks universe and [his] library that everybody from Dove Cameron to Jason Alexander wanted to do something with Mel Brooks.
ATL: How much input did Mel have other than the aforementioned jokes that you discussed earlier?
Stassen: He really let Ike, Nick, Wanda, and I guide the room and guide the process. But before we got started, we told him we had ideas for these tentpoles — Jesus and Mary, the Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and Shirley Chisholm — and then we’re going to build the whole season around these tentpoles that will be longer, kind of in homage to the movie, where you have the big stories [and] then you break it up with smaller, 15 Commandment bits in between. He was on board with that. He loved the four — geographically and time period-wise — diverse stories.
We wanted to mostly kind of focus on… I think two of the four stories are about America and one is the Bible, which is pretty universal. He knew our plan [and] approved it, [and] he checked into the writers’ room a few times on Zoom so the other writers got to meet him, which was a thrill. But really, he let us steer the ship, [though] he was certainly aware of everything. When we would give him updates, he loved just immediately coming up with an idea. Right there in the moment, he would have a joke or something.
ATL: Even as a Jewish person, I was laughing during the Beatles spoof. As soon as the setup begins, I was like, ‘they’re doing The Beatles: Get Back.’
Stassen: Yeah. I had not watched it and we all, in our free time, turned on the Peter Jackson doc. It’s a testament to Alice Matthias, who directed it, and Kevin Atkinson, our DP. If you’ve watched the Peter Jackson doc and that [sketch], it is just spot on. The cast — I feel like that was the most fun Ike and Nick had, getting to play the biblical Beatles and just using those accents and mixing, anachronistically, how the Beatles spoke, [with] Ike saying he had a bit too much myrrh last night. They really had a blast with that one, yeah.
ATL: Pandemic aside, what was the most challenging aspect of the production?
Stassen: The pandemic was [the] challenging part. Toward the end of production, we started to get some COVID cases. That was tough. Wanting to hit home runs casting-wise — while I think we did — [took some] effort. Casting that many roles was a lot of work because you wanted to… everybody knew we wanted this to be special. “How do we do this for Mel? How do we pay tribute to the greatest comedy writer/creator of all time?” [So] casting was important to us — [it] wasn’t a challenge, but it was what we worked a lot on.
There’s not a lot of large-scale, big-feeling sketch comedy, so to have big locations and to make it feel like it was a Civil War camp in Virginia, or [like] we are in Jerusalem during the age of] Jesus, all of that stuff — that’s like [how] a movie or one-hour TV show feels, [and] we’re [just] trying to get [it] on a sketch show. That was the big thing — really not settling for just making it feel like a sketch show [between] two walls, but trying to have our big stuff feel big.
ATL: Outside of the Get Back spoof, Tim Baltz had me cracking up with that song.
Stassen: I love him and Tyler. They were such a team [on] that song. Tim is the best. He’s so funny. We all loved The Righteous Gemstones, and Tim’s a Second City Chicago guy like Ike and me. We were so excited to get him, and yeah, that song was great.
ATL: Yeah. I’m talking to you from Chicago right now, actually.
Stassen: Oh, really?
Stassen: Oh, nice. Are you from there or do you just live there?
ATL: I moved here in 2008-09 the first time, and then moved back in 2016. I saw Second City Tour Co. as a college freshman 20 years ago and the improv bug bit.
Stassen: Nice. Where did you go to college?
ATL: Bradley for my freshman year and then Northern Kentucky for sophomore through senior year.
Stassen: Okay, yeah. I lived in Lincoln Park and then a little further. I grew up in Lincoln Park and a little further south, like Division and Rush. One of my first summer jobs was being a barback and kitchen line cook at Second City. I got to see — my summer there was Tina Fey, [and] Rachel Dratch. It was the show that Tina wrote, mostly, that summer. Horatio Sanz was on the ETC stage with Jerry Minor. It was the best summer, just watching Tina and Rachel do their Masshole characters every night. I don’t know if you ever saw that. It’s a great place for comedy.
All episodes of History of the World, Part II are now streaming on Hulu.