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11 Facts About History Of The World, Part 1

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On June 12, 1981—35 years ago today—Mel Brooks’s irreverent take on the course of human events opened in theaters. Though critics were thoroughly divided, History of the World, Part 1 grossed a respectable $31.6 million at the box office, and left countless viewers hungry for a sequel. These 11 footnotes should get you ready for a 35th anniversary screening.

1. ORSON WELLES BREEZED THROUGH HIS LINES.

History of the World, Part 1 opens in a deceptively dramatic fashion. As we witness the very dawn of our species, a commanding voice declares “And the ape stood, and became man.” This unforgettable baritone belonged to Orson Welles. Brooks hired him to narrate the five major segments that make up the film.

Beforehand, it was agreed that the cinema legend would receive $5000 per day in exchange for his services. Figuring that he’d have to spend five eight-hour days recording and re-recording these lines with Welles, Brooks paid him $25,000 up front. But by noon on the first day, Welles had recorded every single one of his lines to perfection. “Oh my god, I could’ve paid you $5000,” Brooks lamented. After kicking himself for a few minutes, the funnyman asked Welles how he planned to spend the bounty. “Cuban cigars and sevruga caviar,” the Citizen Kane director replied.

2. THE LEAD CAVEMAN WAS PLAYED BY MEL BROOKS’S FORMER BOSS.

In 1949, the late, great Sid Caesar hired Brooks as a joke writer for The Admiral Broadway Revue, a short-lived NBC variety show. After the series ended, Brooks joined the staff of Caesar’s next program, Your Show of Shows. Working for a living legend was something the younger man would never forget. Even today, when Brooks is asked about his mentor, he often says “No Sid Caesar, no Mel Brooks.”

Twenty-two years after Your Show of Shows ended its run, Brooks expressed his gratitude to Caesar by giving him a major role in 1976’s Silent Movie. Brooks would cast the comic again in History of the World, this time as Chief Caveman, who has a zeal for music (and slapstick).

3. ACCORDING TO BROOKS, THE MOSES SCENE WAS A LAST-MINUTE ADDITION.

“Sometimes, you will get very lucky and the set will give you ideas for jokes,” Brooks said in a 2012 interview with the Directors Guild of America. One day, he was gazing out at the scenery that had been built for the caveman segments in History of the World when the gears in his head started turning. “I immediately thought, ‘Well, where do I go from here?’” Brooks recalled. Heading into the shoot, his plan was to “skip the Bible and go to Rome.’” But eventually, he realized that the Stone Age set might enable him to explore another chapter in world history. With a few minor alterations, Brooks converted his faux caves into a mountaintop, and the Moses bit was born.

4. ORIGINALLY, JOSEPHUS WAS GOING TO BE PLAYED BY RICHARD PRYOR.

Josephus, a quick-witted Ethiopian slave, is a principal character in the film’s Roman Empire segment. Richard Pryor seemed perfect for the part and, to Brooks’s delight, he accepted the role. Unfortunately, though, a terrible accident kept him out of the movie. On June 9, 1980, less than a month after History of the World began production, the comic lit himself ablaze while freebasing cocaine and had to be hospitalized. At the suggestion of Madeline Kahn (who played Empress Nympho), Brooks handed the role to tap dancer Gregory Hines.

5. TO PLAY COMICUS, THE “STAND-UP PHILOSOPHER,” BROOKS TOOK SOME CUES FROM EDDIE CANTOR.

Eddie Cantor was one of Brooks’s personal heroes. An actor, singer, comedian, and radio personality, Cantor’s talents were almost limitless. When Brooks cast himself as Comicus in History of the World, he proceeded to copy some of his idol’s manic facial expressions. “I made my eyes pop out in reactions, like he did,” Brooks says. “My Comicus was a tribute to Eddie Cantor. He was my timing, my excitement.” Even the character’s wardrobe, a “short little toga,” was modeled after the outfit Cantor wore in Roman Scandals, a 1933 musical comedy.

6. A LONGTIME PARTNER HELPED BROOKS WRITE THE MOVIE’S BIG SHOWSTOPPER

Ronny Graham and Mel Brooks first crossed paths as castmates in the hit Broadway revue New Faces of 1952, for which they co-wrote several skits. “[We] became fast friends,” Brooks said. Once Brooks decided that History of the World needed a Busby Berkeley-style musical number about medieval torture, he immediately reached out to Graham, who happened to be a successful musician.

“Together we began a fierce collaboration on a song called ‘The Inquisition,” Brooks recalled. The rest is, well, history. In the final film, Brooks takes center stage during this segment, hamming it up as the grand inquisitor Torquemada. Meanwhile, Graham makes a cameo as one of the Jewish prisoners.

7. ONE DELETED SCENE INVOLVED A NUCLEAR MISHAP.

Little is known about this segment. In an interview with film critic Gene Siskel, Brooks revealed that he’d filmed a brief scene that made light of the notorious Three Mile Island incident. “I had a father and a mother made up to look like half a dog and half a cat as a result of a nuclear meltdown,” Brooks told Siskel. When test audiences reacted poorly, this bit was removed. However, at least one journalist managed to see an extended cut which contained the footage. In his (lukewarm) review of History of the World for The Washington Post, critic Gary Arnold wrote, “there’s a routine about Three Mile Island that’s almost awesome in its lack of comic point.”

8. BROOKS HAD HIS DOUBTS ABOUT THE INQUISITION NUMBER.

In general, Brooks’ films aren’t exactly noted for their political correctness—after all, the director’s very first film was about an Adolf Hitler musical. Still, even he wondered if the breakout song in History of the World had finally crossed a line. “I don’t know how audiences are going to react to the Spanish Inquisition sequence,” Brooks told Mademoiselle. As he put it, trying to get a laugh out of any scene that involved “Jews on racks” could be “very dangerous.” In the end, history repeated itself. After The Producers was released, Jewish leaders contacted Brooks en masse with complaints about the film’s brazen Nazi gags. Thanks to that big inquisition number, History of the World, Part 1 garnered a similar reaction. “I got a lot of write-ins from rabbis,” Brooks admitted.

To those who’d written him, Brooks replied, “I’m just mentioning [the Inquisition] so people don’t forget!” Echoing his defense of both The Producers and Blazing Saddles, he went on to argue that satire could be an effective weapon against bigotry. While speaking about History of the World in 1982, Brooks said “Comedy brings religious persecutors, dictators and tyrants to their knees faster than any other medium.”

9. KING LOUIS’S SCENES WERE FILMED AT AN ENGLISH PALACE.

It’s good to be the king, but language barriers aren’t much fun. Feeling that it’d be easier to shoot the French revolution chapter in English-speaking countries, Brooks chose Blenheim Palace as a stand-in for Versailles. Built in the early 18th century, Blenheim is where the Duke of Marlborough has historically resided. An architectural beauty, the palace has also made appearances in such films as The Libertine (2004) and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) [PDF].

10. HISTORY OF THE WORLD CAME WITH A STEEP PRICE TAG—AT LEAST FOR A MEL BROOKS PROJECT.

Brooks himself claimed that History of the World’s budget—an estimated $11 million—exceeded that of his previous three films combined. Particularly expensive was the Inquisition scene, in which the set alone cost $1 million. By comparison, the entire budget of 1968’s The Producers was a paltry $941,000.

11. BROOKS NEVER INTENDED TO MAKE A SEQUEL.

With a title like History of the World, Part 1, you’d assume that a Part 2 would be hot on its heels. But Brooks has stated that he never intended to make a sequel. On June 7, 1981—just four days before the movie opened in theaters, the director weighed in on this subject in The New York Times. “Will there be a History of the World, Part 2?" he asked, rhetorically. “No. Maybe a Part 4, never a Part 2."

The misleading title—as he later put it—was meant as “a joke,” one he now regrets. “I’m sorry I did that, the kids keep writing me letters asking when we are going to see part two,” he explained while promoting his DVD box set, The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy. Still, he’s definitely thought about what new topics he might spoof in a potential follow-up—as he states in the below clip. “There’s a lot of things I haven’t covered in history. Things like the Civil War.”

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30 Things You Might Not Know About Cheers
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On May 20, 1993—25 years ago today—television audiences said farewell to Sam Malone, the fictional Red Sox pitcher-turned-proprietor of Cheers. Though it's the Boston bar where everybody knows your name, there’s plenty you probably don’t know about the classic sitcom, which spent 11 seasons on the air.

1. CHEERS ALMOST DIDN’T MAKE IT THROUGH SEASON ONE.

Like many of television’s greatest success stories (e.g. Seinfeld), Cheers was not an immediate hit. It premiered on September 30, 1982 to dismal ratings—77th place out of 100 shows that week, according to Nielsen. It was NBC’s entertainment president at the time, Brandon Tartikoff, who saved the show from cancellation during its first season.

2. THE BULL & FINCH PUB, ON WHICH CHEERS IS MODELED, IS NOW CALLED CHEERS

Talk about life imitating art. After it was decided that the series would be set in a bar instead of a hotel, co-creators Glen and Les Charles decided the locale should be moved to New England. “Boston was chosen partially because only five short-lived television shows claimed the city and the East Coast pubs were real neighborhood hangouts,” wrote Dennis A. Bjorklund in his book, Toasting Cheers.

As the show’s popularity rose, it didn’t take long for word to spread that the Beacon Hill tavern was the “real” Cheers (though only the exterior shots were filmed there), turning the neighborhood hangout into a tourist attraction. To satisfy the masses, a second location—this one was actually called "Cheers" and featuring a replica of the bar viewers were used to—was opened in nearby Faneuil Hall in 2001. One year later, the Bull & Finch officially changed its name to Cheers.

3. SAM MALONE WAS ORIGINALLY A PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER.

In the script’s earliest incarnations, Sam Malone was an ex-football player, which made sense considering that Fred Dryer—the former NFL defensive end who would go on to star in Hunter—was a top choice to play the role of Sam (opposite Julia Duffy as Diane; William Devane was also a strong contender). Ultimately, it was the chemistry between Ted Danson and Shelley Long that led to them getting the gigs. Once the casting was finalized, the creators swapped out football for baseball, based on Danson’s body type.

4. TED DANSON ATTENDED BARTENDING SCHOOL.

Danson spent two weeks at a bartending school in Burbank, California as part of his training to play Sam.

5. NORM AND CLIFF WEREN’T INTENDED TO BE REGULAR CHARACTERS.

Both George Wendt and John Ratzenberger auditioned for the same role in the pilot, a minor character named George who had a single line: “Beer!” The character’s name was changed to Norm Peterson when Wendt was cast. But Ratzenberger wasn’t about to give up so easily. “As I was leaving the office after the audition, I turned around and asked them, ‘Do you have a bar know-it-all?,’” the Bridgeport, Connecticut-born Ratzenberger recalled to Ability Magazine. “None of the creators was from New England. They were all Hollywood-centered. And I said, ‘Well, every local bar in New England has got a know-it-all—someone who pretends to have the knowledge of all mankind between his ears and is not shy about sharing it.’” Thus, Cliff Clavin was born.

6. NORM PETERSON IS BASED ON A REAL GUY.

In 2012, co-creator Les Charles told GQ that Norm was based on a real person. “I worked at a bar after college, and we had a guy who came in every night. He wasn't named Norm, [but he] was always going to have just one beer, and then he'd say, ‘Maybe I'll just have one more.’ We had to help him out of the bar every night. His wife would call, and he'd always say, ‘Tell her I'm not here.’”

7. NORM’S NEVER-SEEN WIFE VERA IS VOICED BY GEORGE WENDT’S REAL WIFE.

Though she’s only credited in one episode, George Wendt’s wife, Bernadette Birkett, provided the voice for Norm’s wife, Vera. Birkett did make one appearance on the show—as a love interest of Cliff’s—in season three.

8. JOHN RATZENBERGER IMPROVISED MANY OF CLIFF’S FUN FACTS.

Many of the random (and untrue) facts that Cliff Clavin offers up were ad libbed by Ratzenberger. “After a couple of years on the show they realized they could trust me not to mess it up,” Ratzenberger told Deseret News in 1993. “So little by little they've let me just sort of run off. Because I know when to stop … It's easy to improvise comedy. It really is. But the art is knowing when to shut up and let other people talk. That's a hard thing to learn.”

9. SOME OF THE DIALOGUE CAME FROM REAL BAR CONVERSATIONS.

In order to nail the bar talk aspect of the series, the creators regularly visited bars in the Los Angeles area to eavesdrop on patrons’ conversations. In the series premiere, there’s an argument about the sweatiest movie ever made, which was lifted from one of these overheard conversations.

10. CHEERS WASN’T AFRAID TO TACKLE SOCIAL ISSUES.

Cheers’ writers never shied away from taboo topics such as alcoholism or homosexuality, through they always had a sense of humor about them. The season one episode “The Boys in the Bar,” in which one of Sam’s former teammates announces that he is gay, earned writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs a GLAAD Media Award.

11. PLANS FOR AN HIV SCARE FOR SAM HAD TO BE ABANDONED.

In 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, which meant that several planned episodes of the series were never filmed. Among them was a season six cliffhanger in which Sam learns that a former girlfriend is HIV positive.

12. RHEA WASN’T THE ONLY PERLMAN ON THE SET.

Rhea Perlman wasn’t the only member of her family to grace the set of Cheers. Her younger sister, Heide, produced more than two dozen episodes between 1985 and 1986 and wrote several episodes throughout the show’s run. Perlman’s father, Phil, played one of the bar regulars (named Phil).

13. JAY THOMAS MURDERED EDDIE LEBEC.


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When character actor Jay Thomas wasn’t portraying Carla’s Bruin-turned-ice-show-performer husband Eddie LeBec, he was the host of a popular morning radio show in Los Angeles. Which is exactly what led to his character being killed off rather prematurely by way of Zamboni. “A few episodes of recurring bliss and then one day on Jay’s radio show, a caller asked him what it was like to be on Cheers,” recounted writer Ken Levine. “He said something to the effect of, ‘It’s brutal. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman.’ Well, guess who happened to be listening ... Jay Thomas was never seen on Cheers again.”

14. A CHEERS MINI-EPISODE WAS PRODUCED FOR THE U.S. TREASURY.

Early in Cheers’ run, its creators were contracted by the U.S. Treasury to create a special mini-episode to promote the purchase of U.S. savings bonds. Titled “Uncle Sam Malone,” the episode never aired on television nor is it included on any of the DVDs; it was intended to be screened for promotional purposes at savings bond drives only.

15. A “LOST” SCENE ALSO AIRED AS PART OF THE 1983 SUPER BOWL XVII PREGAME SHOW.

Back in early 1983, writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs wrote a special one-off scene to air before Super Bowl XVII in which Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Cliff, and NBC announcer Pete Axthelm bet on who will win the big game. “They ran it just before game time and it was seen by 80,000,000 people,” Levine recalled of the spot on his blog. “Nothing we've ever written before or since has been seen by that many eyeballs at one time. But the scene was never repeated. It never appeared on any DVDs. It just disappeared.” (Until now: You can watch it at the link above.)

16. TED DANSON WORE A HAIRPIECE TO PLAY HAIR-OBSESSED SAM


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A fact that became apparent when he accepted the Emmy—sans hairpiece—in 1990. In the 1993 episode “It’s Lonely on the Top,” Sam shares his follicular challenge with Carla.

17. VIEWERS FREQUENTLY COMPLAINED ABOUT THE VOLUME OF THE LAUGH TRACK, EVEN THOUGH THERE WAS NO LAUGH TRACK.

In 1983, a quick disclaimer—spoken by one of the regular cast members—was added to the beginning of each episode: “Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience.” This was a direct response to viewer complaints that the “laugh track” was too loud.

18. THE PART OF FRASIER WAS WRITTEN FOR JOHN LITHGOW.


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After recent roles in All That Jazz, Blow Out, and The World According to Garp (for which he received his first of two consecutive Oscar nominations), Lithgow was not interested in working on the small screen. “I just said, 'No,’” Lithgow recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. “I barely even remembered that … It was like swatting away a fly … I just wasn’t going to do a series.”

19. KELSEY GRAMMER PLAYED FRASIER CRANE FOR 20 YEARS.

Grammer made his Cheers debut in the third season premiere in 1984. Though he was intended to be a short-lived character, Crane’s popularity with audiences led to him becoming a series regular. Four months after Cheers ended in May of 1993, Frasier made its debut (on the redesigned Cheers stage, no less) and ran for its own 11 seasons. Grammer’s two-decade run as the pretentious psychiatrist is a record-breaking one for an American comedy actor.

20. TONY SOPRANO'S MOM PLAYED FRASIER'S MOM, TOO.


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Nancy Marchand's character threatened to kill Diane. The role of Frasier's mom was played by Tom Hanks' wife Rita Wilson in a 2001 Frasier flashback.

21. KIRSTIE ALLEY IS THE ONLY MAIN CHARACTER WHO DIDN’T MAKE A GUEST APPEARANCE ON FRASIER.

Throughout Frasier’s 11-season run, Kirstie Alley was the only one of Cheers’ main actors to not make an appearance on the popular spinoff, possibly because the psychiatric profession conflicts with her beliefs as a Scientologist. “Kirstie once said ... she'd never do a show about a psychiatrist,” Kelsey Grammer told Entertainment Weekly in 2002.

22. FRASIER’S DAD WAS MAGICALLY RESURRECTED FOR THE SPINOFF.

When Frasier talked about his family on Cheers, he noted that his father—also a well-respected psychiatrist—had passed away. Yet his ex-cop dad, played by John Mahoney, is a main character in Frasier. Incidentally, Mahoney made a one-off appearance in Cheers’ eleventh season, as a fast-talking jingle writer named Sy Flembeck:

23. NORM’S FIRST NAME IS HILLARY.

His full name is Hillary Norman Peterson.

24. THAT WOODY PLAYED WOODY WAS A TOTAL COINCIDENCE.

Though many of the non-regular bar patrons’ real names were used in filming, that Woody Harrelson ended up playing Woody Boyd is by sheer coincidence. The character’s name was written into the script long before any actors had auditioned for the role.

25. NORM DRANK “NEAR BEER.”

The bar on the set may have been fully functional, but that doesn’t mean the cast got to spend the day throwing back cold ones. Norm may have had it the worst. As the bar’s resident lush, he’s rarely seen without a sudsy glass of beer in his hand. But what’s really in that glass is “near beer,” a weakened strain of ale mixed with a bit of salt to keep a perfect head on the glass at all times. Which Wendt unfortunately had to consume on more than one occasion.

26. THE SHOW HELPED PROMOTE THE IDEA OF A DESIGNATED DRIVER.

It was important to the producers of Cheers that no tipsy bar patron ever drove him or herself home, so there are frequent references to calling cabs and designated drivers. The Harvard Alcohol Project had a hand in spreading this message.

27. SAM AND DIANE DID GET MARRIED AT THE END OF SEASON FIVE.

Because Cheers was filmed in front of a live studio audience, the producers had to occasionally trick the audience so that show developments weren’t leaked. In order to keep Shelley Long’s departure from the series a secret, the live audience saw Sam and Diane get married at the end of season five. The real ending—which sees Diane leaving for six months to finish her book, only to return for a guest appearance in the final season—was filmed on a closed set.

28. CHEERS HABLA ESPAÑOL.

In September 2011, a Spanish version of the series—also called Cheers—made its debut. It starred Alberto San Juan as a former soccer player turned Irish pub owner and ran for just one season.

29. THE END OF THE SHOW IS ALL TED DANSON’S FAULT.

Though understandably so. When Danson announced that he’d be leaving the series at the end of the 1992-1993 season, producers decided that Woody could take over the bar. But Woody Harrelson wasn’t interested in continuing the show without Danson, and so its series finale was set.

30. THE CAST AND CREW GOT REALLY, REALLY DRUNK FOR THEIR SENDOFF.

NBC made a major event of the series finale, with cast and crew celebrating at Boston’s Bull & Finch Pub, where thousands of fans gathered outside to watch the show on two Jumbotrons. Then the drinks started flowing … and flowing … and flowing. “The show ended at eleven,” Ken Levine wrote in a 2013 remembrance of the evening for Vulture. “The next half-hour was an emotional tsunami. Everyone was hugging and crying and doing a lot of drinking. We were all completely wrecked.”

Then it was time for the cast to make an appearance on The Tonight Show. “The cast, in no condition to face anybody, much less 40 million people, dutifully trooped downstairs to do the live show,” Levine continued. “Us non-celeb types stayed back and watched on TV … in horror. They were so drunk they needed designated walkers. They giggled like schoolgirls over nothing, fired spitballs into each other’s mouths, squirted water guns, Woody Harrelson implied he gave oral sex to both Ted Danson and Oliver Stone, and Kirstie Alley sang a song where the only lyric was ‘dick, dick, dick.’”

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How to Craft the Perfect Gag, According to Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton seen with Donald O'Connor on the set of a film in 1957
Buster Keaton seen with Donald O'Connor on the set of a film in 1957
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Dubbed “The Great Stone Face” for his ability to hold a deadpan expression even as the world (quite literally) crashed down around him, Buster Keaton was “one of the three great silent comedians” in film history, according to filmmaker Tony Zhou.

A video by Zhou, spotted by The Kid Should See This, explains just how Keaton managed to pull off such memorable stunts, and why his scenes continue to influence modern actors and filmmakers. First, Keaton shunned title cards and subtitles, instead opting to advance the story through action. He disliked repetition and thought each movement should be unique, while also insisting on authenticity and proclaiming that a filmmaker should “never fake a gag.” If a gag couldn’t be captured all in one shot, he wouldn’t do it.

The angle and positioning of the camera was also paramount. Many of Keaton’s vaudeville-esque gags were visual in nature, toying with the viewer’s perspective to create illusions that led to hilarious reveals. But for that to be successful, the camera had to remain stationary, and the joke had to play out entirely onscreen.

A low-speed chase scene in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, where Ralph Fiennes's Gustave H. runs up a long staircase in the background to escape cops, is a modern example of this. “Like Wes Anderson, Buster Keaton found humor in geometry,” Zhou says.

Check out Zhou’s video below.

[h/t The Kids Should See This]

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