Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin
Directed by Terry Jones
Throughout my life, I have attempted to sit down with the work of the Monty Python troupe and develop an appreciation. Every time I walk away with a bad taste in my mouth. That’s not helped by the apparent ignorance of many of its living members, John Cleese chief among them. It has led me to believe there really is nothing revolutionary or ultimately insightful about the comedy they were doing. In fact, they were just their generation’s continuation of a type of elitist comedic sensibilities that’s always had strong roots in the United Kingdom. So I sat down to watch Life of Brian, hoping that this, a satire of the life of Jesus, would be the thing that convinced me to enjoy them. Unfortunately, it did not play out that way.
Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) is born in the stable next door to Jesus, which causes some confusion with the three wise men when they arrive. Years later, Brian is an adult man living in Judea under the brutal rule of the Romans. He ends up having a crush on Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), and this causes Brian to join the People’s Front of Judea, one of many anti-Roman radical groups in the city. Brian’s first mission to prove himself, painting graffiti on Pontius Pilate’s palace, goes awry when a Roman guard catches him in the act. Through a series of escapades, Brian is always just a few steps ahead of his pursuers, getting blamed for things he didn’t do or mistaken for others. It wouldn’t be a parody of Jesus’s life without a crucifixion, and we definitely get one, probably the best scene in the movie.
I won’t say Life of Brian isn’t funny. I did chuckle at a few scenes. The men behind Monty Python are not dumb; they clearly have a strong sense of their craft, performing & writing. My problem lies with the target of the humor. Upon its original release, there were public outcries about the picture being blasphemous. Having seen it, it doesn’t mock Jesus so much, as it tells a parallel comedy story happening while Jesus is doing his thing in the background. Much like the reaction to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the reactionaries are once again getting upset about what they think the piece of art might be rather than what it actually is.
There are some amusing gags. The “blessed are the cheese eaters” sequence is quite good. The women in fake beards attending the sermons are fantastic, as there are no men at all in the crowd besides Brian. Like I said, I don’t think Life of Brian isn’t written with craft & skill. My problem is that the butt of the jokes involves punching down. The revolutionary groups being mocked are meant to parallel British left-wing groups of the era. They have a cogent point about the constant in-fighting that leaves these groups nearly paralyzed and unable to implement ideas. Unfortunately, they didn’t include a gag where the party responsible for the internal dissent was an undercover government agent within the group, which was often the cause. Look up Tupac’s mom, Afeni Shakur, and her experience in the Black Panthers, realizing they had been infiltrated.
What annoyed me most was the scene where Cleese’s revolutionary asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” proceeding to list several beneficial innovations the Romans developed and installed in colonized places. My problem with this joke is that the cost of getting social programs and luxuries in these instances was predicated on a loss of national and individual autonomy leading to essentially slavery under the Roman system. It’s a highly pro-establishment, pro-colonization argument being made at the expense of colonized people. I’m not surprised with this coming from white male comedy writers whose academic background culminated in attending some elite universities. They have directly benefited their whole lives from the systems of colonial power that imposed themselves throughout the world. The only member who might be outside that is Graham Chapman because he was gay, but even then, that didn’t seem to be a topic that was a part of his humor.
There’s also a transgender woman character (played by Eric Idle) who walks a very tenuous line of potentially being transphobic. My personal read was that the writers were tiptoeing, trying to poke fun at the idea of a “man who wants to be a woman” and trying to frame her as ultimately harmless. I think the joke was that she was inserting another “divisive” non-negotiable into the already conflict-laden revolutionary movement because of the particular scene when she brings up her identity. Having just watched Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein made five years earlier, I can definitely see where my personal sense of humor lies. Where that comedy feels immortal to me, this movie feels very dated with some of the perspectives presented through the jokes. There’s also blackface within the film’s first ten minutes, which is just so embarrassing & gross.
Overall, I didn’t find the ultimate point of the movie’s jokes clever. I guess that’s the point, very base humor written in an erudite manner by Cambridge-educated comedians that contradicts the setting & period. It’s precisely what they did in The Holy Grail. I get if Monty Python is your thing, they just aren’t mine, and I think I’ve reached an age where I am ready to give up on trying to enjoy them. I don’t doubt that Monty Python has tremendously influenced the art of comedy (for better and worse). When I look at the contemporary comedy landscape & read interviews from current writers, it is clear Python influenced Seth Macfarlane and associated comedians/series, which is a big reason why I simply don’t find it funny.
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