With little more than a whisper, Netflix added the full run of all four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus earlier this month, as well as a variety of Python-related films and documentaries, including their best film, the satire of religion Life of Brian (which engendered this excellent collection of essays a few years back), making them readily available to U.S. audiences for the first time in a while. For some people of a certain generation (mine, to be specific), the Pythons became part of the rolling stock of our approach to the world. The series first premiered on the BBC in 1969 and didn’t find its way to the U.S. until 1974, when the series itself ended its British run. While the Pythons and their sense of rampant absurdity and irreverence came out of a long tradition of British satire and humor (from Beyond the Fringe to Spike Milligan and the Goon Show), Americans my age had been prepared for it, especially if we’d subscribed to Mad magazine, then in the years of its peak circulation. And it could be argued that, without Monty Python, there’d be no Saturday Night Live, no Airplane!, no SCTV — American comedy would be a different beast. We almost didn’t have it at all, according to this article by Robert Ham in Paste magazine.
Does it hold up nearly fifty years later, this Monty Python? I think so, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it again over the next few months. In the meantime, below is a sketch from one of their very first episodes, which is exemplary of early Python — a parody of BBC documentaries, the German language, WWII nostalgia, and even, if you squint, a dry, skeptical assessment of the power of laughter itself.
See you at Cafe Katja later today, and here next week.
“Death is certainly present in my life, and there’s humor to be mined from it,” the 77-year-old John Cleese tells Vulture‘s David Marchese in a new interview. “Somebody was saying to me last week that you can’t talk about death these days without people thinking you’ve done something absolutely antisocial. But death is part of the deal.”
And so, in a way, is being antisocial. It’s been a part of Cleese’s humor since his years with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but on his own he’s written and appeared in Fawlty Towers, perhaps the best television comedy ever produced, and A Fish Called Wanda. In his creation of Basil Fawlty, Cleese came up with one of the most enduring comic creations in history, sharing traits with Fawlty’s ancestor W.C. Fields and his descendant “Larry David”: paralyzingly fearful, irritable and impatient, prone to fits of explosive rage, devious (even if his deviousness inevitably leads to humiliating, embarrassing disaster), greedy, vain, elitist, puritanical, obsequious with the rich and titled, and prejudiced against race and nationality, Fawlty is a human coagulation of all of the most universal failings known to the race. And Cleese’s embodiment of the character, ill-dressed, eternally ill-at-ease, and clumsy, demonstrated a physical ineptitude that served as a bodily metaphor for all these traits. As he tells Marchese:
The thing about Fawlty Towers is that almost anyone can understand the comedy of it. It’s just about people getting frightened or scared or trying not to get blamed. A child of 8 can follow everything in it. … People get embarrassed when they watch Fawlty Towers. I was in a therapy group once with a judge; when he joined the group he had no idea who I was. Most of the other people in England at that time would have some idea but he didn’t. When I told him what I did for a living, he said he’d watch Fawlty Towers. When I saw him next he said he’d started to watch it and had become so embarrassed by everybody’s behavior that he had to leave the room. The vicarious embarrassment was too much for him.
Ah, funny because it’s true. So cruelly true.
Here are a few other tidbits from the interview:
You’ve lived in America part-time for decades. Did Donald Trump’s election change your thinking about Americans? Mm-hmm. What I found surprising was that the least successful people supported Trump. You understand the wealthy wanting tax cuts, but why on Earth did the less successful people think Trump was going to do anything he said he was going to do to help them? I’ll give an analogy: I remember going to see professional wrestling when I was 18 — wonderful entertainment, obviously rigged. The thing that astounded me as I looked around Colston Hall in Bristol is that quite a lot of the audience thought what they were seeing was for real. That’s what’s incredible to me about such a large swath of the American people: They can’t see that Trump is fake. And if they can’t see that when it’s right in front of them, how can you convince them of anything critical about the man? It’s like holding up a red sign to a person and the person says it’s blue. You can’t logically argue them into seeing red. The inability of people unable to intuit what was going on with Trump — I was impressed by it, not repelled. It was extraordinary to me that people couldn’t see how clueless he is.
Tell me more about your impression of Trump. What also appalls me is the language of him and his cronies — people talking about sucking on their own cocks and such. I don’t know if it’s universal or distinctly American, but the vulgarity of the language of powerful men: It all comes down to penises and pissing and cocks. They talk like out-of-control 6-year-olds. …
There’s absolutely nothing that gives you any hope about the future of human society? Nothing.
So why get up in the morning?
Just because you can’t create a sensible world doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the world you’re in. I think Bertrand Russellonce said that the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change — and I don’t think you can change society. I’ve spent a lot of time in group therapy watching highly intelligent, well-intentioned people try to change and they couldn’t. If even they can’t change …
The full interview can be found here. And if you’re puzzled by the title of this post, here’s the most amusing source:
Earlier this year, London’s TimeOut released the results of a poll ranking the “100 Best Comedy Movies,” and coming in at #3 — just after This Is Spinal Tap (#1) and Airplane! (#2) — was the 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, I probably saw it several times upon its first release and the years immediately afterward. Of the three official Monty Python films, it’s the one that holds together the best (and contains a lovely Chaplin-esque performance from Graham Chapman as Brian), and I have a feeling that it, like the other two of the top-three comedies, retains its strengths, even 40 years later.
Mind you, the idea behind the book doesn’t suggest a rip-roaring page-turner. The conference and collection are experiments in “reception history,” a comparatively recent development in Biblical Studies. As John F.A. Sawyer defines it, reception history assumes that “what people believe [the Bible] means and how they actually use it — in everyday situations, in the liturgy, in preaching, in the media, in literature, in art, in music, in film — can be studied with the same degree of scientific sensitivity and rigor as the original,” and that this study can, in the words of Paul Joyce, “shine a spotlight on biblical verses that have been dulled by familiarity; it can foreground biblical concepts and concerns that have faded over time into the background; and it can even give rise to new readings of difficult Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms.” In short, it can deepen our insight into the texts of the Bible themselves, how people live with and without the Bible, and, perhaps for some of us, provide different perspectives on Christian and Judaic faith.
The first half of the book looks at the film itself, its production and contemporary reception. In doing so, it reveals a few fascinating perspectives that may not have been obvious at the time. In Taylor’s own “The Historical Brian: Reception Exegesis in Practice,” she reminds us that Brian’s trip with aliens through the Terry-Gilliamesque skies may have been a parodic reference to Erich von Dänekin’s 1968 spurious potboiler Chariots of the Gods?, which suggested that extraterrestrial beings visited the ancient world and left behind structures that remain mysterious (fun fact: its German editor, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, was a best-selling author himself during the Nazi era); a documentary based on the book was released in the US in 1972, narrated by Rod Serling. William R. Telford’s essay looks at Life of Brian as a parody of the “Jesus film,” intriguingly asking whether it’s a “Jesus film,” an “anti Jesus-film,” or an “anti-Jesus film”; Anglican Bishop Richard A. Burridge looks back at the controversy that surrounded the film upon its original release in “The Church of England’s Life of Brian — or ‘What the Bishop Saw,'” asking “whether the Church and the academy missed a golden opportunity in 1979 to debate the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth in wider society,” as well as addressing a decline in biblical literacy in the years between 1979 and today; and David Tollerson offers thoughts on what blasphemy means in the Bible, in 1979, and today. In my favorite essay so far, Philip R. Davies’ “The Gospel of Brian,” the founder of what we might call “Brian Studies”1 compares the Christ of history with the Brian of history, revealing considerable wit and style in the process. Interesting observations about the cheerful nihilism of the end of the film abound. The second half of the book delves more deeply into issues of Biblical scholarship and archaeology, as well as questions of sexuality and Jewish identity that Life of Brian raises.
I can already see you yawning, but you shouldn’t; all of the contributors are fully aware that they’re engaged in the frog-dissecting business of analyzing a movie that was meant as entertainment, as a comedy, and by and large their tone remains as light and irreverent as that of the Pythons themselves. John Cleese, who participated in the conference, said, “I think it was somebody who said you were going to say, ‘What was the most interesting part that came out of Pythons?’ and as far as I’m concerned it’s this conference.” Terry Jones, the co-director of the film, echoed Cleese’s comment with an “Absolutely,” and contributed a preface to the collection in which he concludes, “The comparisons are always illuminating, and the commentaries are right on the nose.”
There’s no evidence in the Bible to indicate that Jesus ever laughed; this is a point that Cleese himself brought up at the conference. He wept, yes, according to John 11:35; but never an indication that he chortled, or even smiled. On the other hand, if Christ was fully human, it’s hard to believe he didn’t, with the apostles or with the money-changers and prostitutes with whom he often shared dinner. This is, though, nothing to be surprised at. The Bible is a collection of books of various genres composed over 500 years — of laws, of history, of letters, of poems — everything except jokebooks, it appears; but jokebooks are a rather late development.
If God invented everything, as some would have it, he invented satire and humor, too. In the end, we have G.K. Chesterton’s most interesting observation, from Orthodoxy:
And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
The film Monty Python’s Life of Brian and this collection of essays may remind us of that. It’s something completely different, and worth a moment or two of reflection.
A few interesting videos mentioned in the book are below. The first is the 1979 debate between Pythons Cleese and Michael Palin versus Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood, broadcast on the BBC:
And, just to prove that parody is not beyond parody, here’s a satire of the same conversation — with Rowan Atkinson defending his film, Life of Christ, on the same basis that Cleese and Palin defended theirs — a little later on Not the Nine O’Clock News: