I’m going to take Life of Brian as my favorite of the Monty Python movies.
That’s really saying something, because I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed harder at a movie than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I saw it as a teenager with a couple of buddies who were also huge Python fans, and it was one of those very, very rare times in life when you convulse so hard and so out of control with laughter that it’s actually painful. I didn’t laugh quite that hard at Monty Python’s Life of Brian—maybe in part because I was a bit older, and I was alone in the theater when I saw it—but pretty close. So Life of Brian is narrowly behind in terms of just how laugh out loud funny I experienced it, but when I factor in other considerations such as my appreciation for the satirical elements, I rank it narrowly ahead.
I remember how controversial Life of Brian was when it came out, and how asinine most of that controversy was. There were protests outside of many of the theaters where it was shown, and it was denounced by various figures with access to the media. That would have been silly enough if people were just expressing disagreement with the film, or urging people not to see it, but in some cases it crossed the line into seeking to prohibit the film from being shown or to otherwise prevent people from being able to see it (showing that while that kind of coercive political correctness and cancel culture and the like have been more the province of the left in recent decades, it’s not like the right won’t behave similarly when the opportunity presents itself).
Why were people so up in arms about this movie? Well, it was fundamentalist Christians for the most part, and they were infuriated by what they took to be the ridiculing of someone (Jesus) who is not just an important figure in their religion but literally is God.
Some of the people who condemned the movie admitted they never saw it. That in itself is probably not as outrageous as it may at first appear—in the unlikely event that some porno theater chose to show a literal snuff film tomorrow, I wouldn’t expect everyone to hold off condemning the decision until they have first bought a ticket and watched the whole thing—but it’s relevant in this case because they got a central fact about the movie dead wrong: This is not—as uninformed, indignant Christians protested—a comedy biography about Jesus.
The title character—Brian—is not a joke name for Jesus; he’s a completely different person. In fact, Jesus is—briefly—in the movie, and he is not presented in any kind of negative or disrespectful manner, or held up to ridicule. This simply isn’t a movie that presents Jesus as a fraud, as evil, nor as mythical for that matter.
It’s not anti-Jesus, but is it anti-Christian? Well, it definitely takes satirical shots at certain characteristics of certain religious believers, and you could say that that includes the early Christians, or Christians in general, so it’s not as blatantly inaccurate to say that the film is implicitly critical of (some of) the followers of Jesus as it is to say that it is critical of Jesus. But really it’s ridiculing the followers of the fictitious Brian, and since when is it anathema to Christians to criticize the followers of false prophets or false messiahs? One could at least as reasonably respond to the movie as a Christian by saying: “Yes, this shows how dumb people and misguided people could fall for someone as unworthy as this comic Brian character, when what we really should all be doing is following the true Messiah, namely Jesus.”
Furthermore, if you actually watch the film you’ll find that there are maybe 25% as many satirical shots taken at those who commit to dubious religious beliefs as there are of satirical shots taken at those who commit to dubious political movements.
Because really that’s the bulk of Life of Brian; it’s an extended analogy where a hapless band of Judean rebels ineffectually opposing Roman rule is meant to represent the sillier tendencies of contemporary political movements, more so of the left than the right. This isn’t a movie making fun of Christians; it’s a movie making fun of radical chic types, the politically correct crowd, liberals who see oppression everywhere, etc. It’s about leftists who over-intellectualize everything, who focus far more on words than actions, who are much more vehement in their denunciation of erstwhile political allies that they deem insufficiently pure than of the oppressors, and who inevitably get sidetracked into more and more arcane culture war battles.
If anyone is going to get their feelings hurt by this movie and denounce it as unjust in its ridicule then it should be social justice warriors, not fundamentalist Christians.
Case in point: One of the band of would-be revolutionaries is an odd little fellow, Stan, with an obsession about policing every pronouncement of the group to make sure it is gender-neutral, where every mention of “man” he corrects to “man or woman,” every mention of “brothers” he corrects to “brothers and sisters,” etc. The others find this tiresome but put up with it, until one of them in exasperation finally says, “Why are you always on about women, Stan?”
Stan, hesitant and self-conscious, but feeling that this is the time he must plunge forward and reveal the truth about himself responds, “I want to be one…From now on, I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’…I want to have babies.”
The others in the group are stunned but recover quickly, motivated by their awareness that any statement of identity other than by a member of a privileged group must be affirmed and supported. Soon they are debating just what stand they are obligated to make on this issue of Stan’s unexpected revelation, ultimately settling on the compromise that they will not protest the physical impossibility of Stan giving birth, but they will stand solidly beside him in fighting for his right to do so.
And the whole exchange is hilarious, one of the funniest scenes in a very funny movie. Just like in real life you know this bunch won’t be storming any barricades any time soon, since their focus is on things like the minutiae of how to word symbolic resolutions so as to be maximally respectful of the feelings of the most sensitive member of any racial, gender, or sexuality group that can plausibly be cast as victims of oppression.
But is it only funny to transphobic bigots? I don’t know. Certainly I had that “Uh oh, they’d never get away with that today!” feeling watching it this most recent time. I mean, the humor comes from the implication that there’s something quite silly about Stan’s transgenderism, and about the way the others feel compelled to bend over backwards to placate him, which on the surface seems pretty straightforwardly transphobic.
Then again, I’m far from pure on this issue myself. I have yet to fully embrace the current dogma on the left on all transgender issues. Truth be told I think that at a certain level there is something silly about some of it.
Maybe I’m also inclined to accept this humor from Monty Python due to their being more from the left than the right themselves. They always did plenty of drag and gender-bending humor, and you never had the sense that there was any kind of hatefulness behind it. I’m reminded of the “Men on…” skits on In Loving Color with the wildly over-the-top queens Blaine and Antoine. Some members of the LGBT community found the characters offensive, true, but plenty thought they were hilarious, and recognized that the comedy troupe were themselves largely members of and supportive of oppressed groups and so reacted to the material as “laughing with” coming from “us” rather than “laughing at” coming from “them.” I would hope that people would also see the Stan/Loretta character as an opportunity for the left to laugh at ourselves, rather than an attack by hostile outsiders.
Plus, the point of it isn’t even that Stan and the group are necessarily wrong in the stance they take on transgenderism and procreation. It’s more about how political factions of the left are prone to getting bogged down in hair-splitting debates and purity tests over cultural issues like this, resulting in their splintering rather than making common cause against those who unjustly wield the most power in society. Indeed, it would have been more accurate had the tiny group split up into two or more tinier groups over this issue, rendering them even more ineffectual.
But I don’t mean to imply that Python’s humor, including humor that humorless leftists of recent times would be appalled by, is all highly intellectual biting political and social satire. Plenty of it is wonderfully uninhibited teenage boy fart humor level stuff. Like the effete Romans and their stereotypical gay speech patterns: Pilate pronouncing ‘r’s as ‘w’s, and Biggus Dickus lisping his ‘s’s as ‘th’s.
Laugh out loud hilarious, or unconscionable “punching down” at an oppressed group? It’s the former as far as I’m concerned, but I understand that many nowadays will feel obligated to treat it as the latter and rush to console any tender souls who might be traumatized by the humor.
But, anyway, however strong or weak you think the case is that LGBT folks could make against Life of Brian, it’s a much stronger case than Christians could make against it. Ironically, since as I say it was certain Christians who were most up in arms about it way back when.
I’m not sure what more to write about this movie, because mostly I just appreciate the awesome humor of it, and it’s not very enlightening to offer paragraph after paragraph of “I particularly like the line where so-and-so says such-and-such,” and “Oh, remember that great scene where such-and-such happens?,” etc.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of the great film comedies of all time. You need to see it, not have me list the funny bits for you.