Sam: Hullo, my name is Sam
Tonks: And I’m Tonks
S: And that’s Jay in the corner, so this must be Celluloid Scrutiny, the movie podcast where we take a classic movie and look at it through the eyes of a modern viewer
T: Except for when we don’t
S: Today’s movie is Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It was written by the Monty Python team, that’s John Cleese, Terry’s Jones and Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, and it was directed by Terry Jones, who also directed Jabberwocky and Eric the Viking. Full disclosure, this is actually the second time we’ve discussed this movie because through a combination of errors on all three of our parts last time it didn’t actually record properly so…
T: We forgot to turn one of the microphones on, you know, high level stuff here.
S: Anyway, back to the movie. Life of Brian was released in 1979 it was made for a budget of $4 million and it made $20 million at the box office so it didn’t do too badly. The funding originally was going to be provided by EMI but they were a little bit concerned about the content of the film, so they pulled out and the rest of the funding was provided by George Harrison.
T: what of the Beatles, George Harrison?
S: Yes. Mr George “of the Beatles” Harrison. He actually set up his own film company Handmade Films just so that he could make this movie cos he wanted to make a movie that he felt he would want to go see himself. EMI, it turns out, were not quite off with that idea that it might be a bit controversial, the film was actually banned in Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Ireland and Norway. In fact, as soon as it was banned in Norway, Sweden started promoting it as “the film so funny it was banned in Norway.” It was also banned in certain local councils in the UK, in fact, Bournemouth had its first ever showing relatively recently in 2015.
T: That’s almost, like, 40 years after the film came out
S: About 35 I think it was, yes. In places where it wasn’t banned it was picketed by Christian and Jewish groups who levelled charges of blasphemy, anti-Semitism and making light of Jesus’ suffering. This all culminated in a rather interesting debate on the BBC on a program called Friday Night, Saturday Morning, John Cleese and Michael Palin vs Malcom Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, Mervyn Stockwood being the Bishop of Southwark at the time.
T: those are really great names
S: They’re wonderful names aren’t they?
S: Southwark I mean er Stockwood
S: Yes as I say it was a rather interesting debate, certainly worth watching. We’ll pop the link in the description. So, what was Life of Brian about?
T: Life of Brian is about a person called Brian, strangely enough. He is an average, not very rich type person who’s hanging around on first century Judea sort of on the edges of what Jesus was up to.
T: With his gang, his notorious gang, the Pharisees. The Notorious Pharisees.
S: I think I’ve heard of them. So it’s about Brian on the edges of the Jesus story.
T: Yeah, and it’s kind of telling that sort of story through the eyes of somebody who is not the son of God but is just a regular Joe or Brian as it were, and he gets caught up in like the political and religious turmoil of the day. And he lives happily ever after at the end.
S: Yeah, sure, we’ll go with that. Yes, he’s not the son of God, he’s
T: A very naughty boy
S: Well I was gonna say he’s the son of Nautius Maximus but okay, we’ll take that.
T: It’s less that “he’s not the son of God he’s a very naughty boy” it’s that “he’s not the son of God he’s Nautie’s boy”
S: He’s [laughs] get out. [Laughs]
T: B!£@& I’m hilarious
S: I’m only asking this for the benefit of the audience because I watched your face while you were watching the movie, so tell me what were your first impressions?
T: Not.. great.. yeah. I’d never seen the movie before and I can honestly say that my life had not been missing anything up until that point and I’m pretty sure I’d categorised my feelings about this movie as “I hated it”.
T: There goes half our audience
S: Please direct any hate mail to celluloidscrutiny at gmail dot com where it will be ignored.
T: We’ll give it the uh custom artisan treatment as we put it into the spam folder. I am not a Python fan generally, and Life of Brian really hasn’t changed my mind which is kind of almost a shame that I hated it cos I’ve grown up with people who like it and so many people quoting it left, right and centre, and it almost feels like I’ve missed out on something and the fact that what I’ve seen, you know what I’d seen of it prior I didn’t like and I was like oh yeah Life of Brian is meant to be their best movie and it’s one of the best things they did and I sat and watched it going into it like maybe this’ll be the one that changes my mind and it really didn’t, it just kind of cemented Monty Python as the kind of comedy that is Not For Me.
S: That’s a real shame cos Monty Python obviously influential not just in comedy but in informing the sense of humour almost of a generation. I mean, without Monty Python we wouldn’t have had the likes of the alternative comedians of the 80s, for example, your Stephen Fry’s, your Hugh Laurie’s you know we wouldn’t have– no, you’re giving me that look that says “good, good riddance”. No.
T: Stephen Fry can get knotted as well. Hugh Laurie can stay.
S: Again, any hate mail, please send to celluloidscrutiny at gmail dot com, make sure you write “Tonks” in the subject line please.
T: I’m not gonna deny that the Python crew were hugely influential ant this would have been one of the things that cemented that
T: And I’m glad for all of the comedians and the writers that they’ve influenced but I–
S: What didn’t you “get” for lack of a better word, what didn’t you get about it?
T: It wasn’t funny. I went into this assuming that a film by a comedy troupe was gonna be funny and I think that this movie pulled like two laughs out of me and they were both for silly throw away things. None of the big set pieces got a reaction that was anything other than frowning to be honest.
S: I think you got a giggle out if the John Cleese centurion “stupid person”
T: Silly person yeah
S: Silly person
T: That made me giggle. And whoever it was doing the cock-a-doodle-do bit part way through.
S: Probably Terry Jones
T: That’s not to say that there weren’t bits I didn’t like in the movie. I did enjoy towards the end, as Brian starts getting caught up in all the religious fervour
T: When they’re sat arguing over the gourd or the sandal or whether it’s a shoe. I wrote down in my notes like, “this is how wars start” you know with the splitting of religious factions over relatively small things and the way it was poking fun at that. But it still didn’t pull a laugh out of me.
S: And that’s a shame, really, I mean, personally I still find it very funny. There were a couple of scenes that had me cringing because I and my tastes have come a long way since the last time I saw it, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Jay is waving a placard at me at the moment telling me that in fact it was one of their favourite movies, but after watching it with us this time they hate it too now! So, sorry. [Chuckles]
T: The thing is, is like the things that you were cringing at, the things that tipped the movie over from just being kind of boring and ‘meh’ into like me outright hating it and the things that put Jay off, they’re all the same things, it’s like this shopping list of non-politically correct things that they’re doing – and that’s what people would call it, I tend to frame that as being an asshole. And it starts right at the beginning, you’ve got one of the Pythons in brownface in the first 5 minutes–
T: — And I saw that and I thought ‘please let that be the only instance of this kind of s$%£’. And if it had been, it would just have been, you know, a comedy movie that the humour was just not for me, but it doubled down and then tripled down on that kind of humor that–
S: What with?
T: I guess the brownface wasn’t meant to be funny in itself, that’s just putting one of the Pythons in brownface because they couldn’t be arsed to hire a non-white actor. Our usual game of Where Are The Black People, you set a film in first century Middle East and everybody looks white…?
S: Yeah, I mean, Jesus Christ Superstar came out before that, and that cast a black man as Judas, and was very interesting to watch.
T: Yeah, it kinda, it went straight from, you know, having one of the Pythons in brownface to a really long scene where all of the humour was about noses–
S: Oh yeah.
T: My initial thoughts were ‘this is boring’ and then when I thought about it later, I’m just thinking ‘this really is toeing the line of the anti-semitism it was accused of’. They might have gotten away with going ‘Oh, of course it’s not anti-semitic’ had it just been that scene, but then not long after that we have a scene in which Brian uses about 5 different anti-semitic slurs in the space of a sentence.
S: Yeah, to deny his Roman heritage.
T: Which comes hot on the heels of a rape joke, and that was kind of the point where I thought ‘oh this is how it’s going to be, this is how this is going to play out’ and I kept looking for, you know, a bright spot in it, but all I’ve really got is notes that are just full of issues where the humour is coming from a marginalised group – and I think one of my notes even says ‘you can tell this was made by a bunch of Oxbridge-educated white men in the 70s’.
S: Mmm, yeah.
T: That is very much the fee I got from it and, you know, watching this movie in 2018 as a non-Oxbridge-educated white woman who has a number of marginalisations–
T: — it’s not specifically poking fun at me, but it’s poking fun at people like me, and there’s nothing really to find funny about that.
S: Yes, on the point of them being white Oxbridge and, from what i can tell in the research, all Christian, it’s the sort of movie — and that scene with Brian denying his heritage — it’s the sort of thing that you could get away with if you were, say, Mel Brooks.
T: Yeah, it’s like, if, in Mel Brooks uttering that line, it would have been hilarious.
S: Or even if he’d just written it, it gives it that context of Jewishness.
T: Yeah,and it’s like, it–
S: I mean, one thing that was actually cut from the movie because even the Pythons themselves thought ‘Er, no, this is a bit too far’ was a character called Otto, who was an extreme Zionist – and the joke of it was that he was a Nazi. So his passionate Zionism and his passion for the purity of Jewishness and the land of Israel – Tonks is, Tonks is making A Face, with a capital A and a capital F–
T: I’m sorry–
S: — it was likened to Nazisim, with the whole Heil thing, and the little Hitler moustache, and on a less offensive note, a way less funny version of the suicide squad joke. It was just not funny, but also huuugely, huuuugely, huuuuugely offensive.
T: And I’m sat making A Face because you’re telling me that in the 70s, when you know, WWII was a lot fresher–
T: — in everyone’s mind, they thought it would be ok to write and film–
T: — a scene likening–
T: — Jewish people to the Nazis?
T: Like the Holocaust wasn’t a goddamn thing?
S: Yup. And consider the Yom Kippur War was in the 70s as well, when the surrounding Arab nations launched an invasion of Israel on Yom Kippur, one of the Jewish holy days… yeah, this… it was cut for a reason.
T: It was cut for a reason, but, like, what was left in was almost as bad. And then they compound the anti-semitism and the brownface with, like, a heaping dose of transphobia–
S: Mmm, yeah.
T: — in the colosseum scene–
S: Mmm, Loretta.
T: — and there’s two separate characters in two separate sections that feature people with speech impediments and… The second one it does feature both of them suddenly dropping the impediment and then–
T– and you know talking, so it’s a put on thing, which I actually quite like, but I would have been a lot less uncomfortable if they had done that gag earlier in the movie instead of 5 minutes before the end. I don’t know whether it comes through on the podcast due to expert editing, but I stutter, so I felt like–
T: — that was laughing at me, and it’s, I have a fairly mild–
T: — stutter that doesn’t happen all the time, for people who have much more severe speech impediments…
T: It’s just… again, it’s making marginalised folk the butt of the joke, it’s punching down–
T:– and that is something good comedy never does, and this whole movie felt like the Pythons were punching downwards, and that in the end was what meant I just couldn’t find it funny, and unfortunately for them, some of the scenes that I did kindof like didn’t pull a laugh out of me because I’ve seen them thousands and thousands of times. The Biggus Dickus section with Pontius Pilate–
T: — another character with a speech impediment, so you’ve got four characters there, you’ve got Biggus Dickus, and you’ve got Pontius Pilate, and you’ve got the two jailkeepers, all with speech impediments of various forms–
T: — and an extended scene towards the end where a crowd is literally taking the p!$£ out of Pontius Pilate and Biggus Dickus for their impediments and I’m sat there just cringing and thinking ‘this isn’t f@£$ing funny.’ You know, this is something I deal with, this is my life, and you’re f%&!ing laughing at me. Like, I’m so- no, I’m not sorry, I’m not going to apologise for that, because you know this is a film… yeah, this is a film that is considered a comedy classic and absolutely, you know, the group of them went on to inspire a huge number of comedians, many of whom I like, but I’m not going to apologise for not finding something funny when the joke is at my expense.
T: And even when it’s not at my expense, it’s at the expense of other people who are marginalised. I can almost hear you middle-aged white men rising up in the comments going ‘Waaooh, politically correct, politically correct!’ And it’s like, yeah, what I call, what you call ‘politically correct’ I call ‘not being an asshole’ and I’m sorry- no, I’m not sorry, I’m going to stop apologising. People being an asshole is never funny, and if you find it funny, you’re probably an asshole!
S: I mean, humour is very subjective, but there is a long long long history of humour that punches downwards, a long history of humour at the expense of marginalised people, and a long history of the comedy of the asshole, and the comedy of the anti-PC brigade, so to speak, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to go away any time soon. You’ve got Rick and Morty, and so on. The point of Rick and Morty though is that you shouldn’t want to be Rick, you shouldn’t want to be the asshole.
T: But people do.
S: But people do! People will find their heroes where they can. More people should find a hero in Brian, who just wants to get on with his life, who just wants… well, he just wants to have sex, he just wants to be a free Judean man, not oppressed by Roman but not oppressed by his mum, and with people generally being nice to each other, that’s what Brian wants – and he’s f$&£ing crucified for it.
T: It’s like, level the accusations, you know- deal with the accusations that I can hear being levelled, like, screamed across the country: it’s not like I don’t enjoy comedy and at the very least I enjoy Eddie Izzard, who is absolutely and very obviously influenced by the Pythons.
S: Oh yeah, in particular their surrealist style of humour, the humour from their TV show, you know, everything came out of left field. That‘s why you get punchlines like, things like, ‘there’s a pig, under the table, with a gun!’ and, you know.
T: And that style of humour was largely missing from this film.
T: Barring the scene with the alien, which, yeah it came out of left field but it didn’t fit with the feel of the movie. So, what you have left is, since they’re reining back the surrealism, is just kindof stilted and bland and interspersed with, you know, these things that I’m supposed to find funny which are, you know, just them being assholes. If it had been a more surreal movie I might have blinked less when the aliens turned up, and it might have been funnier.
S: It was fantastic to see your face when that happened. It just… Blink. Blink Blink. Blink. “What?!” [chuckles]
T: Yeah I just went ‘and suddenly aliens, because that makes sense!’. It’s like-
S: Well, they had to give Terry Gilliam something to do other than the introduction.
T: You know, they’re making a film about 1st Century Judea and telling the story of Jesus through, through a different lens, and suddenly there’s goddamn aliens, because they’ve – I probably shouldn’t be blaspheming so much in this episode. They’re telling the story of Brian who is, you know, a 1st Century Judean man who is living on the outskirts of what’s happening with Jesus and that whole thing, and then suddenly they’ve got aliens because they’ve written themselves into a corner and they don’t know how to get out again.
S: In fairness, they had the budget for aliens, cos they reused the sets and costumes and some of the props from a Franco Zeffirelli TV production, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ that was filmed, I think, a year or two before, so they made a little bit of money there. So hey, aliens. So, do you feel that it’s not funny because of the style of comedy of the time? Do you think it might just be a 70s thing?
T: I don’t think it is just the style of comedy of the time, cos I mean it’s not like I don’t like other classic comedies. Monty Python were notably absent from what I enjoyed despite my dad being a fan, but there are other comedies from the 70s and the 80s, things like your Two Ronnies–
S: Ronnies Twain.
T: — there’s an entire boxset of Open All Hours over there, and then going on to things like Allo Allo and Are You Being Served – and even some of the Carry On films I’ve seen and enjoyed, so it’s not I’m a modern comedy fan looking at it and going ‘oh this is old’ – those other things have their issues, they have, all have instances of, you know, they’re punching down a bit, problematic portrayals, but Life of Brian kindof just felt like this was Concentrated Offensiveness TM, whereas a lot of other comedy I like from the era wasn’t. But then a lot of the comedy I like from the era is very much the double entendre stuff.
S: Mmm, yeah.
T: The wordplay kind of comedy rather than whatever it is Monty Python are meant to be doing.
S: Especially the Two Ronnies, I know you’re really really big on the surprise punchline, the re-worded punchline.
T: So, you know, it definitely isn’t the case that I’ve kindof just swept all comedy that was made before 1995 under the rug and I’m just ignoring it as archaic. There‘s something about Python and this film in particular that just really rubs me up the wrong way.
S: A couple of fun facts, while Tonks bars up the windows and doors to keep the angry mob out. There was a small schism in the Pythons as to whether the film was heretical or not. Terry Jones and Eric Idle were saying it’s heretical not blasphemous, whereas John Cleese was saying it wasn’t heresy at all, it was just satire and satire is fine. I would say it’s pretty heretical. In the Biggus Dickus scene, which Tonks didn’t find risible, the extras were specifically told that if they laugh, they’ll get fired. I think one of the guards in the scene was Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but the other guys were all extras and anyone who laughed before the appointed punchline laugh right at the end – sacked. The scene where Brian addresses the crowd, when he first opens the window, you can see Graham Chapman’s penis–
T: Oh yes, the full frontal nudity that I was not expecting!
S: Was anyone?
T: You’re just pootling along going ‘this film is kindof offensive and boring’ and suddenly dick.
S: I will tell you who else wasn’t expecting it: several women in the crowd weren’t told that he was going to be naked – I don’t the crowd must have been told at all, I suppose – but, yeah, the Muslim women in the crowd shrieked and ran away, apparently. Which, to be honest, I’d have the same reaction as well. But after that scene was shot, Terry Jones took Graham Chapman aside and said ‘Graham, I think we can see you’re not Jewish.’ Because obviously Brian would have been circumcised. Graham Chapman : not circumcised. So they fixed that with a couple of rubber bands. And apparently if you rewind and linger lovingly over the shots of his penis, you can see that. You can see that there has been a rushed circumcision job on him.
T: That sounds deeply unpleasant, and I don’t even have a penis.
S: Ok, so I think Tonks has managed to angry-mob-proof the rest of the house.
T: So yeah, so you had a few thoughts on the political shenanigans–
T: — that Brian gets himself sucked into before he ends up as a quasi-Messiah.
S: Yes, I did find it very funny when he joins the protest group, the People’s Front of Judea, and then there’s all the talk of the splitting, there’s little groups, the Judean People’s Front and the Judean Popular People’s Front, the Popular Front, Campaign for Free Galilee and so on and so forth. I lived for a very short time in Palestine, and one thing that was notable to me was all the little groups there were fighting the occupation, but also seemingly fighting each other and, yeah, again, the Popular Front and you know, the People’s Liberation Party and all that sort of stuff. It was amusing to me to see the splitters – splitters! – because that’s how it seemed to be, and it seemed to me that they were riffing directly off that.
T: And in the 70s, that was when a lot of those groups were, you know, most notably active.
S: Yeah. the PLO in particular, I think they were forerunners. So, Hollywood always rebooting everything, as we discussed in the last episode, would you be interested in a reboot of Life of Brian?
S: [Laughter] If they were to reboot it, is there anybody you think would be able to do it justice? What would you want, or what would you do for a Life of Brian remake?
T: I don’t think one’s necessary and I certainly don’t think I’d be interested in a reboot. But if they were to remake it, reboot it, one thing that this film desperately needed at all levels of involvement were some non-white people, so yeah ok you know–
T: — some more involvement from Christians but – you’re telling a story about Jewish people in the 1st Century it’s like, involve some Jewish people–
T: — in both the writing & behind the scenes and acting as well.
S: I mean, the clue’s in the name of the place where they live, Judea.
T: If you were to do – I mean, this goes for telling any kind of similar story, you involve the people that you’re telling the story about. Why is this hard? This is a no-brainer. So yeah, no I don’t think that a reboot, a remake is necessary. If they were, they’d certainly have to update the humour a little bit. You start by involving the people you’re telling the story about, and that way you can try and make it as not horribly racist and anti-semitic as you possibly can – and no, that wouldn’t take away from the humour.
S: With regard to reboots and remakes, I don’t think one would be coming. I think it’s considered iconic, I don’t think anyone can do Python without Pythons.
T: So no reboot necessary, is there anything that can follow in its footsteps?
S: Already has been – Dogma. Kevin Smith’s Dogma. You’ve got the same basic message of faith without an organised structure, or without necessarily an organised structure. Because you don’t need followers, you don’t need to be a follower of the gourd, you don’t need to be a follower of the sandal. You just need to be a good person, you just need to think for yourself, and you just need to f@£$ off!
T: But how shall we f?%$ off?
S: I don’t know, just f&$! off! … Please don’t unsubscribe! Please! I know we’re a bit controversial with this one, I know that they’re a beloved institution are the Pythons, and I know that there’s going to be a lot of people in the comments who are going to be a little upset – and I can appreciate that, I understand. It’s never, it’s never easy to have someone go ‘You like that?’ ‘Yeah!’ ‘Well that’s crap!’. But it’s ok. Humor’s subjective, we still love you, please still love us!
T: I went into this hoping I’ like it and I was sat watching it thinking ‘I was really hoping to save the controversial stuff for, like, later in the podcast run!’
T: Instead, no, second episode.
S: So how are we going to rate this one? I believe in the previous podcast that we f$%&ed up [laughter] it was gourds or sandals?
T: 1 gourd or sandal out of 5? Give them a C for effort? They tried, they certainly made a film.
S: Of course the big question is : is it 1 sandal, or is 1 gourd?
S: Splitter! I would give it… I mean, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t know how much of that is because I’ve seen it so many times, a lot of the jokes are like old friends, even the ones that make me go [sucking inward breath]. I would probably give it 3 and a half gourds out of 5. Simply because while I still enjoy the movie, I myself have changed from the person that I was when I last saw the movie. And I think, yup, I don’t think, I don’t know if you can hear the crashing but that is the angry mob, they’ve made it through the living room window–
T: [angry mob roaring and growling noises]
S: Are you ok, Tonks?
T: [Laughter] That was the angry mob, sssh.
S: Jay! Jay, put down that torch! Leave that pitchfork alone! Ok guys, I think it’s time to wrap this up. I’m Sam.
T: I’ve been Tonks.
S: And that’s still Jay in the corner with the pitchfork. We are Celluloid Scrutiny.
T: We’ll see you next time, if we’re still alive.
S: Rrrrroll the outro!
Jay: Episodes and transcripts of Celluloid Scrutiny, as well as more information on your hosts, can be found at celluloidscrutiny dot co dot uk and on Twitter at Celluloidcast. Links to Tonks’ novels can be found at racheltonkshill dot com, and she is on Twitter at captainraz. Sam’s films, as well as subtitled versions of the podcast, are on the YouTube channel Splendiferous Productions, and he is on Twitter at Splend. And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by your hosts. Pontius Pilate and Biggus Dickus. Also, Tonks and not watching this movie.