HE’S NOT THE BUT HE’S STILL A MESSIAH, FUNNY BOY
Thirty years after its creation, John Cleese talks to Michael Bodey about the Pythons’ pinnacle
IF Life of Brian isn’t the greatest filmed comedy, it comes a close second to Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot , ( although Dr Strangelove has its supporters). But John Cleese, an admittedly interested observer, is delighted Review admires the Monty Python team’s film, released in 1979.
‘‘ think it’s hard to beat because it’s making very good jokes about very important things,’’ the film’s co- writer and actor says.
‘‘ You know what the trouble is with Some Like it Hot now? The two of them ( Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) dressed up as girls seems a little old- fashioned. It’s still just about the best, though, with the best last line written ( when Joe E. Brown discovers that Jack Lemmon in drag is a man): ‘‘ Nobody’s perfect.’’
Indeed, no film is perfect. But in the revered life of the Monty Python comedy collective, nothing came closer to comedy perfection than Life of Brian .
Thirty years after its creation, the film still stands strong as silly comedy and social commentary. Yes, Lemmon and Curtis dressed as women in Some Like it Hot is a dated concept. But someone being mistaken for the Messiah? Just read the news; the concept is as fresh as a virgin birth. Four of the surviving Monty Python members, Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, reunited recently to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the making of their comedy about the man born in the stable next door to Jesus Christ and to add touches to a new DVD package, Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition .
Unfortunately, they were without Brian, Graham Chapman, who died in 1989 of spine and throat cancer, and Eric Idle, who was having a tantrum ( about which, more below).
Cleese admits the quartet had a wonderful time together, as you might when celebrating your masterwork. Despite the troupe’s seminal work in the sketch television series of the 1970s, Monty Python’s Flying Circus , and in five movies, nothing approached the clarity and influence of their second feature film.
Certainly, Cleese believes the team didn’t better it in any of its other work in film, TV, radio or on the stage. ‘‘ It’s a very, very good movie indeed,’’ he tells Review . ‘‘ There are one or two weak moments but people don’t really notice them and it’s absolutely the best thing we ever did.’’
The Pythons, as writers, performers and directors, were at the height of their collective powers at the time. Even matters that might have caused serious problems, such as Gilliam’s and Jones’s desires to direct, were smoothed over amiably.
‘‘ Jonesy was so well prepared, we went at phenomenal speeds, we had rehearsed it, we were all in good form and it just flowed, it was just extraordinary,’’ Cleese says of the production. Of course, all of them have moved on to create some extraordinary works as individuals: Cleese’s Fawlty Towers , Palin’s BBC travel documentaries and his Ripping Yarns series with Jones, Idle’s musical Spamalot and Gilliam’s cult classic Brazil , a movie that defines his frustrating film career.
As a team, Cleese and his
colleagues re- energised TV sketch comedy with Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the early ’ 70s, influencing many of the comedians who came after them. But nothing they created was quite as coherent as Life of Brian , something that became maddeningly clear to them five years later, Cleese says.
‘‘ It was very lucky because when we tried to get ready for The Meaning of Life ( in 1983), we couldn’t do it again. We produced a film with wonderful things in it but ( that) was very scrappy and with no real unity. Actually, with Life of Brian , we more or less got the story right, which we didn’t in anything else.’’
But Life of Brian was not the only case of the Pythons’ luck.
That well- matched people such as Chapman, Cleese and Idle could combine with future Goodies Tim Brooke- Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie ( and for that matter Germaine Greer and Clive James), at one time, at one university club — the Cambridge Footlights Revue — was a matter of happy chance.
That Chapman, Cleese and Idle began writing and performing for TV just when Palin and Jones did is coincidental. That British TV network ITV offered Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam their own series just as Cleese and Chapman were offered their show by the BBC before they all joined forces was extremely fortuitous.
But that the six of them discovered they were, to a man, all heavily schooled in, but sceptical of, religion is downright miraculous. If you believe in miracles, which they don’t.
‘‘ It was an extraordinary piece of luck that instinctively we all agreed on what religion wasn’t,’’ Cleese says of the way Life of Brian was written.
‘‘ Comedy very rarely makes positive statements, it tends to make critical statements, and I think you will find that if we tried to agree what we thought religion was, we would have had a lot of problems. But we were totally in accord over what it wasn’t.’’
After the success of the troupe’s first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail , Idle had flippantly told reporters asking the standard question that their second movie would be called Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. The title took hold as a premise. Initially, what became Life of Brian was merely intended as a spoof of religious epics The Ten Commandments , Spartacus and others, while lampooning Jesus Christ in the same manner Holy Grail had lampooned the myth of Arthur. But they quickly realised they couldn’t touch Christ because there was nothing
funny about him. ‘‘ Essentially, humour is about rigidity and the failure to adapt to circumstances,’’ Cleese says, citing the writings of French philosopher and 1927 Nobel prizewinning novelist Henri Bergson. When Bergson, via Cleese, talks of the comedy in ‘‘ hanging on to anger or jealousy or greed when it’s absolutely inappropriate’’, many comic characters come to mind — Jackie Gleason’s Ralph, Seinfeld ’ s George Costanza, Homer Simpson, Ricky Gervais’s David Brent — but none more so than Cleese’s Basil Fawlty.
‘‘ And the point was Christ’s behaviour was of a very enlightened person,’’ he says. ‘‘ It would be like trying to make fun of the Dalai Lama; you couldn’t do it because there’s nothing ridiculous about him.’’
But there is something ridiculous about religion’s herd mentality, about our desire to believe in something beyond our comprehension, our desire to believe in something that explains everything.
There is something ridiculous in religion’s divergence from Christ’s teachings.
‘‘ People use religion for their own purposes, it’s totally self- serving most of it,’’ Cleese agrees.
‘‘ It’s nothing to do with what the founder of Christianity was talking about. But you can’t expect people at a low level of mental health to understand people who are operating at a high level. That’s a principle I learned from Robin Skynner ( psychologist and Cleese’s co- author of Families and How to Survive Them).’’
Cleese is hardly an agnostic; rather, he admits a keen interest in Christianity — ‘‘ albeit what is normally known as heretic Christianity’’ — as a result of his research for the film.
As Life of Brian suggests, and Cleese believes, conventional interpretations of Christianity are a long way from Jesus Christ’s teachings.
‘‘ I think what Christ was talking about is so much more difficult and demanding than anything you find in any organised version of his religion,’’ he says.
As if to prove the point, the Pythons’ film was greeted with uninformed, hysterical and occasionally demented protests from all manner of religious groups on its release in 1979.
Even the head of EMI Films, Bernard Delfont, pulled the plug on the movie’s finance two days before filming began after reading the script and finding it blasphemous and contemptible.
Former Beatle George Harrison stepped in, creating a production company that would later also produce Being There and Withnail & I , merely because he read the same script and ‘‘ wanted to see the film’’.
The Python team expected a softer world premiere away from their homeland, in the US. They were wrong.
‘‘ We were a little innocent about people like fundamentalists; after all, there are not too many of those in Britain,’’ Cleese says with a laugh.
‘‘ I don’t think we were very concerned about the offence we caused because we didn’t think it was offensive. You don’t want to offend people but at the same time you don’t want to get rid of some of your best jokes just to avoid offending people who are perhaps a little touchier than they need be.’’
He recalls one radio interview in which a ‘‘ decent man’’ expressed his repulsion at Brian’s crucifixion scene. Cleese asked him what he thought of the final scene in Spartacus , before noting that the Christian appropriation of a Roman method of torture as iconography was a little strange.
The incredible success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004 could only bemuse Cleese then? ‘‘ Well, it raises the question, do we believe in what Christ said because it strikes a deep chord in us or do we believe in what he said because we feel very sorry for him because he was tortured?’’ he asks.
‘‘ I say if Dick Cheney was crucified, I would feel sorry for him eventually, after 48 hours, but it wouldn’t bring me any closer to agreeing with him politically. And I think some of the Christians, some of the lesser lights, browbeat me into accepting Christ’s message because ‘ look at the way he suffered for you, you owe it to him’.
‘‘ I say no, I accept his teaching because I think it’s a very beautiful teaching and I would accept it even if he hadn’t died on the cross.’’
The debate about whether Life of Brian was blasphemy or heresy remains, even among the Python troupe. It’s not blasphemous if you consider that Jesus’ two appearances in the film are respectful; it’s his followers who are the fools: ‘‘ I think he said, ‘ Blessed are the cheesemakers.’ ’’ And it’s not heretical if you consider those followers separate from their church, as Cleese does.
Not that the Monty Python team is arguing about Life of Brian ’ s content; rather, its future. Or at least Idle is arguing with Palin and Cleese.
The recent Sydney performance of Idle’s oratorio, Not the Messiah , after the Melbourne premiere of Spamalot , his stage musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail , raised one question: whither Life of Brian the stage musical? Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is not Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber but it’s as joyful a closing number as any they have written.
‘‘ I’ll tell you the story of that,’’ Cleese says quickly, keen to quell any confusion. Idle wrote Spamalot with the blessing of the others, quite independently, and the Python team genuinely revelled in its Broadway and West End success.
‘‘ I thought it was a tremendous romp, wonderfully good- natured and funny,’’ Cleese says. But its success furthered Idle’s plans to create a Life of Brian stage musical.
Cleese told Idle, ‘‘ Hang on, that’s the one that I feel very strongly about because I had a major part in writing that and it’s my favourite movie. I wouldn’t want you to do that on your own, I would like to be part of that.’’
Other members, including Palin, felt the same. ‘‘ It matters to me and Holy Grail didn’t,’’ Cleese says.
Idle did not want to work with anyone else but decided to write a spoof of Handel’s Messiah with his cousin, conductor John Du Prez, which has since toured several countries as a means of introducing new audiences to classical music. It has piqued fan interest in another life for Brian, but it will come to nothing, Cleese says.
‘‘ I think if Eric came back and said: ‘‘ Can I do a Life of Brian musical based on this?’ we would say ‘‘ No, that’s not the agreement we made.’’
Nearly three decades on, there will be no resurrection for Brian .
Python and the Holy Grail
Bright side of life: From left, John Cleese; inset, in his Python days; above, with the crew in Monty
; and in Life of Brian
Gait keeper: Cleese as Her Majesty’s minister for silly walks in Monty Python’s Flying Circus