Monty Python Versus The Bishop: LIFE OF BRIAN’s Very Naughty Satire

How six comedians shocked the world.

In honor of Sausage Party, which you can buy tickets for here, we’re launching a week of articles focused on raunchy and controversial films in atypical genres and formats.

Monty Python created a lot of comedy gold, but none is more lustrous than the troupe’s 1979 film Life of Brian. The Holy Grail and Flying Circus may have more fans, more stage musicals, and more comedy memes associated with them, but there’s no question to me: Life Of Brian is Monty Python’s best work. It’s the smartest, the most focused, and yes, the funniest of their films, and best of all, it’s got something to say. But not everyone liked what it had to say.

Originally inspired by the joke title Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory, and once set to be a film about the thirteenth “hanger-on” disciple, Life of Brian instead tells the story of Brian, a simple man born next door to Jesus on the same night, who subsequently gets mistaken for the Messiah himself. Funded to the tune of one million pounds by former Beatle George Harrison, the film follows Brian as he stumbles through life, gaining unwanted attention from fanatics, unwittingly leading a religious revolution, and ultimately being crucified for it.

As you’d expect, Life of Brian suffered a great deal of controversy upon its release for its religious content. Viewing the film as an attack on Christ, nuns and rabbis alike protested its New York screenings, and Christian groups ran leaflet campaigns in Great Britain against it. The BBC and ITV refused to play it on television, and it was banned entirely in Norway (for a year) and Ireland (for eight years). Some local UK council bans - some in areas that didn’t even contain cinemas - continued until as late as 2009. 

Life of Brian’s actual blasphemy - such that it is - is slight at best. The whole reason why the film looks at Brian, rather than Jesus, is due to the Pythons’ respect for Jesus’ fundamental messages. Jesus himself is in the film, played totally straight while delivering the Sermon on the Mount. His words are presented verbatim; the joke is on the people at the back of the crowd who can’t hear properly. This is a film about the weird, unheralded people on the fringes of Jesus’ story, and the very human traits associated with blind followership. 

The Pythons may not have set out to mock Christ the man, but they definitely set out to mock the institutions he inspired. Terry Jones, who directed the film, preferred to think of it as “heretical, because it touches on dogma and the interpretation of belief, rather than belief itself.” The film’s treatment of mob mentality; of fad religions; of that innate human desire to follow others - it all takes place adjacent to the New Testament, but none of it pillories Jesus’ teachings. Rather, it ridicules uncritical dogma of every sort, coming from a modern, well-researched intelligent position. Hell, the Judean People’s Front material (wherein various protest groups spend so much time disagreeing on what to call themselves that they never get anything done) is still valid and incisive today, in a world where political movements keep threatening to tear themselves apart over ideology rather than actually act.

Perhaps the most famous element of Life of Brian blowback was a televised debate on talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning - a show whose host changed each fortnight, and whose hosts selected their own guests. Moderated by Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice, the debate pitted John Cleese and Michael Palin against Catholic bishop Mervyn Stockwood and broadcaster and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge (both of whom were likely selected, in part, for their stubbornness). The topic: Life of Brian, and the accusation that it was a work of blasphemy.

Nearly the whole episode is worth watching: the first section simply has Cleese and Palin discussing the making of the film, speaking as eloquently and amusingly as you’d expect from legendary comedians at, arguably, their peak (Cleese had just wrapped Fawlty Towers as well). Upon Muggeridge and Stockward’s entrance, things become hostile, as the two old men demonstratively expound on their own faith and fire veiled (and unveiled) insults at the two Pythons. Stockward in particular rarely makes eye contact with his ostensible opponents, instead preaching to the audience or into the ether, refusing to allow the filmmakers to respond.

Cleese and Palin do their best to keep their cool, continuing to defend their film as it’s labeled to their faces as “a little squalid number,” “tenth-rate,” “buffoonery,” and “unworthy of an educated man.” Closing out with Stockward proclaiming that the Pythons would “get [their] thirty pieces of silver,” the sham of a debate is a fascinating insight into both the Pythons’ vision for the film and the closed-mindedness of certain elements of the Church. Indeed, Muggeridge and Stockward, for all their bluster, end up proving Life of Brian’s thesis without even a hint of satire.

So culturally significant was the debate that it inspired comedy of its own. Satirical sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News parodied the event in a sketch discussing a fictional film called General Synod’s Life of Christ. Rowan Atkinson, dressed as a priest, plays the director of the film; Mel Smith a Muggeridge stand-in. Atkinson’s character insists that his film isn't really about the life of John Cleese, while Smith's genuflects in Pythonesque ways while pontificating on the film's blasphemy. Not only does the sketch parody the debate itself, it also draws connections between religion and pop-culture fandom:

The cultural impact of Life of Brian was perhaps greater than the film’s own level of success. It opened a lot of doors for satire in the latter half of the 20th century, demonstrating that it was possible to question institutions and systems via comedy without directly mocking their beliefs. Nowadays, the film is widely accepted by the more open-minded strata of Christianity. I went to religious schools through my entire childhood, and I owe my understanding of religion to school chaplains who taught about the concept of religion itself, rather than just about Christian teachings. One such chaplain even used Life of Brian as a springboard for discussion on faith, dogma, and Christ. That was a really cool move, and one for which I'm forever grateful.

But that’s the power of good satire. Depending on who you ask, a good work of satire can be a silly comedy, a blasphemous outrage, or an intelligent piece of cultural criticism. Life of Brian is all those things, and a very naughty movie to boot.