The Finally Screenings: I Just Saw Life of Brian For the First Time

In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.

It’s only one day until Thanksgiving, which in 2010 apparently means you’re required by law to act like it’s one day until Christmas. I couldn’t bring myself to watch an actual Christmas comedy on my list (YET), but I did decide to watch a movie that begins with an infant in a manger in Bethlehem – Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

I’ve railed, plenty, against the short shelf-life of social and political satire in classic comedies, so it was such a pleasant surprise to see a comedy that was so controversial in 1979 hold up so well now, while others look so much worse for the wear. There are a couple reasons for this, however, and from this armchair they seem to make pretty good sense.

First, it’s important to talk about Monty Python. The traits that somehow keep Shakespeare and Wilde hilarious (when performed well) are the same traits that keep the Pythons so fresh – it’s the jokes. Rapid-fire, intelligent, self-aware jokes, and plenty of them. Because for the British, it’s not enough to point out that something is funny – read any of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and more of their jokes fall flat (even though many of them were just as popular in their time) because they simply describe the absurdity in the world around them, rather than taking it the necessary step further. But as Shakespeare proved, it’s what you do with your material that determines how long it lasts, and the reason you can still make Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream funny is that the material takes 17th Century English life and connects it to a universal theme of the human experience. It sounds silly and romantic and lofty and quaint, but it’s true. It’s the only reason it still has the capacity to hit.

And, at the risk of giving the British too much credit, the importance of both language and satire has been a cultural cornerstone and source of deep pride for the British since, I’d argue, the days of the Globe Theater. As a culture they have valued wit, wordplay and irony in comedy more, historically, than Americans. And while that doesn’t devalue American comedy at all, it’s no surprise that a piece of satire made by the top British comedians in 1979 holds up better now than a piece of satire made by the top American comedians in 1978 (for those of you just tuning in, I’m referring to Animal House).

Again, it’s no knock against American comedy. To Americans’ credit, there was a focus on breaking new ground with comedy in 1978, in both form and content, that surpassed (if not precluded) the priority to write strong, long-lasting, scripted jokes. Animal House and its contemporaries pioneered a genre – some would say an era – of American comedy, a way of presenting and talking about America and the world in an immediate, visceral, topical way that was fiercely of its time. It was bound to be prototypical. Meanwhile, Monty Python had pretty much gotten their wordy, stupid-smart schtick down a decade earlier.

Fortunately, that sense of confidence doesn’t do anything to make Life of Brian feel complacent. It is, in fact, still pretty fucking edgy. Another reason Life of Brian holds up so well is that religious satire tends to be pretty evergreen, and when you push that satire as far as the Pythons do in Brian, it has the power to provoke for a while – especially in an era of what seems at times to be unprecedented religious fanaticism and hypocrisy. The film was given an X rating and banned in several countries in 1979, but I can’t even imagine the furor that would erupt here in America if this film was released today. That may, admittedly, have more to do with America’s current religious and political polarization than with Life of Brian’s staying power, but whatever the reason, the gleeful jabs this movie takes at religion and its followers feel fresh-picked today. The closing scene alone feels like more than South Park or Family Guy would risk right now. And although the sex romps of the ‘80s may have desensitized audiences to boobs, full-frontal male nudity still falls into the “pretty shocking” category (ask Jason Segel) – Brian, butt-naked, opening his window to a packed street full of followers still packs a punch.

And through all this, I actually like Brian. Can you believe it? He’s a decent guy, trying to be a decent guy, and it makes the utterly insane story around him both more hilarious and actually a little poignant. I feel like I’m turning into a real one-issue candidate with this relatability stuff, but it’s true – a likable lead character makes everything work. And a comedy that lacks one feels like half a film.

It’s also refreshing to see a solid 90 minutes of Monty Python that hasn’t been quoted to death, at least to me, in the same way Holy Grail has. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, most of these movies are on my list because of a general restriction against R-rated movies in my household growing up, and although most of my friends in my small, rural, religiously conservative town were allowed to watch those films as kids, even they were probably prohibited from watching Life of Brian. So I was unfamiliar with most of the jokes, which was a real treat.

It’s also a great synthesis of good sketch comedy and a solid feature concept to hold it together, something that even in Holy Grail seems a little stretched at times. Here the sketches are short and sweet, hitting the smart jokes hard, advancing the plot just enough, and getting out before they start getting predictable. And of course the cast has great chemistry, fantastic character work, and a perfect ratio of ridiculous characters and more grounded, just-a-bit-clueless supporting straight men.

It’s really a fantastic movie. It holds up today in both the yuks and the yikes. It’s a Brianmas miracle.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

The Finally Screenings: I Just Saw Life of Brian For […]