“If you haven’t seen it, please do.”
–Richard Dawkins, parenthetically discussing Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life in his book The God Delusion.
If Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is remembered less fondly than their earlier classics Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, this is not to say that the film has fewer laughs or that the point of Monty Python’s satire has in any way been blunted. Granted, the humor is arguably the Python’s most vulgar and can at times come across as crude. But watching The Meaning of Life a quarter of a century after its release, what remins shocking is not the wealth of projectile vomit, naked breasts, or children singing about sperm; what continues to alienate and offend is the film’s surprisingly direct and vitriolic attack on what it considers a terribly misguided society. And the worst offender? Christian ideology and rhetoric.
The Pythons — Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin — were always practitioners of silly sophistication, and their combination of the intellectual and the low brow is one of the many factors that has assured them a wide and varied audience. Few performers have the confidence, the skill, and the intelligence to pull off this Trojan Horse; Steve Martin’s signature arrow-through-the-head belied a deeply philosophical bent, and few would find in Take the Money and Run evidence of the mature filmmaker Woody Allen would become over the next decade. But it can be argued that no one has been more innovative, more inspired, and more inspiring than Monty Python.
It is in The Meaning of Life, their last film, that the Pythons most fully indulge their dual passions for both silliness and sophistication. It has been said that by this late point in their career, the Pythons’ well was running dry; of this I remain unconvinced. To its credit, The Meaning of Life is the most technically proficient of the Monty Python films, and though its momentum does wane due to its episodic nature, revisiting the sketch format of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” allows the film to throw a few punches it may have pulled were it constrained to a plot.
Also to the film’s credit, even without a single unified narrative running through it, The Meaning of Life is no less thematically coherent than Holy Grail of The Life of Brian. Lurking beneath the anarchic surface is an unexpectedly intelligent and barbed attack on consumerism, religion, and other modern social maladies that ultimately clutter, confuse, and complicate our lives. What materializes through the grotesquerie is a strong call for logic and science; I believe that this subtly didactic tone and blatant disdain for abuses of commerce and faith (which could be misread as elitism) is the main reason The Meaning of Life is so often overlooked in the Python oeuvre.
Granted, this film doesn’t mark the first time to Pythons have leveled some blows at organized religion, but it may be the first time they allowed a whiff of malice to creep in. It would not be entirely erroneous to reason that if an anti-Christian sensibility were solely to blame for The Meaning of Life‘s somewhat besmirched reputation, then the near-universally praised The Life of Brian should have similar detractors. While there are those who consider The Life of Brian a deeply insensitive and offensive work, they are considerably fewer and represent a much smaller, much more specific demographic. Why is this?
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Pythons seem to have been using The Life of Brian as a test to see just how much they could get away with. It is clearly their most crafted film, a necessity given its subject matter. But while The Life of Brian may represent the culmination of a lot of the Pythons’ subtextual themes and deals far more overtly with the Christian mythology, it does so in a largely joking, nudging way. If one were so inclined, he or she could easily watch and enjoy The Life of Brian without subscribing to (or even acknowledging) its critical, subversive ideology. Perhaps this is the key to great satire, to be able to hide your teeth in a smile. Regardless, it would be far more difficult for a devout theist to enjoy The Meaning of Life, which frequently seems dissatisfied merely pointing out the faulty logic of pious rhetoric, preferring instead to (literally) sing and dance around the point. There is no context to soften the blow as there is in The Life of Brian; you can almost hear the Pythons laughing at their audience even as they laugh with them, insisting, “You think this is nonsense? You should see yourselves!”
To this end, what many find offensive I find refreshing. I respect an artist who can make big ideas palatable for the general public. While the general population may not know of Russell’s teapot, they may have instead heard of The Flying Spaghetti Monster or The Invisible Pink Unicorn. What these two symbols of modern day atheism/skepticism have in common with Monty Python is a belief that the manifestations of religious fundamentalism are so ludicrous, so fantastical, and so willfully offensive to logic that they can only be responded to with nonsense of equal measure; anyone who ignores reason will not be swayed by it, no matter how sound.
An unfortunate reality is that disciples will not always take the right lessons from their masters. Just as the church often perverts the religion it sets out to uphold, so too have subsequent filmmakers and comedians taken the Pythons’ willingness to push the boundaries of taste but have ignored or left behind their intelligence and sense of purpose. The Pythons are a bright bunch and are undoubtedly reluctant fathers to the gross-out school of comedic one-upmanship which has flourished in their wake. And so before you criticize The Meaning of Life for excess, for vulgarity, and for abuse of power with deleterious intent, consider first that its targets are guilty of the same transgressions (and to a much greater degree). At least Monty Python have taken the time and the care to look behind the curtain before it is hung.