The controversy over Monty Python’s Life of Brian

It should be no secret to regular readers of the blog that I am a big fan of all things Pythonia. The five surviving members of the six-person troupe are currently having a reunion stage show and this made me recall the controversy over the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian back in 1979, one of the funniest films of all time. It amazes me that there was so much opposition to the film from Christians and Jews at the time of its release. Most of the opposition seemed to be from religious authorities and the heads of lay groups of prudes whose job it is to be offended, because they have taken it upon themselves to be the protectors of the delicate sensibilities of the general public.

Here is the only scene in Life of Brian where Jesus actually is briefly portrayed, and that is the Sermon on the Mount.

Even many ordinary religious people did not find it at all offensive. At the time I saw it, I was very religious but thought the film was screamingly funny. In fact, the more familiar you are with the Bible and life in biblical times, the more likely it is that you will appreciate the humor.

I came across a short clip of a debate that occurred on British TV soon after the film was released. It featured Michael Palin and John Cleese versus two Christian apologists, a Bishop in the Church of England and Malcolm Muggeridge, a prominent broadcaster, who had converted to Catholicism late in life. As usual, the critics rolled out “what about the children?” argument. The following clip has some of the highlights, which delved quite deeply, but funnily, into major issues. (Incidentally the moderator is lyricist Tim Rice who wrote the words to Jesus Christ Superstar.)

(You can see the full debate in four parts here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

The Bishop and Muggeridge kept insisting that the film disparaged Jesus. The overweening and smug condescension of the two of them was truly irritating. Michael Palin is well known for being one of the most genial and amiable people (not just among the Pythons) and you could see from his face and body language that even he was furious at the snide and ignorant comments made by the other two.

The TV debate caused quite a sensation in England and a few days later the sketch comedy program called Not the Nine O’Clock News had a hilarious role-reversal parody of the debate.

A fascinating documentary called The Secret Life of Brian was made about the making of the film and the controversy surrounding it, featuring later reflections by the Pythons about those times. The program lasts 48 minutes and can be seen in five parts. Part 4 shows more of the above debate and gives some background on the Bishop and Muggeridge.

Part 1:

(part 2, part 3, Part 4 covers the above debate, part 5.)

Somewhat later, John Cleese was interviewed by Dick Cavett on his show and was asked about the film and the controversy. He points out that the film makes fun of biblical times and mores, while keeping Jesus himself very much offstage, because the Pythons realized early on in writing the script that there was really not that much that was funny about Jesus and that he said a lot of good things that couldn’t be parodied effectively. Even the final crucifixion scene, staged in the upbeat manner of a Broadway musical ending, is a parody of the barbaric torturing and execution practices of those times.

One interesting fact I learned was that the record company EMI initially agreed to finance the film but its CEO got cold feet over the subject matter and withdrew at the last minute leaving the project in jeopardy. The Pythons approached former Beatle George Harrison who they knew was a fan and he agreed to bankroll the film, even mortgaging his house to do so. When later asked why he was willing to risk money on it, he said that he just wanted to see the film, which sounds like the best possible reason.


  1. erick says

    “The five surviving members of the sex-person troupe ”

    Typo, or REALLY big fan? I like them, but not that way.

  2. says

    I always loved the film, and loved it even more when the movie was re-released to theaters in 2004. You remember, of course, Mel Gibson’s delightful snuff-film, “The Passion of the Christ”? It was released on February 25, 2004. The Python group managed to arrange for “The Life of Brian” to be released to theaters on April 30, 2004, Good Friday.

    It has been a Good Friday tradition for me for since.

  3. erick says

    Mano @2

    No problem. I don’t care for pointing out typos that are nothing more, unless they’re particularly funny or Freudian. That one gave me a giggle.

    Now I’ll go back to lurking and enjoying your posts.

  4. keithb says

    Actually, I think they show Jesus (reverently) in the first scene,too before panning over to Brian’s birth.

  5. funknjunk says

    One of my favorite movies ever. The competing freedom fighter scene below Pilate’s apartments kinda reminds me of the Video PZ now has at the top of his blog … “This Land is Mine”

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … there was really not that much that was funny about Jesus …

    A Victorian morality-crusader attempted to ban all forms of humor, on the grounds that Jesus showed no trace of such at any time, ever.

    … and that he said a lot of good things that couldn’t be parodied effectively.

    Well, “God Hates Figs” in 1979 would have been even more before its time than the Python median.

    But consider the sheer logistical problems of filming large herds of demon-possessed pigs throwing themselves off a cliff. There’s a reason you don’t see big pig-stampede scenes even in Major Motion Pictures, you know!

  7. rq says

    there was really not that much that was funny about Jesus

    Which century was it where they had huge theological disagreements over whether Jesus laughed at all, since he doesn’t do so in the bible?
    Also, I have not seen this movie yet. I keep meaning to, but somehow never manage. I’ll have to move it up the list.

  8. Mobius says

    The Rowan Atkinson sketch was brilliant.

    Atkinson, Python, etal. are reasons I am a big fan of British humor.

    The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail are my two favorite Python movies. Which is better, IMHO, is a toss-up.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    rq @9:

    I have not seen this movie yet.

    *Gasp*. As penance, write ‘Romani ite domum’ a hundred times.

  10. estraven says

    I was really surprised when a friend of mine showed up at our house while we were watching Life of Brian and wouldn’t come into the TV room and watch it with us. I knew he had been brought up as a fundamentalist, but I thought he had gotten beyond it judging by other behaviors on his part. A couple of years later he had no problems with it. It was all very strange to me. I thought the movie was so, so funny in so many ways.

  11. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Fun fact. George Harrison not only bankrolled the film but also appeared in it briefly as an extra. Here is the scene. Harrison is on the right wwearing the red turban.

  12. Mano Singham says


    I had not seen that before. Thanks! I am always amazed that they can think up such silly things.

  13. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    ‘Monty Python’s : Life of Brian’ is still my all time favourite comedy.

  14. Scott John Harrison says

    If you want a comedic take on the whole thing I would watch “Holy Flying Circus” a “Pythonesque” dramatisation of the whole thing:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *