Program Notes: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
It’s comforting to know that 30 years after their heyday, the madmen of Monty Python’s Flying Circus still have the power to offend and outrage.
True, popular tastes have caught up with these English satirists. Their old BBC TV show segments are now considered mainstream. Quaint, practically.
But in their feature films, especially The Life of Brian (a fierce spoof of Biblical epics) and The Meaning of Life, these Brit twits tweaked sacred cows so remorselessly that they still leave bruises.
The Meaning of Life offers satiric sketches allegedly examining the human life cycle from birth to death (and beyond). In truth, the Pythons (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin) often struggle to thematically link these scenes – the individual sketches clearly were written first and then a unifying concept overlaid on them.
In fact, the longest and single best routine here has nothing to do with the meaning of life...it’s a hilarious bit in which the cliches of pirate movies are imposed on a stuffy British financial institution.
But now for something completely different:
In the “Birth” sequence of Meaning of Life we find a hospital delivery room where the MDs are more interested in ego-gratifying high-tech equipment than tending to patients.
There’s a third-world vignette in which a Yorkshire miner explains to his 200 children that they must be sold for medical experiments because his Roman Catholic Faith bans the use of contraceptives. This is presented in a huge Hollywood-style musical number called “Every Sperm is Sacred.”
At a British school in the village of Sodbury, each chapel session ends with the dolorous hymn (if that isn’t redundant) “O Lord, Please Don’t Cook Us.” The lads attend a sex education course in which their stuffy teacher (Cleese) and his wife put on a perfunctory demonstration of lovemaking in a bed at the front of the classroom. The students yawn, throw spitballs and watch soccer practice on a nearby field.
With the right approach, any topic can be made boring.
There’s much more, including the infamous Mr. Creosote segment, possibly the most revolting (and incredibly funny, once you get into it) imagery ever committed to a comedy film. The bloated Creosote (Jones) waddles into a posh restaurant where he gorges and vomits himself into oblivion.
Yes, it’s unbelievably gross. It’s also a wickedly effective sendup of obscene self-satisfaction and consumerism.
The Pythons made only three truly free-standing feature films: Holy Grail (1974), Life of Brian ('79) and Meaning of Life (1983). But their peculiar form of madness is still with us. A musical version of Holy Grail has been playing on Broadway for several years.
See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.
Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 3: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Not rated
- December 10: Between Two Worlds (1944) Not rated
- December 17: Hereafter (2010) Rated PG-13
- December 24: Heaven Can Wait (1978) Rated PG
- December 31: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 5: A Guy Named Joe (1943) Not rated
- December 12: What Dreams May Come (1998) Rated PG-13
- December 19: The Lovely Bones (2009) Rated PG-13
- December 26: Defending Your Life (1991) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.