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John Cleese, the viciously punning Python

January 27, 2008|Noel Murray

According to John Cleese, the cult comedy troupe Monty Python was kicking around ideas at a London restaurant when member Eric Idle piped up with the title, "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory." This inspired the brutally funny 1979 religious satire "Life of Brian," which is now set for a features-packed special-edition DVD re-release Tuesday. Python stalwart John Cleese recently phoned to discuss the enduring legacy -- and controversy -- surrounding Monty Python's most fully realized feature film.

Following the success of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," did you all feel like you had a big enough audience to tackle something more "important"?

No, but it was the first time in my life I'd ever made any real money. When I did the television series for the last time in '72, my recollection is that I got 4,000 pounds for 7 1/2 months work, writing and performing. So when "Holy Grail" became a big success in America, I remember thinking that it was like people climbing up ladders outside my house and throwing money in. Then Eric had this very naughty idea for "Life of Brian," and it all fell into place incredibly easy. I don't think the Pythons could ever have agreed on what religion should be, but we certainly agreed on what it shouldn't be.

At any point during the writing did any of you question how far you were going, or think, "We're all going to hell for this"?

We didn't have any fear of hell, because although we were mostly brought up in vaguely Protestant small towns, only the habits of Protestantism were strong within us. The habits of frugality, trying not to be too egotistical, trying to be respectful, and going to church for reasons of respectability . . . that kind of stuff was rampant. The main argument was over the crucifixion scene. There are one or two shots that suggest that there was a lot of pain. Well, of course there was pain. But the crucifixion wasn't about pain, it was about death. There's a difference. Death is the ego ceasing to exist, and that's much more interesting. Everyone's going to die. Not everyone's going to die in pain.

You probably get fans quoting Monty Python to you all the time, but do you have a favorite "Life of Brian" quote?

A couple. I've always been very fond of the moment when Brian tells the crowd, "You're all individuals," and one guy says, "I'm not." It doesn't make any logical sense, but I think it's very funny. The line I regret not putting in the movie is in the scene when two people haggle over the price of a gourd. At one point it gets broken, and I wrote the line, "Look, the piece of gourd that passeth all understanding." It's a really great bad pun, and wouldn't you know, the others wouldn't put it in the film. The other Pythons have no sense of humor.

-- Noel Murray

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