Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Life of Brian on Friday Night, Saturday Morning

It's a Life of Brian kind of day, to my surprise. My blogging buddy Ryan over at The Matinee chose the film for his latest Blind Spots entry (my own, for Robert Bresson's L'Argent, is up now as well). Life of Brian is my favorite Monty Python film, even over Holy Grail, and I was as shocked that Ryan hadn't seen it as I was thrilled to read his thoughts on the matter. But no respect to Ryan, who is a great writer, but the bigger revelation of the day was that YouTube FINALLY has the complete episode of Friday Night, Saturday Morning that addressed the film's controversy in an hour-long debate between Monty Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin and two Christian detractors, broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge (fantastically British name) and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark.

I can't even begin to explain how happy this makes me. Looking at YouTube, this has been up in parts since last July and in this complete video since November. It figures; I spent years looking for this episode. YEARS. Ever since I saw Life of Brian in 2006, I've scoured the Internet for the full episode, having seen one- or two-minute clips in making-of documentaries of the film or in career summaries of Monty Python's full output. It was a legendary debate, in part because, even among the forums I scanned looking for so much as a torrent, no one had seen the full thing. The closest I ever got to experiencing it was in the wistful, still-satisfied faces of the Pythons recalling that day in talking heads.

Until now. Thanks to Corey Atad (who runs his own fine blog at Just Atad), I've finally watched the full thing, and it's every bit as good as I was led to believe.

The show in question, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, was an interview program with a quirk: in addition to the guests changing every night, so would the host. It's a delightfully oddball idea, albeit one that never took full advantage of its potential — it only cycled through a few hosts, basically handing off between a small pool of talent like a relay. Yet the concept was clever for its potential to match interviewers with people and topics with which they had some familiarity. The night of this debate, the host was Tim Rice, lyricist of Jesus Christ Superstar and thus no stranger to the outrage of the easily affronted.

The first thing that's evident watching the full episode is that the talk show itself might have been a comedy bit (something Cleese points out before Muggeridge and the bishop come out): Rice's droll, officious delivery makes his recapping of Life of Brian absolutely hysterical. Clearly relishing the absurdity of the situation, Rice discusses plot details as if reading a weather forecast, disarming an audience that, from the sounds of it, already sounds as if it's on Python's side. That surprised me, given the time period, but then I have an American mindset, and I can't even imagine an American audience now being so vocally supportive of "blasphemy."

When Cleese and Palin come out first, they have a calm, charming discussion with the host, and the program might have been memorable if this is where it had stopped. The Pythons divulge interesting information not only about Brian—how they molded initial bit ideas into a full-fledged feature, how George Harrison's intervention got the film made at all—but the Python's process as a whole. John Cleese even uses a question about whether he'd do any more episodes of Python or Fawlty Towers to offer a gently but passionately stated treatise on the perils of the "sausage machine." It's a revealing peek into the troupe's workings, and the thought of these men actively trying to attack Jesus—something they flatly, eloquently deny—is ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, it's about this time that the other two guests come out. Muggeridge and the bishop come out during the playing of a second clip, meaning we can't see them until the camera cuts back to the show and Rice is asking them questions. On the one hand, this seems a bit unfair: it prevents the two from having a proper introduction and not-so-subtly hints that they are being ridiculous and are unworthy of serious consideration.

On the other, it allows the show to fluidly transition from Life of Brian to the responses from these uptight Christians, which so eerily align with the single-minded devout just shown in the film clip that the whole show comes to resemble an outtake of the actual movie. Asked for his thoughts on the film, Stockwood responds by putting on his glasses and delivering what is obviously a pre-rehearsed speech, referencing Nicolae Ceaușescu and rambling on about the pervading influence of Jesus before finally getting to some written zings touting the supposed childishness of the film. Cleese laughs good-naturedly at the barb, but perhaps because he's never seen so much irony in one place at once.

I was fascinated by Stockwood, such a caricature of unsmiling orthodoxy that he might have had a part in Life of Brian. He looks everywhere except at the two men he's debating, glancing at his notes and then looking up and beyond the audience as he gets bolder in his attack, as if receiving divine inspiration. It's like watching the world's most confident child of giving a book report for something he hasn't read, free-associating vague links to the subject (Mother Teresa and the Holocaust get plugs). He speaks with an imperious tone, relishing each word as if he's closing the noose on his beneath-contempt foes. Muggeridge, who looks like concept art for Treebeard, is no better, condescending to the comedic talents of Python and forming a false-equivalency tag-team with the bishop.

Cleese and Palin struggle for the remainder of the program to get a word in edgewise, and the prickly energy between the two sides makes for absolutely riveting television. The Christians who accuse the Pythons of immaturity and juvenilia interrupt and speak with single-minded anger, while the Pythons address each point respectfully (if comically) and sincerely. Part of the drama of the program is watching Cleese and Palin slowly lose their patience as the unyielding strains of Muggeridge's and Stockwood's attack force them to keep repeating the same basic arguments and preventing the full range of their well-considered, well-researched view of their film and of Christ. At one point Cleese only just manages to keep his cool when he openly suggests that the film is not mocking Christ, whom he and Palin establish as a man too decent and good to trash, but instead people like Muggeridge, who utterly fails to process that for a second. (Muggeridge even gets in a prescient bit of racism when he argues that the filmmakers would be too scared to make fun of Islam and instead chose to mock Jesus, to which Cleese gets in maybe his best crack of the night.)

Palin later said that this was Douglas Adams' favorite piece of TV, and it's certainly the best thing I've ever seen happen on a talk show. Sandwiched between the interminable, pre-prepared attacks of Muggeridge and Stockwood are insightful, intelligent defenses of satire and critical evaluation of one's beliefs. Muggeridge sneers at the Pythons' talk of seriously testing one's faith, but C.S. Lewis might have been as big a fan of this episode as Adams. The exaggerated fury of the two Christians emphasizes the thrust of Life of Brian, that the words of a great man can be misconstrued around the preconceived notions of His followers, and that a faith which refuses to truly engage with something that challenges it is not serious faith at all. The bishop gets the last, petty word, but it's clear that Python won the day, in the process proving how seriously they took their mad farce.


  1. I assume you've seen this, Jake.


    May the blessings of the dead parrot that rose on the third day be with you.


  2. Lung: Yeah, I actually saw that sketch well before I saw the video. I love it.

  3. What? Bilbo never dressed like that!