The neutering of Monty Python
Trans activists are even more censorious than fundamentalist Christians.
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but everyone surely expected this. Comedian John Cleese revealed last week that he has been forced to cut a gag about a man who wants babies from an upcoming stage revival of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
When Life of Brian first appeared on Britain’s cinema screens in November 1979, it was the funniest film I had ever seen in the cinema. Back then, there was still a Christian church capable of a low, meaningful growl at this evidently facetious treatment of its founding credo. Yet the artistic integrity, the long serpentine backbone of Python, held firm.
A lot has changed since then. According to Cleese, the ‘Loretta’ scene, in which a male member of the People’s Front of Judea demands his right to have babies, raised eyebrows at a read-through in New York last year. ‘We love the script, but you can’t do that stuff about Loretta nowadays’, the Americans told Cleese. Here we see how an religious diktat, incomparably more impactful than anything from the church of the 1970s, has forced Cleese and Co to expunge one of Life of Brian’s most beloved moments.
In 1979, self-proclaimed defender of the faith Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark appeared on a late-night chat show to defend the Gospel against Life of Brian. They challenged John Cleese and Michael Palin for what they saw as the film’s tiresome, wanton, schoolboy vandalism of their faith. I remember watching it at the time. I was 14 and knew nothing of Muggeridge’s genuinely heroic stand against Stalinism, or rather against Fleet Street’s reluctance to address its evils. I was simply impatient with these old men and their indignantly quivering jowls. Get out of the way, I thought, you’ve had your day. We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say. Now I see that they were merely the Horatiuses at their own bridge, just as I am at mine now. One need only wait. The world rolls, and sooner or later you find it at your door.
That trans is the new religion has become a cliché. But it will rarely be illustrated more vividly than here, as its scowl humbles a jest that once stood up to Rome and Canterbury combined.
Scott Alexander once wrote on his Slate Star Codex blog that the new woke creed was rushing into the God-shaped hole left by the New Atheism movement of the early 2000s. It was persuasive. Although I still find it curious, if not downright suspicious, that trans ideology should have been so enthusiastically and noisily embraced by everyone from Goldman Sachs to Disney and basically the entire global corporate hegemony.
It can be fruitless to argue about origin myths, whether it be the First Council of Nicaea or the Great Awokening of the New York Times. We are where we are, as John Cleese has clearly recognised by accepting Loretta’s demise.
Has he betrayed his younger self, and the clarity and courage with which he defended Life of Brian from the men in frocks back in the 1970s? Perhaps he can be forgiven for attempting to bend in his eighties, as the Taoists urge, rather than snap like the dry old twigs who faced him across the studio floor, all those years ago.
There is a part of me – my brain, specifically – that would rather Cleese (and Eric Idle) stopped trying to re-engineer and re-stage their earlier classic works altogether. The Pythons have made more last laps of the farewell circuit than Frank Sinatra. They are not, I fear, going to unearth untapped artistic potential. And there is a danger now, by allowing these kinds of artistic castrations, that they will begin to do real, Roger Waters-tier damage to their collective legacy.
In any case, the real blame for this has to lie with Cleese’s new opponents. Unlike today’s Christians, Loretta’s co-religionists would be willing to disrupt his production by any means necessary – from intimidating punters, shaming advertisers, withdrawing labour, etc. (Has there ever been more naked projection than in the nom de guerre of Stop Funding Hate?)
Revivals are always tricky business, especially when social mores can change so rapidly. I am only glad that Billy Wilder died before being asked to neuter perhaps the one film funnier than Python’s Biblical epic – namely Some Like It Hot. Picture the scene:
‘Jerry: Have I got things to tell you!
Joe: What happened?
Jerry: I’m engaged.
Joe: Congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?
Jerry: I am!’
And what, would you mind explaining to me, is remotely funny about that?
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.
Picture by: YouTube.
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