Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

2014-07-07 14:13

When it comes to humour, saying "I was a late developer" is putting it mildly. The first time I saw Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, I cried. A lot. I thought it was the saddest movie I'd ever seen, particularly the scene where the leaves fall off the trees. Oh, the humanity!

But I still found it impossible to stop watching it. A thoughtful and disturbing exploration, repulsive, nightmarish, bizarre, angry…

And it's not Monty Python's fault that I didn't get the joke. For that, I blame my parents (you're never too old), who had only let me watch three movies by then: The Muppets (because my aunt made me go), E.T. (because my friend's parents took me without telling), and The Jungle Book (but we didn't stay till the end because my brother fell asleep). I also didn't get Airplane (I just thought it was really badly made), and years later I didn't get Spinal Tap… although watching it with a manic-depressive recently-divorced German classical music composer may have been a bad call.

In my defence Monty Python's the Meaning of Life is actually a serious movie. The funniest comedies all are.

Take the opening "fake short", in which a bunch of ageing accountants who run the economy revolt against their young management, take over their building and sail it away, celebrating with happy old ladies like pirates… and it's all going well until it turns out the earth is flat after all, and over the edge they go! Stock market crash, anyone? Money makes the world go round? It's radical Marxism meets Gen X on Planet Ridiculous.

Next, the movie begins, segmented into sketches that mock Ages of Man. And in "The Miracle of Birth", a mother is dehumanised in a hospital, her privacy ignored by the men with their machines that go Ping! Cut to The Third World - and it's not Africa. It's Yorkshire!

The movie is divided into segments, playing to Monty Python's sketch-comedy roots. Everybody's got a favourite scene. It's a tough choice. There's the one in which John Cleese and wife give a live sex demo to a bored class of high-school boys. Or what about where the guy explodes in the restaurant? Or the church scenes? Classic. And Death. The Grim Reaper has all the best lines. Or do you like musicals? Then maybe "Every Sperm is Sacred"…

It's like a comedy take on Pink Floyd's The Wall, which was released just a year earlier. And is it any coincidence that it came out just before 1984 - the year anyone who'd read George Orwell's classic novel couldn't help comparing it to the book? I know I took a quick look at South African TV news (what news? Exactly!) and feared it was all coming true. 

Why pick Meaning of Life as the Pythons' classic, rather than Life of Brian or Holy Grail? Well there are a few justifications. Like that it's more adventurous in terms of format. Or that it was so pertinent to the issues of the time - yet timeless, too, because the world doesn't really change that much.

But the real reason is simple. It's seriously, seriously, funny. As in serious. As in so insanely hilarious it'll bring tears to your eyes.

A little bit of trivia:

- Although the song "Every Sperm is Sacred", which mocks the Vatican's stand on birth control was followed swiftly by a scene mocking the sexless sexual freedom of Protestants, there was an outcry from some who felt the song was anti-Catholic (it was banned in Ireland), and the children who sang in the sketch later said they had no idea what they were singing about. Ja right… and Christina Storm didn't know she was naked in the naked photos taken for Marie Claire's Naked Edition.

- The working title was "Monty Python's Fish Film", because of the repeated early bluescreen scene where fish with human faces exchange endless mindless philosophical pleasantries.

- The Meaning of Life was nearly "Monty Python's World War III", where the crew would all be soldiers wearing military uniforms full of advertisements, and the Armies would be sponsored. Note the similar themes to the end product.

- The Pythons also nearly made a "trial movie", where the Pythons are judged to be making a tax dodge disguised as a film, and in which they spend the entire movie trying to prove they're making a movie - an adaptation of "Hamlet" set in the Caribbean.

- The Directors Cut has extra scenes, which include a spoof ad for the British Army featuring a Zulu War scene, a Martin Luther satire after the Protestant couple discuss sex, and a few others that are very hard to describe without using too much complex punctuation.

  - In the scene where the guy explodes in a restaurant, an extra seen vomiting isn't faking it… that's just how incredibly gross that scene really is.

- The DVD release features behind the scenes and doccie stuff, both real and spoofed, and a commentary "for the lonely" by a man who sits alone in his flat watching and farting a lot.

Some classic lines from the movie:

Mother (about to give birth):
What do I do?
Dr. Spenser: Nothing dear, you're not qualified.

Headmaster: [Bible reading] Yay, and placed they the bits in little pots. Now, it has come to my attention that some pupils have been rubbing linseed oil into the School Cormorant. Now, of course, the Cormorant Commemorates Empire Day, when we try to remember the names of the people of the town of Sudbury who died to keep China British. So the Cormorant is now OUT OF BOUNDS! And Simpkins? Apparently your mother died this morning.

Chaplain: Let us praise God. O Lord...
Congregation: O Lord...
Chaplain: ...Ooh, You are so big...
Congregation: ...ooh, You are so big...
Chaplain: ...So absolutely huge.
Congregation: ...So absolutely huge.
Chaplain: Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell You.
Congregation: Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

[the Middle Of The Film]
Lady Presenter: Hello, and welcome to 'The Middle of the Film', the moment where we take a break to invite you, the audience, to join us, the film-makers, in 'Find the Fish'. We're going to show you a scene from another film and ask you to guess where the fish is, but, if you think you know, don't keep it to yourselves. Yell out so that all the cinema can hear you. So, here we are with... 'Find the Fish'.

Soldier: Here is better than home, eh, sir? I mean, at home if you kill someone they arrest you, here they'll give you a gun and show you what to do, sir. I mean, I killed fifteen of those buggers. Now, at home they'd hang me, here they'll give me a fucking medal, sir."

Grim Reaper: Shut up, you American. You Americans, all you do is talk, and talk, and say "let me tell you something" and "I just wanna say." Well, you're dead now, so shut up.

* Sources for this article included Wikipedia, and IMDB. 

Still hilarious, still serious, still relevant as we slide into recession and wonder what the point of it all is. Here’s why this Pythons classic is an up-yours to conventions of all kinds.

Vusi 2009/03/15 06:07
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I agree it has been one of my favourites since I first seen years ago in the UK.
Marc 2009/03/15 14:49
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I came across an old LP record of MP's Flying Circus whe i was a student in 1984, and a friend and I would listen to it over & over, trying to visualise the sketches (impossible, of course!), but we still found the de-contextualised humour hilarious. Then, later that year I got to see The Meaning of Life at the old movie theatre next to the Groote Kerk in Cpt, and I was hooked for life! There were only 3 other people watching the movie that day (one of them happened to be Robin Auld!!)and I felt so frustrated at not having anyone to do the parrot sketch with! Now I've purchased all of the CDs and I force whoever's in my car to listen to it, and learn to appreciate their humour (and the biting satire behind it all, of course). I know that SABC3 has screened The Flying Circus and The Meaning of Life (i think even Life of Brian), but alas, the world has changed so much since Fawlty Towers & Monty Python, that whatever's not slapsticks & toilet humour (a la America comedy movies), it's not considered funny. Pity. But there are still some devoted Pyhtonists out ther, I'm sure!
ed 2009/03/15 18:34
I was 13, and sitting grimly on my UK uncle's passage carpet, outside the closed lounge door, trying to listen to "Monty Python's Flying Circus" through the door, because I'd been banished for being too young.... Then I was 19, and at UCT, and "And now for something completely different" seemed to be on every weekend, in one lecture theatre or another. And then again the following year, and again the year after - competing successfully with "The Rocky Horror picture show", I might add. Then I was 48 or so, and both my children knew "The lumberjack song" off by heart, from a Python screensaver I had off a free computer mag CD. 53, and my son was doing the "Philosophy Department" skit (Descartes, Descartes was a drunken fart) on stage at high school...and so it goes on. Timeless.
me 2012/10/31 08:28
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Marc- There certainly are still some devoted Pythonists! I am 16 years old, have started a devoted Python following in my school recently after a couple of my friends and I put on a rendition of the Parrot Sketch for my drama assessment... Everyone loved it, just like the old days :)
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