(In 1979, the members of the beloved British comedy troupe Monty Python graced cinemas with their "Life of Brian," the stirring tale of a half-Judean, half-Roman nebbish who is mistaken for the messiah by a naïve populace. We hope you're sitting down when we tell you that some people were offended. On the occasion of the film's 25th-anniversary rerelease, we revisited those halcyon days with Pythoner Terry Jones, who not only directed the movie but played the classic character of Brian's hysterically shrill mother, Mandy.)
Orlando Weekly: It's hard to remember a time when "Life of Brian" could be so controversial. How do you feel about it when you see it now?
Terry Jones: Well, it looks pretty innocent, doesn't it? I always think that it stirred up controversy at the time because of the style, really. When we were doing the film, we sat and spent a couple of days watching biblical epics -- things like "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "The Robe" and "Sodom and Gomorrah." And we discovered they all had one thing in common: Everybody spoke v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, with a great sense of awe at living in this particular time. And I always thought that, just by having people talk in normal voices -- or funny voices with normal speech rhythms -- that would be the most upsetting thing for people.
OW: Didn't you originally plan for Brian to be the 13th apostle?
TJ: When we first started talking about `our next film`, we were talking about what we could do that would be sort of outrageous, really. Eric `Idle`'s first suggestion was to call it "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory." And then we decided that we'd do a biblical thing, a riff on the biblical theme. Then we went off and researched, read the Gospels and did some historical research and everything. And it very quickly became clear that where the humor lay was not in Jesus, but in people's interpretation of Jesus -- and in the fact that you have somebody coming along and saying really good things about being kind to other people and turning the other cheek and loving your neighbors. And then for 2,000 years, people `are` killing each other because they don't quite agree how he said it, or how one should show that you actually do worship him.
Man's propensity to use religion as a sledgehammer to beat each other with ... I mean, that's the ludicrous thing. You can come up with the most wonderful ideas, and in the end, people just want to torture each other and bash each other about.
You know, the `movie` is heretical but not blasphemous.
OW: Speaking of torture, you're promoting the rerelease as the antidote to "The Passion of the Christ."
TJ: Well, it is a shameless piece of commercial opportunism on our part. And we'd like to thank Mel very much for giving us this opportunity of retreading this old material. In fact, it has been rumored that that's why Mel actually wanted to make "The Passion of the Christ," so we could rerelease "Life of Brian" on the back of it.
OW: So who do you think would prevail in an otherwise fair fight, Brian or Mel Gibson's Jesus?
TJ: Well, I don't know. I haven't actually seen Mel's film, so I'm not really sure. But I think on `the count` of gore, Mel wins hands down. From what I hear.
OW: "Life of Brian" really doesn't have much that would offend the squeamish.
TJ: True, isn't it? That's one thing we failed in.
OW: When the movie was first out, the kids at my church loved to recite Mandy Cohen's dialogue. ("Piss off!" "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!") How many young Christians do you think you put on a path to atheism through that character alone?
TJ: I think there's a lot of atheists we put on the path to Christianity. That's the really regrettable thing.
OW: I hadn't known until the other day that some English communities were originally able to ban Brian by invoking public-health laws.
TJ: (Laughs delightedly) It sounds absolutely possible, but that's a new one on me. We thought at one point that "The Meaning of Life" was going to need a public health warning. When we first edited the Mr. Creosote sequence with all the vomit, the first person to actually see it was our composer, who just happened to come into the cutting room when we'd just finished looking at it. We showed him the scene, and he looked at it, then went white and went outside and was sick. We thought, "My God, is it going to have that effect on everybody? We'll have to issue airsick bags to people as they come into the cinema."
OW: And now Maxim has voted it the funniest scene in movie history. How does it make you feel when you amass a body of work and it's bucketfuls of vomit that really carry the day?
TJ: I think vomit has always been underrated as a comedy prop, actually.
OW: The Pythons recently appeared in a photo spread in Vanity Fair in which you were all stuck in coffins; in yours, you were fondling a bikini chick. How many times did you have to arm-wrestle Michael Palin to get to do the honors?
TJ: Actually, I think `Terry` Gilliam had a session with her as well, so it was split between me and `him`. He did his after I'd done mine. It was rather shocking taking my costume off and coming back onto the set and finding the same girl in the coffin with Terry Gilliam! I mean, I really felt I'd been two-timed.
OW: Was this a common occurrence back in the day -- switching off coffins and/or bikini chicks?
TJ: Not at all, really. From what I saw, very little of that went on at all. But when we were doing the films, I was a bit too busy, so I didn't really notice.
OW: The trade-off of being the director, maybe?
TJ: It only really paid off once, as far as I can remember.
OW: Do you want to talk about that time?
TJ: No, no, no, no. Not at all. (Laughs)
OW: Why do you guys keep rereleasing your movies, when you know it just gives idiots like me an excuse to ask if you're ever going to work together again?
TJ: That's why we do it, Steve. Otherwise, we get withdrawal symptoms.
We nearly got together to do a stage show when we did the Aspen thing `U.S. Comedy Arts Festival` in '98, I think it was. John `Cleese` wanted to do a stage show, but Mike didn't want to do it, so it all fell apart.
Mike wanted to do a film, but I don't think we'd get around to doing a film. I just don't think we've got the hunger to actually write a script.
OW: I can remember an interview John did years ago, where we said he had gone through some sort of attitudinal training and had come out of it feeling that he didn't have to work all that much anymore.
TJ: Personally, I like working. My life is making things, and I like doing it. I wouldn't know what else to do with myself. So that doesn't apply to me. Mike's always off around the world and Eric's doing a stage musical of `"Monty Python" and` "The Holy Grail" called "Spamalot." I think John is the one who always thinks you shouldn't work. I think he sees himself as sort of landed gentry and that work is really beneath him. That's very aristocratic, but we're grammar-school boys.
OW: You recently posed for a painting as a modern-day version of the nude organist you played in the opening credits of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." Are you surprised this is one element of your past you can't put behind you, so to speak?
TJ: A nice girl came around who wanted to do a portrait of comedians for an exhibition she saw doing. It was my idea; I thought it would look very funny. A nude organist 30 years on isn't exactly what you ought to do, really. So she just took the photos and produced the painting, which is actually a really good painting. It's opening tomorrow, I think, at the Royal Society for Portraiture or something. It's certainly the one that gets all the attention. (Laughs) It made her name as a portrait painter.
OW: Maybe this'll be your second collateral benefit.
TJ: Yes, I think so. People who want to paint my bum.
(Monty Python's "Life of Brian" opens Friday, May 7, at Enzian Theater)