By Alexandra McLean
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, is a movie from 1983 by the comedy troupe Monty Python. The troupe is well known for their satirical comedy using physicality and animation to critique topics such as moralistic and mannerly ideologies in English and Western society, as well as colonialism, religion, and gender expectations, to name a few topics, but in their last feature film the troupe tackles the task of trying to understand the meaning of life, as the title describes. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (MPTMOL) utilizes Albert Camus’ philosophy of the absurd to critique English (and more generally Western) societies’ cultural practices and ideologies concerning meaning making and attitudes regarding life and death.
What is Satire and Absurdism?
The use of satire can be traced back (at the least) to ancient Greece’s Aristophanes who was, “[k]nown as ‘The Father of Comedy’” (Nayman, slide 11) but satire has been used throughout history and even to present day with masters such as Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Luis Bunuel, and more recently, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland who created the show Rick and Morty, to name a few examples. Still, in the cannon of satirical creators, Monty Python’s satirical work is acknowledged as some of the most influential in modern day by scholars, writers, and comedians alike (Katz and Zak, and Sims). The question is: why were they so influential? This question can be broken down by first examining what Monty Python was doing and how they were doing it.
Satire is always critical. It attempts to expose and critique “human folly” (Nayman, slide 9) through “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like […]” (Nayman, slide 9). These rhetorical techniques demonstrate the ridiculousness or absurdity of ideologies that are problematic to small specific groups or more generally encompassing. In one sketch in MPTMOL Michael Palin and Terry Jones star as an impoverished couple in “The Third World” of Yorkshire, England who have children teaming out of every crevice of their small home. The father (Palin) loses his job and announces to the family that all of children have been sold for medical experiments as he can no longer support them all. This is all done while giving a rousing song and dance about how they have come into this situation due to their Roman Catholic beliefs forcing them to have unprotected sex and therefore resulting in having far more children than the father can support.
There are many layers of satirical critique in this sketch alone but one example this sketch uses is the technique of exaggeration to demonstrate one aspect in particular. In this sketch Monty Python critiques the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on contraceptive use leading to difficult familial and financial situations such as the scene described. The use of song and dance demonstrates to the viewer the contradictory stance that church doctrine creates, it states that contraception cannot be used because “every sperm is sacred” (“Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”00: 24:50-00:34:25) and yet does nothing to support the large families that this stance creates. In the end, children have to be taken or sent away from their families in order to survive destitution. The utilization of making the harsh and problematic realities of religious, societal, and cultural ideologies ridiculous emphasis to the viewer the issues with these systems that these people live in and ask them to question “is this okay with you?”
Though the format of how Monty Python uses satire is creative and engaging, it is not what makes Monty Python unique. Monty Python’s most unique feature is their incorporation of Albert Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism. Absurdism is a philosophical set of existentialist ideas that try to make sense of the meaning of life and death based on the premise that humans have an innate desire to understand the purpose and meaning of their existence but that they will never truly find it because there is no purpose or inherent meaning in existence (“Albert Camus”). This inability to reconcile these two realities is Camus’ basis of Absurdism but he does explore and posit ways of living even with the potentially crippling knowledge that there is no meaning. The most influential method used by Monty Python is to invoke laughter as eloquently sung by Eric Idle in the sketch Live Organ Transplants” (“Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” 1:08:34-1:15:20).
In the absurd sketch a man’s organs are being harvested in his home while still alive as a result of him previously signing an organ donor card. His wife, Mrs. Brown (played by Terry Jones), and one of the organ harvesters (played by John Cleese) talk in the kitchen, the room next door, and Cleese’s character asks Mrs. Brown if they can have her liver too. Mrs. Brown expresses reluctance due to the fact that she is scared (not because it would cause a brutal and violent end to her life) and that is when Idle’s character bursts out of the fridge and escorts Mrs. Brown through a tour of the universe set to an uplifting musical number. Idle expresses Camus’ dilemma of our fear of death and the lack of meaning in existence in the universe in a fun and comforting way. The universe is an unfathomably vast place and our existence in it is really very small and inconsequential, as the universe will continue to go on as it has done, long after your death. After the song, Mrs. Brown expresses that she humbly feels very small and inconsequential but seems comforted and when asked again about her liver the tone changes to a humorous one as she states, “Yeah, alright. You talked me into it!” (“Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” 1:15:19-1:15:25). This is Camus’ point, that death is brutal and life is actually meaningless because humans are not special so you might as well laugh about it as we race to our demise. Monty Python’s use of tone and theatrics communicates Camus’ harsh and difficult philosophy into something fun and digestible to the audience.
By use of Camus’ Absurdism and the satirical techniques, Monty Python is able to critique absurd and problematic ideas and actions that affect the people in English (as well as Western and global) society. Continuing with the example of Mrs. Brown’s live organ transplant, Monty Python incorporates satirical techniques and Absurdist philosophy to satirize and parody the tactics used by religious and political figures as methods of persuasion, such as comforting (factual or semi-factual) rhetoric and showmanship, to sway people to believe in certain things and act in certain ways. When Mrs. Brown agrees to have her liver brutally sawed out of her body the audience is expected to laugh because it is ridiculous that someone would agree to such a thing after a little convincing. Monty Python is demonstrating (much like Swift does in his essay A Modest Proposal) a self-reflexive critique that people are gullible and will do anything if they are convinced by persuasive rhetoric that their lives are useful or meaningful for a certain cause, even let themselves be victims of murder or commit murder.
To emphasis this Idle suggests at the end of his song that we should, “[…] pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space ‘cause there’s bugger all down here on earth.” (“Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” 1:14:50-1:15:10).
Why is Monty Python Still Influential?
Although Monty Python’s last movie was released in 1983, the renown of Monty Python exists even today. As previously stated, their influence can be seen in the imitation and adaption of their unique style of Absurdist satire. This can be seen in shows such as Rick and Morty, or Saturday Night Live and in publications like The Onion, but why are they still so influential? To begin with, they were innovators. When a creator is one of the first to do something and that thing becomes popular they will often retain that prestige. Monty Python’s Flying Circus began on BBC Television in England (and broadcast to the United States and Canada) in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when post-modernist attitudes had really begun to take hold (Bewes 9). Shows such as Saturday Night Live and SCTV were created around this time as well (though notable after Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and also reflected attitudes of humorous skepticism and cynicism in order to critique problematic structures and dynamics of power. Though these shows are also well renown, Monty Python was the first and they helped to launch this style of popular humorous critique. Despite MPTMOL being the last new project that the troupe created together, their legacy still lives on to this day. Their legacy lives on because their techniques, methods, and materials are still relevant in modern day. Most, if not the entirety, of MPTMOL’s critiques still apply to modern day issues such as systematic poverty, problematic ideologies in religion, and their self-reflexive critiques on the lack of critical thought in individuals and societies across the globe. These issues are especially pressing and relevant in the global political climate of 2018.
Monty Python’s use of Absurdist satire expertly and hilariously critiques problematic ideologies and power structures such as callous and harmful religious doctrine, uncritical thought about the actions and orders of people in power, and, as per the purpose of MPTMOL, the absurd lengths to which people will go to to try and understand the meaning of life and death. In spite of these critiques of people and societies, there is a tenderness in their messages that gives a sort of hope as a final message, that these mistakes are for the most part the cause of stupidity and folly, a Horatian satirical sentiment (Nayman, slide 15). The hope is that by exposing these problems and absurdities in people and societies that the viewer will be self-reflexive and learn from them, then act to change them. Though the troupe does not always hold institutions to such a sentiment (these jabs tend to follow a more Juvenilian satirical sentiment, one which is harsh and unforgiving (Nayman, slide 16)), they do believe individuals can change which is typical in a postmodern perspective (Bewes 1). Although the film attempts to present the meaning of life through Absurdist satirical sketches throughout, it has a funny but unceremonious conclusion with a quick summary of the meaning of life which essentially highlights Camus’ methods of how to live. Michael Palin (dressed in an evening gown and fur shawl) states that people should, “try to be nice to each other,” eat healthy foods, enjoy yourself, “and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations” to which he ends with a hilarious rant about sponsors and movie goers to emphasize once more that to get through the absurdity of life, the best option is laughter (Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, 1:43:32-1:44:30).
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Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (Animation and Special Sequences), performances by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, Universal Pictures, 1983.
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Sims, David. “How Monty Python and the Holy Grail Influenced Film by Satirizing It.” The Atlantic, 9 Apr. 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/how-monty-python-and-the-holy-grail-influenced-cinema-by-satirizing-it/390195/. Accessed 5 April 2018.