John Cleese on Why Life of Brian Is His Favorite Monty Python Movie
John Cleese, Life of Brian
Since Monty Python went their separate ways in the mid-1980s, founding member John Cleese
has regularly garnered guffaws in everything from A Fish Called Wanda
to Will & Grace
. But no matter what projects the actor and comic takes on, he will forever be linked to Python's Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. For the DVD release of Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition
the comedy troupe's 1979 farce about a man who spends his life being confused with the messiah, TVGuide.com spoke with the British funnyman and got an idea of why the Python legacy is so enduring.
TVGuide.com: Monty Python made Life of Brian in 1979. Why is there still so much interest in the movie?
John Cleese: I think along with the rest of the English nation that it's the best Python film. Americans all prefer Holy Grail. I think the first 45 minutes to an hour of Holy Grail is really top-class, but I don't think the middle of the film is anywhere near as strong as Life of Brian. It's the only film we ever made that was proximately a good story. It's also about things that are very important.
TVGuide.com: Did you guys set out trying to push the envelope by taking direct aim at Christianity?
Cleese: It depends what you mean by Christianity. That's a big subject. Some people were offended by it. Many Christians got the point and were not offended by it, because it's not in any way anti-Christ. It doesn't make fun of his teachings. Brian is simply someone who gets taken up by the crowd. The humor comes from the way people follow religious leaders. So we were actually making fun of a lot of people who call themselves Christians whom Christ probably wouldn't have recognized as Christians because they've missed the point of his teachings.
TVGuide.com: What do you remember about the backlash after the film's release?
Cleese: A lot of people protested. I always get confused about the various Jewish denominations. I think there's Orthodox and Reform and Conservative. Anyway, two out of three of those groups protested. Apparently they were upset at quite an obscure thing. There's a character I play in the stoning scene who's wearing this prayer shawl around his neck and I think there was something sacred about that that we didn't know about. They were also upset about the stoning, but I don't know how they could be, because it happened. Stoning is a documented practice, so they probably should have been upset about the fact that their ancestors stoned people, rather than the fact that we showed a silly stoning on screen.
TVGuide.com: Along with the rest of the Pythons, you play numerous parts in the film. How did you guys decide on how you'd divvy up the parts?
Cleese: The weird thing was, although we used to fight like cats and dogs over the material, we never seemed to fight over the casting. It's odd. I think it's because the guys who wrote the sketches always instinctively knew who would do each character best. We knew no one could do Pilate like Mike and probably no one could do the Centurion like me. There was very seldom any doubt. I did, however, think it would be fun to play Brian, but the others talked me out of it. They were quite right to do so.
TVGuide.com: The movie is in a lot of ways a tribute to the genius of Graham Chapman, who plays Brian and cowrote the film. How did Graham feel about the finished film?
Cleese: I remember he was very happy with it, and I think he does a terrific performance.
TVGuide.com: What do you think Graham would be doing now, if he hadn't passed away?
Cleese: Well, he was an odd mixture of high intelligence, great creative talent and tremendous ability as an actor. He also had what I would describe as an almost pathological lack of interest in reality combined with considerable incompetence in logistical matters. So he fit in well with a group where his weaknesses were covered by other people. And in that group, particularly when he wasn't drinking, he was terrific.
TVGuide.com: Recently, you've done a lot of voice work, including contributing to the Shrek films.
Cleese: Anything I can get, I do, because it's very comfortable. You don't have to shave, you don't have to wake up early, and you don't have to remember any lines. Perfect.
TVGuide.com: Is there any key to creating the right intonation for a character?
Cleese: Well, I have good control over my voice and I tend to work fast. Of course, it all depends whether you're working with people who know what they're doing. On Shrek, it was a joy. All right, I'll just give you one more question. I've got to have a pee; I'm 68!
TVGuide.com: Here goes then — you've worked nonstop since the late 1960s. What keeps you from considering retirement?
Cleese: Interest. Whenever I get a subject I'm interested in or there's someone I want to work with, I do it. For example, my younger daughter and I are going to write a film script together. I'm very excited by that, because I adore her and for some reason she seems to like me. We get into fits of laughter when we're together, so I'm looking forward to that.
TVGuide.com: Great. You are now free to go to the bathroom.
Check out clips of Life of Brian in our Online Video Guide.
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