Pythons, Protests, and 'Passion'

Terry Jones on 'Life of Brian' 25 years after

Pythons, Protests, and 'Passion'

Terry Jones understands full well the gleeful irony of his film Monty Python's Life of Brian enjoying its 25th anniversary at exactly the same time that Mel Gibson is exploring similarly theological territory with his The Passion of the Christ. The whole idea of putting Brian up against Christ – again! – was apparently too much for the Pythons to resist, and although they haven't performed together since 1998's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. (with the late Graham Chapman on hand – and at one point all over the floor – in an urn), this, arguably the best of the Python's forays into cinema, remains both a comedy landmark and a pointed cautionary tale that is suddenly more relevant than it's ever been.

Alongside his fellow Pythons, Jones' place in the annals of comedy history is assured, but just lately he's taken up pen against sword with a series of tongue-in-cheek political essays in left-leaning UK stalwart The Guardian, not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from the man behind a winsome 1996 adaptation of the childhood favorite The Wind in the Willows. "Comedy and politics don't generally mix," said Jones from his home in England, "but your George Bush seems to be doing a fine job of it."

Austin Chronicle: How are you?

Terry Jones: I'm fine, thanks, and do you know what? I've just remembered I'm a Freeman of the city of Austin! When I did the film Erik the Viking I was in Austin for some reason, and they gave me the keys to the city – I've got a certificate somewhere around here. I think they did it because they were trying to encourage film enterprises in Austin.

AC: Have you seen The Passion of the Christ yet?

TJ: No, I haven't, unfortunately, but as far as we're concerned, we're very grateful to Mel – putting out Life of Brian right now is really just a shameless bit of commercial opportunism on our part, you know. We just thought, what a lovely chance to cash in on Mel's film, and so that's what we're doing, really. No excuses. Although I have heard it rumored that that's why Mel made the film in the first place, to help promote our film.

AC: There were a number of protests here in the States when your film first came out 25 years ago. Are you anticipating any such reactions this time around?

TJ: I wouldn't think so. It's a pity, really. Most of the protests when it first came out were by people who hadn't seen it, and, by now, I think most people have seen it and figured out that there's really not that much to protest about.

AC: Did you ever get any comments from the Vatican?

TJ: I don't think we had one from the Pope as I recall, but we did have one from one of the queen's chaplains, who acted as one of our advisers on the film – we had some theological advice from a very high level when we were making it, but you really never know who's going to object about what. I think it was the New York [Board] of Rabbis who were the first to protest the film.

AC: Didn't they protest The Passion, as well?

TJ: Well, perhaps they just like protesting films.

AC: Maybe they're just anti-cinematic.

TJ: Anti-cinematic rabbis! That's what it is!

AC: You've been doing a number of very humorous and very political articles and essays for The Guardian in the past couple of years – how did that come about?

TJ: Well, in the United States, comedy is politics. Bush is quite good at it. But mark you, I can't really say that looking at Blair over here. It's the same on both sides, I expect.

AC: Monty Python was always more anarchic than politicized.

TJ: That's true. We kind of always avoided any sort of direct lampooning or direct satire. But, now that I'm writing for The Guardian, that's changed. I did a piece a while back on George Bush's lobotomy. The whole Iraq situation is absolutely mind-blowing. If it wasn't so tragic, it would be hilarious.

AC: What do you think Graham Chapman would have thought of this sort of global shift to the right? He always struck me as the most willfully subversive member of the troupe.

TJ: I think Graham would have been extremely acerbic about it. He would have been more outspoken than anybody. It is very alarming to see what is going on, though. It's shaping up to be the new Crusades, sadly. I think it's what the people behind Bush were looking for, for some reason.

AC: Is there any chance for another Monty Python film project anywhere down the road?

TJ: I don't think so. We met at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival in '98 and discussed it then, something along the lines of a stage show incorporating some new writing and some of the old sketches, but Mike [Palin] wasn't very keen on it so it fell apart. He wanted to do a movie, but I didn't think there was enough energy in the group to write a completely new film. Just lately, however, I did a show for BBC Two called Medieval Lives, which is airing on the History Channel in the States, and then last year I wrote a book called Who Murdered Chaucer? which is being published this year in the States. So I've been keeping myself occupied in spite of it all.

Monty Python's Life of Brian opens in Austin on Friday, May 21. For a review and show times, see Film Listings.

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Terry Jones, Monty Python's Life of Brian, The Passion of the Christ

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