Back when Monty Python released their film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the public reacted with shock. Based on the trailer, the film appeared to make fun of religion, and it seemed to make fun of Jesus.
The former was true, and the latter not. But how to explain that to the public?
The Pythons were asked to go on a talk show. That talk show episode became a milestone in the public appreciation of comedy and satire. You can watch it on YouTube, of course.
So. Let’s say you wanted to make a documentary out of this whole event. How would you make a documentary about the Pythons?
You’d make a Pythonesque documentary.
Holy Flying Circus is a 2011 BBC made-for-TV movie centering on this talk show appearance. Except it’s not a documentary:
- It’s not completely historically accurate.
- Its actors play caricatures of the Pythons. In fact, at one point in the documentary, the actor playing John Cleese takes an aside to reassure the audience that he is playing a caricature of John Cleese “mostly inspired by Basil Fawlty.”
- In a nod to the original Python show, most of the major female characters are played by the male actors in drag.
- Every time Terry Gilliam gets an idea, he immediately grabs spare paper and animates the idea. All of the animations are immensely inventive.
The actors mimic their chosen Pythons (or, at least, their caricatures) extremely well. I often forgot that I was watching Charles Edwards and Darren Boyd instead of Michael Palin and John Cleese (the two primary Pythons of the film, as they’re the ones who went on the talk show).
The film moves at the unpredictable pace of an episode of Monty Python, often breaking into fantasy sequences. And yet, even so, the dialogue often makes very important points about the nature of comedy and parody. This is not just silly.
Most importantly, Holy Flying Circus uses historical events to tell a story, helping us think about parody and censorship. How appropriate to its source.