I recently completed watching Monty Python: Almost the Truth, a fascinating six-hour documentary on the British comedy troupe. The fifth episode of the series focuses on The Life of Brian, a film about a reluctant false messiah at the time of Christ.
When they first set out to write the film the Pythons started with, in their own words, a lot of blasphemous jokes about Christ. But the funny thing is that, as they reviewed what they had written, they realized it wasn’t really that funny. The funny stuff tended to happen around Christ rather than to or because of Christ — the humor is in how people misinterpret Christ’s words. And, in the final product, Christ only appears twice (at his birth and at the Sermon on the Mount) and is portrayed just as he appears in Sacred Scripture.
The Pythons spend several minutes in the documentary reflecting on why humor about Jesus doesn’t work, but I think John Cleese makes the most astute — and Christologically relevant — point. Working from the Henri Bergon theory of comedy, Cleese explains that character humor arises from the conflict between an inflexible character and the situation around him. Think of the upper-crust aristocrat who refuses to acknowledge the chaos in which he finds himself. Christ, on the other hand, would not have been inflexible. In Cleese’s words he would have been “infinitely flexible” because he had no ego.
I think this is a profound insight into the nature of Christ and our own attempts to imitate him. Christ didn’t fall into the legalism of the Pharisees; neither did he attempt to water down God’s expectations of Man. He showed us the path of justice and mercy; judgement and love. If we are called to imitate Christ, then we must be equally flexible — not in our beliefs and doctrines, but in how we apply them in the real world. We must be ready with a word of condemnation for sin, but love for our brothers and sisters. We must seek to decrease so that Christ may increase in us. We must rid ourselves of selfishness and self-centeredness so that the Holy Spirit can work in our lives. As Heather King recently wrote:
Here’s how, in my experience, you know you’re becoming a follower of Christ. You begin to want to be seen less, not more. You begin to want to be quieter, not louder. Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from scoring points among your “friends.” Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from winning useless arguments. You find yourself making tiny sacrifices. You find yourself experiencing tiny moments of joy. You find yourself mysteriously drawn to the Gospels, to Confession, to Mass.
Unfortunately Cleese’s remarks are only in the extended version of the documentary available on Netflix; this YouTube video features some reflections from the other members of Monty Python about why Christ is “not pervious to comedy.” (Warning: video is NSFW due to language and non-sexual nudity.)
September 2014 Addition: The video has since been taken down from YouTube and the documentary is not currently available on Netflix. If you happen to come across it, it really is worth your time!