No Laughing Matter: “Life of Brian” is the Latest Battleground for the Future of Comedy

Below is my column in The Messenger on continued campaigns to remove material from movies and comedy acts, including most recently a stage remake of the film classic Life of Brian. So far, John Cleese has told critics to pound sand and seems to be channeling Brian’s mother from the movie in declaring “He’s a very naughty boy! Now, piss off!”

Here is the column:

It sounds like the ultimate Monty Python scene: A bunch of humorless functionaries review a hilarious script to remove every line that might offend someone. The result is a virtual haiku of disconnected observations without a punchline.

That would make for a funny premise if it were not actually happening to comedy legend John Cleese. With a much-anticipated stage remake of the film classic, Life of Brian, Cleese said he found himself under siege by several actors to drop offensive material from the movie. It is a scene being replayed across movie, television and comedy show venues. We are becoming less funny as activists squeeze edgy and insulting jokes out of material. From commercials to sitcoms, our range of comedy appears to now run the gamut from A to B.

Comedy and satire have long been important forms of political discourse. Since the time of court jesters, comedians have challenged rulers and entrenched political classes. Even in ancient Rome, comedians used performances to challenge social and political norms. Indeed, jokes can lay bare religious, social and political issues in a unique and transformative way. They can allow for a dialogue or recognition of issues that are too sensitive or inflammatory for other forums.

One of the favorite targets of the Monty Python troupe was political activists who lacked any humor or self-awareness. That was the thrust of scenes in Life of Brian involving Cleese’s character, Reg, the leader of the “People’s Front of Judea” who faced endless demands for countervailing causes — so many that the group never actually gets anything done beyond meetings.

In one scene, an activist named Stan announces that he wants to be a woman and have a baby:

Reg: “You want to have babies?!?!”
Stan: “It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.”
Reg: “But … you can’t HAVE babies!”
Stan: “Don’t you oppress me!”

Some actors reading the script urged that the scene be cut, and producers now face a dilemma after Cleese refused to drop it.

For the most part, the war on comedy is working. For nearly a decade, many leading comedians have avoided performing on college campuses because they simply have no material that will avoid triggering one group or another. Six out of ten students in a 2020 survey said offensive jokes can constitute hate speech.

Activists are converting much of the world into their own humorless, ticked-off image. It is hard to enrage others through identity politics if some comedian is making fun of different identities. So the message has become that there’s nothing funny about identity. Satire is now viewed by some as a vehicle for objectification, subjugation and alienation.

These are the modern versions of the Puritans and Victorians, imposing their own rigid demands on artists and writers to conform to their own social values.

In other countries, this crackdown on comedy is being enforced by the state through criminal and human rights laws. With the possible exception of jokes about white men, Christians or conservatives, any reference to the stereotypes of any group is now considered offensive or criminal.

In Canada, a comedian named Guy Earle was charged with violating the human rights of a lesbian couple when they got into a trash-talking exchange during one of his stand-up acts. In Brazil, comedian Danilo Gentili was prosecuted for implying a politician was a prostitute.

Comedians are being prosecuted under hate-speech laws in various countries that criminalize mocking any group or identity. In Scotland, comedians have objected to laws that allow prosecution for inflammatory material that relies on listed characteristics such as age, disability, race (and related characteristics), religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics.

In the United States, the chilling effect on comedy is perfectly glacial.

Comedians like Chris Rock have lashed out at “unfunny TV shows” and lamented that “everybody’s scared to make a move.” Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Saunders and others have raised similar objections.

David Zucker, the director of the classic comedy Airplane!, observed that the movie could not be made today and that activists have squeezed humor out of Hollywood. Doing so, he noted, is the “death of creativity.”

Even fantasy is now subject to social agendas. The new Disney remake of The Little Mermaid was criticized by New York Times movie critic Wesley Morris for lacking sufficient “kink” and being too safe in order to appease parents. Likewise, actress Paloma Faith denounced the entire premise of the film as telling the story of a girl who gives up her voice for a man.

The attack on Cleese’s script should be the height of ironic humor. The movie featuring humorless, clueless activists with no sense of self-awareness is now being targeted by some of the very same characters in real life.

The problem is that the loss of such humor will only increase the rage in society. The ability to laugh about ourselves and others can help vent social pressures and force people out of their myopic, monotonous perspectives.

In the movie Good Morning, Vietnam, comedian Robin Williams left the country rolling in laughter over his role as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, who savaged every possible political, religious and racial group. His nemesis, Lt. Steven Hauk, fails to replace him on-air with Hauk’s own safe, unfunny jokes. When a general refuses to take Cronauer off the air, Hauk defiantly declares: “Sir, in my heart, I know I’m funny.”

He wasn’t funny, of course, which is why he needed a comedy horn to show people when to laugh. That is why we prefer to have comedies written by people like Cleese as opposed to government functionaries.

There is little room for humor in an age of rage. Yet what is lost is not just the sense of release that comes with humor. We are losing an avenue of social discourse that requires both tolerance and perspective. We are becoming “the worst audience ever” of people sitting with knotted brows and crossed arms, no longer capable of seeing the joke beyond our political divisions. Much like the characters from Life of Brian, we are all becoming members of the People’s Front of Judea, living in a perpetual state of rage.

Jonathan Turley, an attorney, constitutional law scholar and legal analyst, is the Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at The George Washington University Law School.

188 thoughts on “No Laughing Matter: “Life of Brian” is the Latest Battleground for the Future of Comedy”

  1. All this nonsense is being pushed by the world economic forum through the banks. Monied homosexuals / pedophiles want perversion normalized and any criticism will not be tolerated. DEI, CEI and ESG are the latest ” tools” being pushed on corporate america to make you comply

  2. In recent years, at least a dozen federal agencies have repeatedly run roughshod over the Constitution in an effort to gain and maintain power over their fellow Americans. The result is an increasingly authoritarian society ruled by self-anointed, self-serving, self-enriching elites who care nothing about those they claim to be helping.

  3. “[A]ctress Paloma Faith denounced the entire premise of the film as telling the story of a girl who gives up her voice for a man.”

    That’s feminist garbage used to butcher a charming story.

    The mermaid saves the prince’s life. Hardly the image of a helpless woman.

    More importantly, by her own choice and initiative, she pursues the life she wants. She chooses to trade her voice for the higher values of adventure and romance (even if, later, unrequited).

  4. Owen Benjamin was a very promising comedian (he’s also a very talented musician) until he said on social media or somewhere that a 3 year-old child was too young to have a sex change operation. Everybody cancelled him.

  5. I worry about waking up one day and finding that like the Chinese cultural revolution these knuckleheads will have purged the internet of the old Don Rickles bits. I still love to watch the Dean Martin Celebrity roasts, they’re classics with Deano, Joey Bishop, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and of course Don Rickles who always brought down the house.

    I would hate to live in a world where people became so uptight that they purge us of any of our history that “offends” them.

  6. It appears the joke is on the Woke Left. But it gets worse: gays and lesbians are ignoring the Woke Left too.
    The struggle is real!

    Woke Left Hysteria:

    Nation’s Largest LGBTQ Advocacy Group Joins Equality Florida In Issuing Updated Florida Travel Advisory
    May 23, 2023

    ST. PETERSBURG, FL — In the wake of Florida’s most anti-LGBTQ legislative session in history, Equality Florida and the Human Rights Campaign have issued an updated travel advisory that details risks associated with relocation or travel to the state.

    Gay Reality:

    LGBTQ people flock to Florida for Disney’s Gay Days celebration
    June 1, 2023
    By Associated Press
    ORLANDO, Fla. — Tens of thousands of LGBTQ people are flocking to central Florida this weekend to go on theme park rides, mingle with costumed performers, dance at all-night parties and lounge poolside at hotels during Gay Days, a decades-long tradition.

    Svelaz needs to report to us when he returns from his trip to Gay Days, if he had any travel anomalies or increased risks while visiting Florida besides having a gay-oh-time


  7. If I were benevolent dictator, I would arrest and imprison anyone and everyone who didn’t want me and my friends to express ourselves freely, I would form my own arrest units, with a bunch of guys with pistols and handcuffs to round them up. That will teach them. They can’t intimidate you into silence when they are behind bars.

  8. This script is Cleese’s and his colleagues’. No one has a right to change it without their consent and if they say ‘piss off’, then ‘piss off’. There is no requirement to allow any of this political correctness drivel preempt the decision of the owners of the script- and if there were, then Cleese and Co. would have great cause of action.

    1. They don’t change the script our the scene, They (Censorship Board) simply mute out the sound or blur the image of the censored part.
      They do it now all the time on TV Movies. Like a normal thing.

  9. Conceding to the woke Left by adopting their language is a typical Turley tactic. What, in your view, is “offensive” about a group of men telling another man in the group that men cannot get pregnant? The scene could better be described as controversial but that word takes the drama out of the issue. Labeling things as offensive, racist, or homophobic adds drama to the topic but sheds zero light. Do better Mr. Turley.

    1. Sam – you make a good point.

      Still, it says a lot about our current demented age that a scene which depicts man telling another man he can’t get pregnant is controversial.

  10. What Could Be More Monty Python Than Men In Drag?

    A federal judge says Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation law designed to place strict limits on drag shows is unconstitutional.

    In a 70-page ruling handed down late Friday night, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker wrote that the law was both “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.” He also added that the statute encouraged “discriminatory enforcement.”

    “There is no question that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. But there is a difference between material that is ‘obscene’ in the vernacular, and material that is ‘obscene’ under the law,” stated Parker, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump. “Simply put, no majority of the Supreme Court has held that sexually explicit — but not obscene — speech receives less protection than political, artistic, or scientific speech.”

    Personally, I don’t think men in drag are funny; even in Monty Python sketches. But Tennessee’s anti-drag showed law is absurdly vague from any legal standpoint.

    1. I have neither read the law or the oppinion.
      And the details may matter.

      We have generally accepted that laws barring adult entertainment (short of prositution) are unconstitutional.

      At the same time we have also generally accepted that laws barring children from adult entertainment and many many other things are constitutional.

      If the TN law bars drag perfomances – it is unconstitutional. If it barrs them from places where children are present it is not.
      Atleast not by current constitutional standards.

      Unconstitutionally vague requires the law to be sufficiently unclear that people can not be sure if they are violating it.
      There is actually no such thing and unconstitutionally broad. There is merely so broad that the law infringes on a legitimate constitutional right.

      We strike down unconstitutionally vague laws – they rarely can be fixed.
      We narrow unconstitutionally broad laws if that is possible.

      Overall, I am libertarian – I do not think laws barring prostitution are constitutional and more improtantly moral wise or ethical.
      I do not think our drug laws are constitutional.

      But my views are not shared by either a court or the majority.

      But the courts and the majority DO allow laws barring children from getting tattoos, or attending strip clubs.

      I do not know the specifics of this judges ruling on the TN law. But as the courts have understood the constitution for several decades
      Law barring drag shows from places where children are present would unarguably be constitutional.

      If the TN drag show law was modeled after the existing law barring adult entertainment in places where children are present – then the court is wrong.

      Again I would personally prefer that we leave all of this – including children attending adult entertainment of all kinds up to parents – who though far from perfect as the best choice we have. But that is not and has not been the state of the law or constitution ever.

      I can not specifically address either the TN law or this courts decision.

      But the current state of the constitution according to our current courts, permits states to make laws limiting otherwise legitimate first amendment activities where children are involved.

      We restrict the sale of alcohol, tobacco, pornography to adults – and we do so constitutionally. We restrict other adult entertainment, we restrict tattoos.

    2. We’re talking about children, not adults. Everyone who isn’t a Democrat have made that point abundantly clear. But, the fear-mongering liars on the Left use captured media to propagandize the public. Drag shows for children is wrong, it’s harmful, it’s grooming.

  11. Dear Prof Turley,

    There’s a fine line between laughing and crying. If anything, you’ve become even more funny during the age of rage. .. if such a thing is possible.

    Did you hear the one about how many Special Counsel Reports it takes to make a ‘nothingburger’?

    *they’re all nothingburgers .. . don’t amount to a hill of beans.

  12. OT


    Kevin “The Bumpkin From Bakersfield” McCarthy is ad libbing.

    “Kevin McCarthy’s victory lap over the debt ceiling bill could end early”

    Hard-right Freedom Caucus members argued the deal should have enacted deeper spending cuts and shorter borrowing limits.

    – The Guardian

    “The laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They [Congress] are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union. In like manner, they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose.”

    – Thomas Jefferson

    In the clear minds of all sentient beings, GENERAL WELFARE can only mean BASIC INFRASTRUCTURE which enables ALL to WELL PROCEED.

    Conveniently, liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats and RINOs ignore the constitutional mandate that spending be ONLY for GENERAL welfare – general defined as ALL or THE WHOLE – omitting and, thereby, excluding any power to tax or spend for individual welfare, specific welfare, particular welfare, favor or charity.

    Ad libitum taxation and spending as student loans, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, WIC, SNAP, TANF, HAMP, HARP, TARP, etc., ad infinitum, ARE NOT GENERAL WELFARE, but rather INDIVIDUAL WELFARE, specific welfare, particular welfare, favor and charity.

    The American thesis is Freedom, Self-Reliance and GENERAL WELFARE.

    The Marxist rendition is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

    All social programs that provide for “ad libitum” individual welfare are unconstitutional.

  13. Fight Club was topical for the turn of the century. 25 years on we need an update.

    Laugh Club?

  14. Humor is an essential part of being human. The Left is anti-humor, and thus, is anti-human. But what’s new?

    The serious side is that once an essential component of humanity is forcibly suppressed, it will inevitably emerge, but perhaps not in as benign a form.


    “In The Life of Brian, the scene involves “Stan” who announces that he wants to be a woman named Loretta and have babies.”

    – Professor Turley

    Now there’s a novel idea:

    American women having babies…

    in numbers sufficient to grow and defend the nation. Where in the world does that bit of madness come from? The American fertility rate is in a “death spiral,” more Americans die than are born. Where’s the future is disappearing? And the problem is ubiquitous among developed nations.

    “Japan readies ‘last hope’ measures to stop falling births”

    Experts say next 10 years are critical as Kishida eyes ‘children first’ society

    Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hopes to change the demographic trend with what he has promised will be an “unprecedented” set of measures. Underscoring the gravity of the challenge in a parliamentary speech on Jan. 23, he said the world’s third-largest economy was “on the brink” of social dysfunction. But with its childbearing-age population also shrinking, Japan faces a fundamental question: Is it even possible to reverse the decline? The answer would be relevant to a host of East and Southeast Asian countries confronting similar trends.
    Japan has been stewing over the problem for decades and has addressed it before, earning praise for some policies. Yet the pace of decline is accelerating. Births fell below 1 million for the first time in 2016. Six years later, the figure dipped below 800,000 — eight years earlier than expected. The average annual decline over the five years through 2021 was 3.65%, much faster than the 1.44% for the five years through 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic also appears to have delayed couples’ decisions to marry and start families.

    – Nikkei Asia

    “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

    – Aristotle

    The American fertility rate is below replacement at 1.6 births per woman creating a naturally abhorrent vacuum.

    Perhaps the problem becomes moot with the introduction of AI.

  16. Soros has an “Open Society” Foundation whose goal is to eliminate national sovereignty. They want you to be “global citizens”. Erase all idiosyncrasies between cultures; eliminate race and religion; eat bugs; live in tiny pods; drive EVs for now but ultimately you’ll own no car.
    Some will car-share but they’ll herd most of you onto mag-levs and high speed trains. You’ll spend what money they let you keep on Coca Cola, Major League Baseball, Netflix, and Apple gizmos.

    That’s the world progressives are shooting for. You’ll be a dull and boring slave.

  17. In other news: “Political Action Committee insists that cooing, laughing baby proves genetic predisposition toward racism and hatred”

    Seven-month-old Jeff Murray attracted much scorn among members of a political action committee when he switched from his crying, difficult disposition to that of great laughter and glee when he was given a toy rattle. The PAC was anticipating that all children born recently are expected to be permanenty pissed off and outraged in order to be fully integrated and controllable within modern, human society.

    Chairperson Ms. Anne Thorpe stated yesterday “We hoped that we finally succeeded in conditioning mothers to raise children to be in a permanent state of fear and anger so that we can manipulate them through summoning outrage and loathing. But we are now devastated because a baby was so easily turned toward evil with a simple toy rattle. The only explanation is that racism and hatred are hardwired into the human genome, especially the white male subspecies.”

  18. Our leftist bloggers are into the distraction game in full force today. The subject at hand is really about the continued call for censorship by the left. Professor Turley illustrates the tentacles of censorship reaching into every facet of American life even including comedy. The move to greater censorship by the left has become a losing proposition for so called progressives. Considering this reality, it’s no wonder that our leftist posters don’t want to talk about it. All you have to do is look for the phrase “in other news of the day” by the likes of Svelaz and Dennis McIntyre to recognize the changing of the subject when they have no proper defense of the trend toward more and more censorship advocated by their side. This rhetoric device is nothing less than blatant dishonesty. No surprise here?

    1. TiT,
      As I generally just scroll past our leftist friends comments, as they are not worth reading, based off your comment I may have to today.

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