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.

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