In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Virtually all comedy is rooted in incongruity, but some examples are much more extreme than others. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian establishes its primary mismatch in the opening scene, when the Three Wise Men initially show up at the wrong manger and attempt to bestow their gifts on some ordinary infant named Brian (played as an adult by Graham Chapman) rather than to Jesus, who’s over in the manger next door. And the rest of the film is crammed with similar goofy dissonance, from a begging “ex-leper” annoyed to have been miraculously healed by the Son Of God to a centurion more concerned with proper Latin grammar than with the rebellious slogan a dissident is painting on a wall. But there’s a brief sequence about halfway through the picture that pushes this technique so ludicrously far that it essentially qualifies as unrepeatable—if there’s been a similar attempt in the past 35 years, I’m certainly not aware of it. Like Psycho’s sudden murder of its sole protagonist during the first hour, it’s a move so utterly unexpected that nobody dares try it again, for fear of being dismissed as a mere copycat.
In its first feature, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, the group repeatedly called attention to the fact that the story wasn’t actually taking place in the Middle Ages, via devices like actors banging halves of coconuts together to mimic the sound of absent horses (a cost-cutting measure transformed into comedy). “It’s only a model,” someone sniffs about Camelot, and the movie repeatedly cuts to scenes of modern-day police officers investigating the characters’ crimes. (Indeed, early drafts of the screenplay featured a roughly equal division between the distant past and the present, with large chunks of the story taking place in a department store.) Life Of Brian, by contrast, unfolds entirely in the first century A.D. Everybody speaks English, of course, and there are numerous jokes predicated on then-contemporary mores, but in terms of the cosmetic elements—location, production design, costumes, etc.—it’s entirely a period piece. So when Brian, on the run from Roman soldiers, accidentally falls from a great height and seems to be plummeting to his death, it’s hard to imagine how he’ll be saved. Certainly, nobody ever imagined this.
Historical context isn’t especially important here, but there’s definitely a sense in which the unexpected intrusion of a spaceship and laser battle into A.D. 33 Judea was even funnier in 1979, when Life Of Brian was originally released. Two years had elapsed since Star Wars, which was just enough time for studios to get their own sci-fi epics into theaters, hoping for a windfall; that year saw audiences regaled with The Black Hole, Battlestar Galactica (on television), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, plus the only James Bond film with an outer-space theme (Moonraker). So there’s a certain cynicism to this interlude that would be lost if it were done today, now that the genre is a perennial rather than a passing fad, as it would then have been perceived. The contemporary equivalent might be for vampires or zombies to suddenly overrun a Judd Apatow comedy for two or three minutes, kill dozens of extras, and then vanish from the narrative forever. Which sounds kind of awesome, actually, though it’s hard to imagine Apatow not milking that idea for a half hour or more, until every ounce of potential humor has been so thoroughly wrung from it that it’s impossible to remember why it has been introduced in the first place.
But I digress. Life Of Brian was directed solely by Terry Jones, as Terry Gilliam had been hugely frustrated serving as co-director on Holy Grail. This particular sequence was mostly handed to Gilliam, however, and he opted, as he’d been doing since his days manipulating cutouts on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to turn his nearly nonexistent budget into a virtue. Some time and energy clearly went into the design of the two aliens, with their single eyeballs clasped in a hand growing from the top of their heads—did they perhaps inspire Guillermo Del Toro, who included a creature with eye sockets in its palms in Pan’s Labyrinth?—but every other element is deliberately chintzy, making even the following year’s godawful Galaxina look sophisticated by comparison. As Gilliam admits on the DVD commentary track, the sound design employs the unaltered noise of a motorcycle shifting gears, and every planet and asteroid looks as if it’s been pasted onto the screen. In keeping with his general run of luck, Brian hasn’t just fallen into a sci-fi movie—he’s fallen into a terrible sci-fi movie. And when the spaceship finally crash-lands back on Earth, it deposits him in the same spot he’d just left, in full view of the soldiers pursuing him.
Two aspects of this nutty idea are especially appealing. The first, which in theory should go without saying (though I suspect a lesser comedy team might have whiffed it), is that nobody, including Brian, ever so much as mentions this interlude for the rest of the movie. It’s as if it never happened—so much so that you could easily cut the sequence out without having to make a single adjustment anywhere else. Brian just runs back into the previously established story, without so much as a backward glance. Its complete disposability underlines its absurdity, thereby making it even funnier; a second reference or even a cocked eyebrow would kind of spoil the gag. The second, subtler aspect is the scene’s placement smack-dab in the middle of the movie. It would almost certainly have still been hilarious had it come at the end, but that would make it more of a conventional deus ex machina, despite its general insanity. It would then be not unlike the use of the 20th-century cops to abruptly end Holy Grail by arresting its cast—a postmodern jape. Tossing it into the middle of the picture is considerably more radical, in that it allows the film to resume its normal course. First-time viewers may wonder whether this alien race will return, and then experience some additional, retroactive amusement once it becomes clear that it won’t.
Today’s comedies feel fundamentally timid by comparison. The only recent example that attempts something remotely this bold is The World’s End, which takes its sweet time establishing what appears to be one (thoroughly enjoyable) kind of movie, only to suddenly veer in a bizarre new direction. Once that leap is made, though, The World’s End sticks with it until the closing credits. It takes a special variety of demented genius to conceive of abandoning a bizarre new direction almost as soon as it’s been embarked upon, and then pretending that the audience imagined it. It’s a risky form of comedy, too, because it doesn’t involve jokes—there’s no one instant you can point to here as the funniest bit, apart from maybe the stalk-eye double take the aliens perform in unison when they first see Brian in their spaceship. The conceit itself has to sustain laughs for the two minutes or so that it’s in play, and it reliably does. It’s the startled laughter of people who can’t believe what they’re seeing—a variety too rarely heard.