'The Meaning of Life' Set Early Standard for Shock Comedy

'The Meaning of Life' Set Early Standard for Shock Comedy

Before Cameron Diaz applied that funny hair gel in There’s Something About Mary Monty Python served up a dozen or so equally gross moments in The Meaning of Life.

And, of course, one unforgettable scene set in a posh restaurant.

The 1983 comedy, just released in a new, 30th anniversary Blu-ray package, set an early standard for the shock comedy to come decades later. Those Hangover boys hadn’t even thought about driving a giraffe into a low bridge when Monty Python wrote its name in the cement of the future genre. It would take years before filmmakers would attempt similar shtick, and watching Life again reminds us of the offensive building blocks.

Acknowledge cultural norms and then smash them to bits. 

The film essentially trots out a series of skits lassoed together by the big picture query–what is the meaning of life, and why should we entrust six madcap Brits to tell us?

Life typifies the term “hit or miss” comedy. For every comic bulls eye, like the Catholic skewering song Every Sperm is Sacred, comes a moment like the elderly pirates ransacking the business community which opens the film.

Watch how John Cleese teaches sex education to his yawning students by making love to his wife in the classroom. Sex-obsessed teens bored by an actual sex act? The Live Organ Transplants segment mocks the notion of shared sacrifice for the common good, but the laughs wash away with the torrents of blood.

The film’s signature set piece involves an obese patron named Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones) ordering “the lot” at a fancy restaurant. Cleese plays the officious waiter, a man who is unfailingly polite no matter how visually grotesque Mr. Creosote may be, or how much he regurgitates prior to feasting. The comedy troupe routinely toyed with the image of the stuffy Brit, and here it’s taken to new, albeit maniacal, heights.

Suddenly, Diaz’s upturned hair seems downright quaint.

Like the modern day South Park, Monty Python delighted in mocking themselves as much as any ripe target. British culture proved fair game for Monty Python over the years, and parading around in women’s clothing was mandatory even though drag comedy had long since been shelved in most quarters.

Even when the material is relentless in its criticism, as is the case with the film’s religious content, the troupe’s tone makes it harder to summon outrage.

The Meaning of Life hits the soon-to-be shopworn theme of ’80s excess, American style, with a skit featuring The Very Large Corporation of America worrying it has already consumed all the inferior companies it can.

The film’s left-leaning tilt might have seemed provocative at the time, but watching it now it’s the most conventional aspect of the otherwise button-pushing romp.