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13 Facts About Monty Python's Life of Brian

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After the huge success of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, England's silliest comedy troupe needed a follow-up. Naturally, they chose another period piece, this one requiring even more elaborate sets and costumes—and, as a bonus, it was liable to offend everyone. Monty Python's Life of Brian was released in 1979 and, sure enough, caused a stir. It also shot to the top of many people's lists of the best satires ever made, and helped cement Monty Python's legacy. Here, stop arguing about what the Romans have ever done for you and read this reverent list of important trivia. 

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED IN AMSTERDAM, WRITTEN IN BARBADOS, AND FILMED IN TUNISIA.

Monty Python was a very British comedy troupe, but Life of Brian was a truly international production. The lads came up with the idea of doing a Biblical epic while promoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Amsterdam in early 1976. (No word on Amsterdam's other offerings, but much alcohol was definitely involved.) The final draft of the screenplay was written around Christmas 1977 in Barbados, where Eric Idle was vacationing; rather than return to London to finish the script, he convinced the other five Pythons to join him there. As for the actual filming, England was short on arid plains that could pass for Jerusalem, so everyone decamped to Tunisia, where Star Wars (and, more relevantly, Jesus of Nazareth) had recently been shot. 

2. THEY USED LEFTOVER SETS AND COSTUMES FROM A REAL JESUS MOVIE.

Italian director Franco Zeffirelli (you may be familiar with his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet) had made a six-hour English-language TV miniseries called Jesus of Nazareth, seen by a massive worldwide audience in 1977. For the Pythons, one of the perks of shooting in Tunisia was that they could use some of the props, costumes, and sets that Zeffirelli's production had left behind.

3. THE PYTHONS MADE A CONSCIOUS DECISION NOT TO MAKE FUN OF JESUS.

The film's detractors insisted otherwise (most of them hadn't actually seen it), but Life of Brian doesn't ridicule Jesus or his teachings. (His followers; people who misunderstand him; organized religion in general, sure.) The men of Monty Python realized early in the writing process that Jesus shouldn't be a target. This wasn't out of reverence, though, so much as practicality: nobody thought Jesus' words or deeds warranted derision. As Eric Idle later put it, "He's not particularly funny. What he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff."

4. JESUS HAD A STUTTER. 

Though Life of Brian is about a man whose life parallels Jesus', Jesus himself appears only briefly (and respectfully, the Pythons were quick to point out). According to Terry Gilliam, Kenneth Colley—the actor who played Jesus—had a terrible stammer in real life that cleared up when he was reciting dialogue onstage or in front of a camera. (By the way, Colley also played Admiral Piett, an Imperial officer, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.) 

5. JOHN CLEESE WAS IN FAVOR OF STUNT CASTING FOR THE ROLE OF JESUS.

His suggestion was George Lazenby. Cleese explained: "I thought that on the poster, to have the words '...and George Lazenby as Jesus Christ' would be something that people would treasure for at least the next millennium." He's probably right, though it's also probably just as well that Jesus wasn't played by anyone recognizable. 

6. THE FILM'S SAVIOR WAS A BEATLE.

Two days before the cast and crew were set to leave for Tunisia to begin shooting, the head honcho at EMI Films, Bernard Delfont, got cold feet and canceled the financing, fearing the film was too controversial to make a profit. (According to Gilliam, the problem was that Delfont finally actually read the script.) Everything was put on hold while the Pythons scrambled to find another backer. Their patron turned out to be George Harrison, a big Monty Python fan who had plenty of Beatles money lying around. Harrison set up a production company, HandMade Films, to make it official, and put up $4 million of his own money. "I liked the script and I wanted to see the movie," he later said. Terry Jones would call it "the most expensive movie ticket of all time." As for Delfont, the film ends with a little inside joke aimed at him, as the singer of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" can be heard muttering, "I told him, I said to him, 'Bernie,' I said, 'they'll never make that money back.’"

7. IT REQUIRED A MAKESHIFT CIRCUMCISION.

According to Eric Idle, when it came time to film the scene where a nude Brian goes to the window and inadvertently exposes himself to a crowd of disciples, director Terry Jones pointed out a problem with a Graham Chapman's genitalia: "We can see you're not Jewish." This was a good point. Brian would definitely be circumcised, and Chapman was not. Chapman's solution was to summon not a mohel but a rubber band, which he used to help make himself look the part. Acting!

8. BEFORE IT UPSET ANYONE ELSE, IT UPSET SOME MUSLIMS.

For the aforementioned window scene, the crowd was made up of Tunisian extras, almost all of them Muslim. To see a naked man other than one's husband is a no-no for Muslim women, and as Chapman later recalled, "When I flung open the shutters, half the crowd ran away screaming. That had a profound effect on my psyche." 

9. THE FILMMAKERS WORKED HARD NOT TO DAMAGE ANY OF THE SHOOTING LOCATIONS (BUT DID ANYWAY).

Some of the sets had been built for Jesus of Nazareth, and some were made especially for Life of Brian, but some locations were actual old buildings in and around Monastir, Tunisia. The crew took care to minimize their impact on these settings, but not everything could be helped. For example, Terry Gilliam (serving as production designer) believed the black smudge they applied to the stones where the UFO crashes (around the 44-minute mark) would come right off. When it didn't, he sent people in under cover of night to paint the stones the right color again and hoped nobody would notice.

10. THERE WAS A STRATEGIC REASON IT OPENED IN AMERICA BEFORE ENGLAND.

Monty Python had a big following in the U.S., but it was nothing compared to the group's fan base in the U.K. So why did Life of Brian open in the States first? Because the Pythons knew some people would consider the film sacrilegious, and America, unlike the U.K., had no blasphemy laws. They weren’t just being paranoid either, as an actual blasphemy case had recently been prosecuted in England over an erotic poem about Jesus.

11. THE FIRST PEOPLE TO PROTEST THE FILM WERE ... RABBIS? 

Our lads anticipated blowback from Christians over the film, but they were caught off-guard when the first complaints came from a council of rabbis. Their objection? The stoning scene, where Jews' reverence for the name of God is satirized, and in which John Cleese (playing a Jewish leader) wears a sacred prayer shawl. 

12. SHOOTING THE UFO SCENE WAS A RACE AGAINST TIME (AND TAX LAWS).

At the time of the film’s production, Graham Chapman was living in the United States and, for tax reasons, he wasn't allowed to be back home in England for more than 24 hours at a time. Since most of the movie was shot in Tunisia, this wasn't a problem. But the scene where Brian briefly travels inside an alien spacecraft was shot in London. Chapman flew to England, hurried to the set, spent several hours inside the UFO, then had to hurry off again before his 24 hours were up. 

13. GRAHAM CHAPMAN WAS THE SET DOCTOR.

Chapman was a medical student before he turned to comedy, and in fact was already a successful writer and performer for British TV when he finished his studies and became an actual licensed physician. He wore both hats on the Life of Brian set in Tunisia, filming during the day and holding a clinic for cast, crew, and extras in the evening, treating injuries and prescribing medication.

Additional Sources:
Criterion Collection DVD bonus features and commentary

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually broke away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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Hey Now! 15 Things You Should Know About The Larry Sanders Show
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In the late 1980s, comedian Garry Shandling was a recurring guest host on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. His work didn’t get him Carson’s chair, but NBC was impressed enough with his hosting abilities to offer him David Letterman’s seat when Letterman left Late Night. Ultimately, Shandling—who passed away unexpectedly in 2016—decided against taking NBC’s reported $5 million a year offer, forcing the network to famously go with a "30-year-old unknown comedy writer" named Conan O'Brien instead.

When CBS offered Shandling its own 12:35 a.m. slot soon after, the comedian realized he wasn’t someone that wanted—or needed—to be on TV every night. Instead, Shandling co-created The Larry Sanders Show with Dennis Klein, an HBO series that deftly parodied late night talk shows. Here are 15 things you might not know about the groundbreaking series, which debuted 25 years ago.

1. GARRY SHANDLING GOT THE IDEA FOR LARRY SANDERS FROM HIS PREVIOUS SHOW.

Concurrently with his guest hosting of The Tonight Show, Shandling starred in Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show from 1986 to 1990, where the comedian played himself, often addressing both the studio audience and the camera directly. In an episode where Garry was a guest on a morning talk show (“Take My Girlfriend, for Example”), he realized that there could be a whole other show told from the television personality’s point of view.

2. JEFFREY TAMBOR MADE A DESPERATE MOVE TO GET THE ROLE OF HANK KINGSLEY.

After having what he felt was a good audition, Jeffrey Tambor found himself uncharacteristically calling Shandling hours later, saying that he really wanted to play his sidekick. Shandling told him that calling after an audition is exactly something Hank Kingsley would do.

3. ALBERT BROOKS'S DEFENDING YOUR LIFE GOT RIP TORN THE ROLE OF ARTIE.

Executive producer Peter Tolan thought lawyer Bob Diamond, the character Torn played in Defending Your Life, was similar to what they were looking for with Larry Sanders’ producer character, Artie. When Torn and Shandling first met, Torn wouldn’t read the script until the two first had some idle chatter.

4. THE "HEY NOW" EPISODE WAS ACTUALLY THE FIRST EPISODE WRITTEN AND PRODUCED.

When The Larry Sanders Show was on Netflix, “Hey Now” was correctly listed first. But when it originally aired on HBO, it was the last episode shown in the first season. Shandling credited Dennis Klein as the person who came up with Hank Kingsley’s classic Ed McMahon-ism.

5. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER SHOT ON ROLLER SKATES.

The talk show-within-the-show scenes were shot on four video cameras, and shown once a month to a studio audience. The scenes outside of the talk show were shot on film with three cameras in operation at once, with cinematographer Peter Smokler backpedaling on roller skates to shoot the walk-and-talks up and down the studio hallways.

6. THE ACTORS GOT TIRED OF CLEANING UP THEIR LANGUAGE.

Up until the halfway point of season two, actors would record a second take of finished scenes without cursing, so someday it could be shown in non-cable syndication. But they eventually grew tired of the extra work, leading to messier edits down the line when it was broadcast on IFC and Bravo.

7. EDDIE MURPHY WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY THE GUEST ON HANK KINGSLEY’S HOSTING EPISODE.

The part in “Hank’s Night In The Sun” ended up being filled by Cheers star George Wendt.

8. JEREMY PIVEN LEFT THE SHOW TO STAR IN P.C.U.

Jeremy Piven, who played Sanders' head writer Jerry, was written off the show in the early season two episode “Larry’s Birthday.” Piven received Shandling’s blessing to leave. When his movie career didn’t get off the ground, he co-starred on the sitcom Ellen.

9. JANEANE GAROFALO LEFT LARRY SANDERS TO JOIN SNL.

Mary Lou Collins (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) was promoted to the role of booker when Janeane Garofalo's Paula character was written off the show. Garofalo lasted less than one season on SNL, and later admitted that she regretted leaving Larry Sanders.

10. DAVID DUCHOVNY’S ATTRACTION TO LARRY WAS DUCHOVNY’S IDEA.

The X-Files star pitched the idea of his being sexually attracted to Sanders while the two were playing basketball.

11. SHANDLING WROTE THE JOKES MAKING FUN OF HIMSELF.

In the series finale, “Flip,” Sean Penn rips on Garry Shandling to Larry Sanders—which is the only time Shandling is ever referenced in the series. (Penn and Shandling had just worked together on the film version of Hurlyburly.) Shandling told The New York Times that he is the one who wrote the jokes about himself, as ''Nobody can write better jokes putting me down than me ... I know how to destroy myself."

12. DAVID LETTERMAN THOUGHT IT WAS VERY REALISTIC.

Letterman once told Shandling, “This show is like every day of my life.”

13. JOHNNY CARSON WAS SHANDLING'S DREAM GUEST.

While Shandling wasn't able to make a Carson cameo happen, he was told that Carson was a fan of The Larry Sanders Show.

14. BEFORE AGREEING TO PLAY BRIAN, SCOTT THOMPSON MADE SHANDLING AGREE TO THREE CONDITIONS.

The Kids in the Hall star said he wanted Hank Kingsley’s new assistant to actually like his boss (unlike everyone else), to not be flamboyant in his homosexuality, and to be Canadian.

15. IT FEATURED JUDD APATOW’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.

Judd Apatow was a writer and producer on The Larry Sanders Show when he directed the episode “Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation.”

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