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A Facebook group about general trivia stated that the soldiers in the famous "Biggus Dickus" in Life of Brian were unaware of the jokes in the scene, and therefore their attempts to refrain from laughing are actually genuine.

I've found an IMDb Trivia record about it:

When Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate addressed the soldiers daring them to laugh, he was truly daring them. The soldier extras were ordered to stand there and not laugh, but not told what Palin was going to do. Palin, in fact, can barely stifle his own laughter when saying "Biggus Dickus" in front of the soldier asked if he finds the name "risible".

But other than that, no credible source, like an interview with the actors or anything alike.

Is there any source that can verify this trivia item?

2 Answers 2

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I have a physical copy of Monty Python's Encyclopythonia; which contains some interviews with the Python members.

It's not that the guards weren't aware of the script. They were. However, when the scene was being shot, one of the actors couldn't help but laugh because of Michael Palin's character. It was just that funny.

Instead of ending the scene, Palin stayed in character and approached the guard; resulting in the scene you are referring to.

However, that does not prove that the guard's reactions (after their initial unintended outburst) were genuine. They could have picked up on the fact that Palin was improvising, and they continued the scene based on how Palin was steering the conversation.

Monty Python is well known for its improvisation. In improv, when you are dealing with more than one actor; all actors need to understand what they are acting out, and will therefore "build a sketch together" on the fly.

Presumably, only the initial laugh was genuine. The rest is simply a continuation of the scene in an improvised manner.

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    Wow. Excellent answer. Thank you. For the sake of future readers, could you please add an accurate reference to the exact page in the Encyclopythonia?
    – Adam Matan
    May 29, 2017 at 8:48
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    @AdamMatan: The EncycloPythonia is a DVD collection of all movies (except The Meaning of Life, for some reason...) and some bonus discs. The DVD set looks like a big book; hence the name of the boxset :) It's not an actual book. I could not find an online reference to this but I remember the origins of the scene as I did a school report on it in the past :)
    – Flater
    May 29, 2017 at 8:57
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    “Monty Python is well known for its improvisation”? I have heard that the line “Must be a king—he hasn't got shit all over him” (Grail) is a very rare adlib. Feb 10 at 2:46
  • @AntonSherwood: The movies are more on script than their other works (understandable given their notoriously limited shooting budget). The show, and the Pythonians' earlier work was much more improvisational. I only mentioned it to point out their ability to do so, not to claim it was planned to be done in the Biggus Dickus scene.
    – Flater
    Feb 10 at 12:45
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    @Flater I don't believe their work was improvisational at all. I think their work, including the TV show, was tightly scripted. They all came from sketch comedy backgrounds, and you couldn't pass a script to a performer and say, "improvise this". They would expect you, the writer, to write something funny for them to say. Feb 26 at 11:27
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It was not only all scripted, but the "extras" were actually comedy performers themselves.

The first guard to laugh was Charles McKeown, the Oscar nominated actor and screenwriter. He was friends with the Pythons and would later co-write and act in Brazil (1984) (pictured below) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) with Terry Gilliam.

Charles McKeown in Brazil (1984)

The second was Andrew MacLachlan, who would later appear in Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983) (below right):

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The third was Bernard McKenna, another friend of the Pythons who is an accomplished writer in his own right, and would briefly appear in Yellowbeard (1983) alongside Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and John Cleese.

The last giggling guard was Chris Langham, who is a well-known comedic performer and writer, too. His most famous role was probably in the satirical TV show The Thick of It, which would be rebooted in the US as Veep.

enter image description here

Their giggling was all completely scripted, however Michael Palin was aware that he also had to help them by being genuinely funny and spontaneous. As he wrote in his diaries for that day, Monday October 9th, 1978:

A delay for lighting, then a very gruelling day shooting the first Pilate scene. The need to keep the vital giggling ingredient fresh and spontaneous made it a little bit harder to play than an ordinary scene with set words and reactions. The success of this scene will depend on the genuineness of the guard’s reaction to Pilate. It can’t all be acted, it must be felt.

So I have to do a great deal of ad-libbing at the end of the scene – and by the end of the day I must have thought up over twenty new names for Biggus Dickus’ wife – ranging from the appallingly facetious Incontinentia Buttox to the occasional piece of inspiration which resulted in breakdown from the guards. Bernard McKenna in particular did the nose trick spectacularly – once right down my toga**.

Source

So the actors knew they had to stifle laughter, but through 20 takes Palin had to do what he could to genuinely try to make them laugh in order to keep things fresh.

It seems the actor's reactions to "Incontinentia Buttox" were genuine, because they were all wondering what Palin was going to say.

** Note: It seems their snorting produced snot, which explains Palin's adlib at the end of the scene, "Blow your noses and seize him!".

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