A group of fish in a posh restaurant's tank swim together casually, until they look at the customers outside of the tank and see their friend Howard being eaten. This leads them to question the meaning of life. The question is explored in the first sketch, "The Miracle of Birth", which features a woman in labour being ignored by the doctors in favour of impressing the hospital's administrator. In Yorkshire, a Roman Catholic man loses his jobs and returns home, instructing his children on the church's opposition to contraception, leading to the musical number "Every Sperm is Sacred", before selling his children off for scientific experiments. Meanwhile, a Protestant man and his wife discuss having non-reproductive sex.
In "Growth and Learning", a class of boys are taught school etiquette and then watch their teacher have sex with his wife as part of their sex education. One boy laughs, and is forced into a violent rugby match against the teachers as punishment. "Fighting Each Other" first focuses on a World War I officer trying to rally his men to find cover during an attack, but they insist on celebrating his birthday; then, an army RSM attempts to drill his platoon but ends up excusing them all to pursue leisure activities. In 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War, a soldier finds his leg has been bitten off. Suspecting a tiger, despite being in Africa, the soldiers hunt for it and find two men suspiciously wearing two halves of a tiger costume.
"The Middle of the Film" briefly introduces a segment called "Find the Fish", a surreal scene where bizarre characters asks the audience to find a fish hidden in the sequence. "Middle Age" involves a middle-aged American couple visiting a dungeon-themed Hawaiian restaurant, where, to the interest of the fish, the waiter offers a conversation about philosophy and the meaning of life. The customers are unable to make sense of it and move on to a discussion of "live organ transplants". "Live Organ Transplants" involves two paramedics visiting Mr. Brown, a card-carrying organ donor, forcefully removing his liver whilst he is still alive. Brown's mother speaks with a musician who performs "Galaxy Song" while discussing man's insignificance in the universe. The Crimson Permanent Assurance pirates invade a corporate boardroom where executives are discussing the meaning of life, but a tumbling skyscraper ends their assault.
In "The Autumn Years", the horribly obese Mr. Creosote visits the restaurant, to the horror of the fish tank. He vomits continuously and devours an enormous meal. When the maître d' gives him a wafer-thin mint, Creosote's stomach explodes, the maître d' then giving him the bill. Two staff members clean up Creosote's remains while discussing the meaning of life. One leads the audience to his house, spouts some philosophy, and then angrily dismisses them.
"Death" features a condemned man choosing the manner of his own execution: being chased off a cliff by topless women and falls into his own grave below. The Grim Reaper enters an isolated country house and invites himself to dinner. The guests try to guess who he is until the Reaper tells them they all died from food poisoning. They accompany the Grim Reaper to Heaven, depicted as a Las Vegas-style hotel in perpetual Christmas, where a Tony Bennett-lookalike performs "Christmas in Heaven" to the cast.
"The End of the Film" epilogue features the host of "The Middle of the Film" being handed an envelope containing the meaning of life. She reads it out: "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations".Graham Chapman as Chairman (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 1 / Obstetrician / Harry Blackitt / Wymer / Hordern / General / Coles / Narrator No. 2 / Dr Livingstone / Transvestite / Eric / Guest No. 1 / Arthur Jarrett / Geoffrey / Tony Bennett lounge singer
John Cleese as Fish No. 2 / Dr Spencer / Humphrey Williams / Sturridge / Ainsworth / Waiter / Eric's assistant / Maître D' / Grim Reaper
Terry Gilliam as Window Washer (in Crimson) / Fish No. 4 / Walters / Middle of the Film announcer / M'Lady Joeline / Mr Brown / Howard Katzenberg
Eric Idle as Gunther (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 3 / "Meaning of Life" singer / Mr Moore / Mrs Blackitt / Watson / Blackitt / Atkinson / Perkins / Soldier Victim No. 3 / Man in Front End of Tiger Suit / Mrs Hendy / Man in pink / Noël Coward / Gaston / Angela
Terry Jones as Bert (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 6 / Mum / Priest / (Capt.) Biggs / Sergeant / Man with bendy arms / Mrs. Brown / Mr Creosote / Maria / Leaf father (voice) / Fiona Portland-Smythe
Michael Palin as Window Washer (in Crimson) / Harry (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 5 / Mr Piecrust / Dad / Narrator No. 1 / Chaplain / Carter / Spadger / Regimental Seargeant Major / Pakenham-Walsh / Man in Rear End of Tiger Suit / Female TV presenter / Mr Marvin Hendy / Governor / Leaf son (voice) / Debbie Katzenberg
Carol Cleveland as Beefeater waitress / Wife of Guest No. 1 / Leaf mother (voice) / Leaf daughter (voice) / Heaven receptionist
Patricia Quinn as Helen Williams
Judy Loe as Nurse
Simon Jones as Chadwick / Jeremy Portland-Smyth
Matt Frewer as one of the yuppies in Crimson
Jane Leeves as "Christmas in Heaven" dancer
Michael Caine as "Wounded British Soldier"
According to Palin, "the writing process was quite cumbersome. An awful lot of material didn't get used. Holy Grail had a structure, a loose one: the search for the grail. Same with Life of Brian. With this, it wasn't so clear. In the end, we just said: 'Well, what the heck. We have got lots of good material, let's give it the loosest structure, which will be the meaning of life'".
After the film's title was chosen, Douglas Adams called Jones to tell him he had just finished a new book, to be called The Meaning of Liff; Jones was initially concerned about the similarity in titles, which led to the scene in the title sequence of a tombstone which, when hit by a flash of lightning, changes from "The Meaning of Liff" to "The Meaning of Life".
The film was produced on a budget of less than US$10 million, which was still bigger than that of the earlier films. This allowed for large-scale choreography and crowd sequences, a more lavishly produced soundtrack that included new original songs, much more time could be spent on each sketch, especially The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Palin later said that the larger budget, and not making the film for the BBC (i.e., television), allowed the film to be more daring and dark.
The idea for the hospital sketch came from Chapman, himself a physician, who had noticed that hospitals were changing, with "lots and lots of machinery". According to Palin, the organ transplant scene harked back to Python's love of bureaucracy, and sketches with lots of people coming round from the council with different bits of paper.
During the filming of the scene where Palin's character explains Catholicism to his children, his line was "that rubber thing at the end of my sock", which was later overdubbed with cock.
The short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance introduces the feature. It is about a group of elderly office clerks working in a small accounting firm. They rebel against yuppie corporate masters, transform their office into a pirate ship, and raid a large financial district.
The short was intended as an animated sequence in the feature, for placement at the end of Part V. Gilliam convinced the other members of Monty Python to allow him to produce and direct it as a live action piece instead.
The original tagline read "It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up" (the length of The Meaning of Life proper is 90 minutes, but becomes 107 minutes as released with the "Short Subject Presentation", The Crimson Permanent Assurance). In an April 2012 re-release held by the American Film Institute, the tagline is altered to read "It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 1 hour and 48 minutes to screw it up".
Ireland banned the film on its original release as it had previously done with Monty Python's Life of Brian, but later rated it 15 when it was released on video. In the United Kingdom the film was rated 18 when released in the cinema and on its first release on video, but was re-rated 15 in 2000. In the United States the film is rated R.
The film opened in North America on 31 March 1983. At 257 theatres, it ranked number six in the domestic box office, grossing US$1,987,853 ($7,734 per screen) in its opening weekend. It played at 554 theatres at its widest point, and its total North American gross was $14,929,552.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2 and a half stars out of four, calling it a "a barbed, uncompromising attack on generally observed community standards". In The New York Times, Vincent Canby declared it "the Ben Hur of sketch films, which is to say that it's a tiny bit out of proportion", concluding it was amusing, but he wished it were consistently amusing. Variety staff assessed it as disgusting, ridiculous, tactless, but above all, amusing.
In 2007, Empire's Ian Nathan rated it three of five stars, describing it as "too piecemeal and unfocused, but it possesses some of their most iconic musings and inspired madness". In 2014, The Daily Telegraph gave the film four stars out of five. In his 2015 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin awarded it three stars, calling it "A barrel of bellylaughs", identifying the Mr. Creosote and "Every Sperm is Sacred" sketches as the most memorable. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 90%, based on 30 reviews, with an average rating of 7.4/10.
The Meaning of Life was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. While the Cannes jury, led by William Styron, were fiercely split on their opinions on several films in competition, The Meaning of Life had general support, securing it the second-highest honour after the Palme d'Or for The Ballad of Narayama.
At the 37th British Academy Film Awards, Andre Jacquemin, Dave Howman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were also nominated for Original Song for "Every Sperm is Sacred." The award went to "Up Where We Belong" in An Officer and a Gentleman.
A two-disc DVD release in 2003 features a documentary on production and a director's cut, which adds deleted scenes into the film, making it 116 minutes. The first is The Adventures of Martin Luther, inserted after the scene with the Protestant couple talking about condoms. The second is a promotional video about the British army, which comes between the marching around the square scene and the Zulu army scene. The third and last is an extension of the American characters that Idle and Palin do; they are shown their room and talk about tampons. In Region 1, it was released on Blu-ray to mark its 30th anniversary.