Monty Python star Terry Jones' death and the comedic legacy of a timeless troupe

The comedy template Jones and company created all those decades ago still informs just about every type of comedy out there.
From left, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Carol Cleveland, John Cleese and Eric Idle in the "Buying a Bed" sketch on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in 1969.Radio Times via Getty Images
By Jeff Slate

Terry Jones was a teddy bear. He was also one of the founders in 1969 of Monty Python, the comedy troupe of high-functioning, hugely ambitious creative types that also included Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin.

But among these comedic greats, Jones, who died Tuesday at 77 after a long battle with dementia, stood out as the warmest of the bunch.

Often referred to as the Beatles of comedy, Idle recently told me he actually thinks of the Fab Four as “the Pythons of rock.”

Often referred to as the Beatles of comedy — Idle recently told me he actually thinks of the Fab Four as “the Pythons of rock” — Monty Python shared a timeless, even anarchic spirit with the Beatles. In much the way the Beatles seemed to set every record and break every rule in the music business first, Jones and company did so for comedy. In fact, in the more than 35 years since the troupe split (the first time), every time “South Park” or Dave Chappelle or Eddie Izzard caused a fuss, there was almost always a direct line back to the groundbreaking, no-holds-barred comedy of Monty Python.

Jones, of course, held his own, writing some of the troupe’s most memorable skits for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” He eventually co-directed “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and directed “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and “Meaning of Life.”

He also adored Monty Python. I once sat next to Jones during anniversary screenings of “Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian.” At each joke — and there are, of course, many — he’d lean over to tell me a little anecdote about the making of the scene in question. His exuberance was contagious, and his love of Monty Python deep and sincere. Like Paul McCartney with the Beatles, or Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin, Jones was perhaps the Pythons’ biggest fan, and therefore the troupe’s secret weapon.

This browser does not support the video element.

“Terry was extremely good at making sure the camera didn't interfere with the jokes,” Palin, Jones’ friend since their days at Cambridge University, told me in 2018. “He was very good at standing back and letting two or three people talk together, as a wide shot, so that it didn't interfere with them, or enforce his own take on things, by zooming in too close. He understood humor and how actors play comedy and how people are funny, of course, so he knew who to cast in particular roles, too, to get the most out of a piece.”

While the Pythons were a talented group with a lot of competing egos — especially as success changed the internal politics of the group — Jones’s warmth and sincerity helped him avoid the obvious pitfalls that came with stardom. He also had a keen intellect — though he wore it loosely — and a wit that infused everything he did, especially as a director. All of those varied characteristics combined are surely a big reason why the Pythons’ work holds up for many, 50 years after it first punctured the public consciousness.

While the Pythons were a talented group with a lot of competing egos, Jones’s warmth and sincerity helped him avoid the obvious pitfalls that came with stardom.

“John wanted to play Brian, but he just wouldn’t have been right for it,” Jones told me in 2013 about one of his legendary clashes with Cleese.

The decision instead to cast Chapman in the lead of “Life of Brian” — now considered one of the greatest comedy films of all time — was key to the film’s success. And really, who else but Jones could have stood up to the hardheaded (sometimes to a fault) Cleese?

After the “Meaning of Life,” the group started to go in different directions. “Terry went off and did a wonderful variety of things,” Cleese, who had already hit it big with the classic 1970s anti-sitcom “Fawlty Towers,” and would go on to a long and storied career, told me in 2014. But even he would admit that Monty Python was a case of the collective sum of its parts being greater than the individual members’ talents.

Still, Jones became a true Renaissance man of the entertainment world in his own right, as Palin said in a statement released Wednesday. He made films and documentaries, wrote scripts, children’s books and serious historical tomes, and even hosted several historical series.

In 2014, the troupe reunited for a series of shows at London’s O2 arena. Seen as old, white and out of step by the always-caustic British press, the shows were mostly panned. But the run was still wildly successful and reminded a generation of fans who’d grown up with Python why they still loved them.

“During the O2 shows,” Cleese recalled to me last year, “The Daily Telegraph wrote an article, ‘Was ‘Python’ ever really funny?’ And the only thing you can say is, ‘Well, a lot of people thought so.’”

“Another journalist went on about Monty Python and its 50-year-old jokes,” Cleese added. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m sure lots of people don’t think it’s funny at all. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t a lot of people who do like it.’”

Related

Also, a recent box set of the original “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” series, and recent, wide-ranging Netflix deal have gone a long way to making Monty Python once again a part of the collective popular culture consciousness, especially for younger fans.

“You’re still fresh to some people, and they keep discovering it,” Idle told me last year.

But with Jones’s untimely passing, it’s as good a time as any to revisit some classic Monty Python. The comedic template Jones and company created 50 years ago still informs just about every type of comedy out there — from sketch shows like Netflix’s “I Think You Should Leave” to late night talk show hosts like John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. It’s an undeniable legacy, and one that will surely outlive us all.

Jeff Slate

Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found at The New Yorker, Esquire, Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.