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Remembering Terry Jones: Monty Python’s Secret Weapon

He defined Python with his lunatic devotion, his warmth, his enthusiasm, and his innate niceness

Terry Jones of Monty Python photographed in 1986.

Martyn Goddard/Corbis/Getty Images

Farewell, Terry Jones — in Monty Python’s box of chocolates, he was always the crunchy frog. This man was a comic genius, the soul of Python — their most unselfish performer, their most wide-ranging mind, and their most stubborn arguer, which is why he ended up directing their movies. (Who else could out-argue John Cleese? Nobody.) To put it another way: His entire life was a juicy chunk of fresh Cornish ram’s bladder, flavored with sesame seeds, whipped into a fondue, and garnished with lark’s vomit.

Terry Jones defined Python with his lunatic devotion, his warmth, his enthusiasm, his innate niceness (which he seemed to share with Michael Palin), and his relentlessly stubborn bloody-mindedness (which he definitely shared with Cleese). He was the one who was most zealous about the team, which made him a constant pain in the ass to the others. But he was the world’s most passionate Python fan. As Michael Palin says in David Morgan’s definitive oral history Monty Python Speaks, “I think more than anybody Terry Jones kept the group together and kept it going forward, because Terry’s probably got more energy, sheer mental energy.… Terry felt very concerned about and personally identified with Python.”

Jones saw it the same way. “I suppose the great thing that was that we all liked each other’s work, so we all had a respect for what the others did. So therefore you really wanted to make the others laugh.” Onscreen, he was their secret weapon, holding it all together. He also brought a host of eccentric intellectual obsessions, especially medieval history — he’s the only comedian who’s ever made a BBC documentary series about the Crusades, wrote a scholarly study of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and wrote David Bowie’s most famous movie.

Born in Wales in 1942, Jones met Palin at Oxford, where they wrote for comic revues. His big comedy hero was Buster Keaton: the ultimate deadpan. He wrangled a job at the BBC, making his mark with The Complete and Utter History of Britain. He and Palin became Python’s most prolific writing team. As soon as Monty Python’s Flying Circus hit the airwaves, he was the one who thought conceptually, envisioning what he called the “stream-of-consciousness style.” He loved to play pompous stiffs — the one most likely to wear a judge’s wig or ask, “What’s all this then?” In the Piranha Brothers sketch, he’s hilarious as both a slimy mobster (Vince Snetterton Lewis) and the cop (Superintendent Harry “Snapper” Organs of Q Division). He always clashed beautifully with Eric Idle, playing the city squire who gets needled about his sex life in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, the composer Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, or Karl Marx competing on a quiz show about English football trivia. And as the organist, he was the one who got naked in every episode.

His heart-on-sleeve energy made him a dominant figure in the group’s creative chemistry. As Idle explains in Monty Python Speaks: “Jonesy is stubborn, John controlling, Mike affable, Eric suspicious of authority and Gilliam incomprehensible.” He and Cleese constantly butted heads. “Terry Jones and I were the most powerful personalities, or the most argumentative, or the most stroppy — you could put it lots of different ways, positively or negatively,” Cleese said. “But because we were such different character types, and he was all about feeling and I in those days was all about intellect, it was very easy for us to get into these confrontations.”

Jones played a key role in an easily overlooked aspect of the story: their comedy albums. Strange as it seems now, when the Pythons conquered America in the early Seventies, they were strictly a recording group. Nobody in this country knew the TV show existed; it didn’t debut here until late 1974. “It was the albums that broke America,” Michael Palin told Mojo. “That FM stoner crowd was quite important.” Before PBS cautiously decided to debut Circus, the Pythons already had a die-hard U.S. cult — the freaks who heard “Eric the Half Bee” on late-night radio between King Crimson and Deep Purple deep cuts.

“Mike and I supervised the first proper record,” Jones said. “We wanted to play around with the form.” Even more than TV, the recording studio let him run amok, on classics like Another Monty Python Record and Monty Python’s Previous Record. They sliced up their gags with overdubs and stereo effects; the vinyl sides might end with voices screaming, “Take it off! I can’t bear it!” or “Sorry, squire, I scratched the record!”

Jones became a director with Monty Python and the Holy Grail — the studios wouldn’t touch it, so it was financed by rock stars like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull. He and Gilliam co-directed, neither having any idea what they were doing; they traded off on alternate days. As he recalled, “I was very keen on making it funky and making sure everybody had dirty teeth.” He took over for Life of Brian. “We didn’t really have any quarrels with Christ himself,” he told Rolling Stone in 1979. “My feelings toward Christ are that he was a bloody good bloke, even though he wasn’t as funny as Margaret Thatcher.”

Jones also directed The Meaning of Life (1983), stealing the show as the exploding Mr. Creosote. After Python, he tried his hand at literary histories, collaborated with Palin on Ripping Yarns, wrote screenplays like Labyrinth, explored his love of history in documentaries as well as films like Erik the Viking, wrote children’s books, and offered sharp critiques against the Iraq war in the U.K. press. His most recent film was the 2015 Simon Pegg comedy, Absolutely Anything.

John Cleese gave a famous eulogy at Graham Chapman’s funeral in December 1989, one of the most brilliant two-minute tributes in the history of human death, especially when he says, “Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard.” But the power of the clip depends on Terry Jones in the audience: You can see him so touchingly sorrowful at the beginning, then shocked, then howling with generous laughter by the end. You get the sense that Cleese couldn’t have done it without knowing that Jones would be there to react in such a humane way. He remained the ultimate Python fan. Right to the end, Terry Jones was always something completely different.