Terry Jones: The Method Behind the Madness
How “The Adorably Horrifying One” Spewed Vomit Into Comedy Gold
Like his fellow Pythoners, Terry Jones wore multiple hats (actor, writer, director, scholar). But it’s also worthwhile delineating what his specific contributions to the troupe were, and frankly, how he pulled it off.
Broadly speaking, you could look at Monty Python through a Boy Band rubric: John Cleese was the Ridiculously Snooty One, Eric Idle the In-On-The-Joke Grinning One, Graham Chapman the Bewildered Everyman, Michael Palin the Gleefully Insane One, and Terry Gilliam the Cartoon-And-Costumed One
In the Life of Python, I would name Terry Jones the “Adorably Horrifying One.” And this set the tone for his work in front of and behind the camera throughout. Let’s dig into some of his greatest hits .
“Crunchy Frog” (Monty Python’s Flying Circus)
In this sketch, Terry Jones plays the owner of a candy store being interrogated by a policeman over his revolting offerings, such as “Ram’s Bladder Cup,” “Cockroach Cluster,” and, of course, the title sweet. As John Cleese asks him about each candy, Jones describes their disgusting ingredients with such joy, he’s practically bragging. He’s such a delightful salesman, you find yourself involuntarily almost-hankering to try one! But here’s the extra Jones virtuosity: He’s not even supposed to be in sales mode–he’s describing his wares defensively to a hostile official–and still his pride beams through, as would be true to such an absurd character, treated with perfect sincerity. Jones’ barrage of rich rolling “r”s, tops it all off like a fine garnish of lark’s vomit, demonstrating with his delivery the faux-high sheen of elegance that the sketch paints over these morsels of horror.
“Spam” (Monty Python’s Flying Circus)
In one of his most famous Python-obligatory cross-dressing roles, Jones plays the harried waitress at a diner that “specializes” in the eponymous canned meat. The sketch begins in ridiculosity: Vikings occupy one table, the other sees its customers lowered into their seats from above by theatre wires. What the hell is going on here?
And then, Eric Idle’s customer asks what they serve, and Jones’ waitress begins her spiel of all the increasingly-Spam-centric menu items. And the very first time “he” hits the word “Spam,” Jones gives the word a growling, differently pitched silly read (maintained consistently throughout the sketch)–and instantly, we know what the entire sketch will be about.
I teach comedy sketchwriting, and one of the first things we cover is how quickly and efficiently you can inform the audience what the comedic point-of-departure of the sketch will be. Terry Jones hits this mark at a breathtaking 18 seconds in.
“Mr. Creosote” (Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life)
In my sketch class, we also spend a lot of time on classic structural elements like character motivation and conflict. And one of the maddening joys I occasionally have to throw up my hands and admit defeat before is: “Sometimes a killer performance makes you overlook a weak structure.” Enter Jones, in an insane fat suit and an appetite for rich, soon-to-be-wasted French food.
Strong premise. However, Python also wrote the character as an unrelenting asshole. On top of his eating and emitting habits, he barks at the waiter and literally rains humiliation on the already low-status cleanup staff. On top of that, we don’t clearly understand why he’s so driven to eat expensive food he won’t keep down. Even worse, John Cleese’s waiter’s motivation is at best fuzzy: Why is he so indulgent to a customer whom we see is driving away business, and why does he push the “wahfer-thin mint” so hard on him, having seen what Mr. C’s excesses lead to?
So, the sketch lacks all the conventional support beams. But it has an A-list support player. Jones’ winsome face and–despite the known outcome–gusto about his orders, even in short barks, is captivating. We hate this guy, and yet we immediately join his side in wanting the waiter to give him everything he wants. And in the final touch, when his culinary efforts literally blow up in his face, Jones’ face is so endearingly forlorn, gazing over his exposed rib cage and innards, a sad Ozymandias gazing on his guts in despair.
Terry Jones not only saves a flimsily-constructed sketch, he makes us love one of the most revolting people ever created.
“Witch Trial” (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
Not horrified enough by cockroach candy, projectile vomiting, or spam? In this scene, Jones plays Sir Bedevere, a Knight of the Round Table suddenly thrust into overseeing a “Witch Trial”–one of the darkest lows in an already pitch-black era. For this, Jones adopts a sweet, educational tone to gently guide the raging mob through logic and reason, which only makes it all the more darkly comic that he just wants a more logical way to “test a witch.” He’s worse than the bloodthirsty ignorants. He’s the enlightened torturer, the Nazi bureaucrat, the banality of evil itself. And yet he sounds as lovable as Mr. Chips. Also worth noting: Jones has almost none of the funny lines. Those go to the crowd, making ridiculous guesses and interjections. But again, his performance steers the ship.
“He’s Not the Messiah” (Monty Python’s Life of Brian)
On the face of it, thisis just Jones doing another Python-staple: screeching falsetto woman. But take a closer look at all the dramatic moves he makes so deftly. Brian’s mother is introduced as a shrill, unsympathetic character. Now, for the first time, she’s getting a taste of mass adulation, and you can see the temptation to succumb to that love flit across Jones’s googly eyes. Only to be tamped back down. And then, when the mob asks if she’s a virgin, Jones doesn’t even know what to do with this question, and conveys that awkwardness so efficiently, it serves as the perfect setup to the scene’s punchline: “She is.” Jones’s delivery is so strong, it serves as writing itself.
On top of his acting, Jones also directed Life of Brian (along with Meaning of Life and co-directing Holy Grail). And as a scene, there’s such a boldly original visual concept here–a squabble between a “woman” and an entire, innumerable crowd, speaking in unison. It’s one of many memorable set-pieces he brought us, up there with the finale featuring Brian and his fellow crucifieds gaily singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
“Every Sperm is Sacred” (Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life)
Fittingly, Terry Jones’ art reaches its pinnacle at the beginning of life itself. Ostensibly a snark at Catholic theology, in Jones’ directorial hands this number transforms into a pure spectacle of joy with all the panache of a Broadway show-stopper.
And stops it pulls out. Countless angle-shifts, grime-blackened tap-dancers in perfect lines, entire streets full of nimble choreographed moves. It just builds and builds until it seems an entire city is joining the fun. It’s no wonder that Jones reportedly blew most of the film’s budget on this scene – but didn’t tell the others until after. That’s Monty Python devilishness at a meta level.
Finally, just take a moment and imagine being the director of this luridly written ditty mostly sung by CHILDREN. Imagine kneeling down and explaining what this is all about to the little girl who sings about heathens spilling sperm on the ground. Is there anyone but Terry Jones who could have led the most innocent through that grisly explanation with his high-octane disarming sweetness?
So this is Jones’ gift in a nutshell. His work with Monty Python was a lifelong excavation of the most discomfiting aspects of life through boundless charm and joy.
And in a time where disgust is hitting us in more forms than ever, perhaps all of us could use just a wahfer-thin mint of that.
3 thoughts on “Terry Jones: The Method Behind the Madness”
Thanks for the insights. It’s his focused insanity I loved
Can you please send me a copy of this article? Thx. Loved it!
When I first got into Python, I don’t think Terry Jones registered as an important member of the troupe (I was blown away more by Cleese and Palin). But in delving into their history and developing a deeper appreciation for all that they did, I can’t help but think of Jones as the most essential member. He held the group together when they could easily have all gone their own way (and been quite successful as individual talents). Jones was the fabric that held together Python for so long, and he will be missed