Critic's Notebook: Terry Jones, Monty Python's Most Modest Member, Combined Schoolboy Mischief With Scholarly Depth

Monty Python's Flying Circus  - Photofest - Terry Jones - H 2020

For all his self-deprecating modesty, Jones was Python's most prolific polymath, carving side careers as an award-winning children's author, historian, actor, screenwriter, film director, broadcaster, anti-war activist and occasional poet.

Terry Jones was the most unassuming member of Monty Python, the iconoclastic British humor troupe who changed the comedy landscape in much the same way The Beatles revolutionized pop music. Jones, whose death at 77 was announced Wednesday, liked to joke that he was the “bowels” of Python. He certainly enjoyed playing the perennial naughty schoolboy from provincial North Wales, his bawdy clowning and cross-dressing absurdism offering a kind of balance to the cerebral “head” of the group, his temperamental opposite John Cleese.

But for all his self-deprecating modesty, Jones was Python's most prolific polymath, carving side careers as an award-winning children's author, historian, actor, screenwriter, film director, broadcaster, anti-war activist and occasional poet. Far from lurking down in the bowels, he was more like the group's heart and brain combined. Famous for his wide-ranging curiosity and big-hearted hospitality, Jones gave Python both an intellectual hinterland and a welcome aura of avuncular Celtic bonhomie. Behind his court-jester persona lay a sharp-witted scholar who published well-regarded revisionist history books on Chaucer and King Richard II.

Jones fortuitously met his longtime friend, frequent collaborator and future Python co-founder Michael Palin while studying history at Oxford University in 1962. "The first thing that struck me was what a nice bloke he was,” Palin recalled in a 2018 interview. “He had no airs and graces. We had a similar idea of what humor could do and where it should go, mainly because we both liked characters; we both appreciated that comedy wasn't just jokes."

Soon after leaving Oxford, Jones and Palin began mixing with fellow writer-performers John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle on various TV satire shows, hatching plans to pool their talents on a more challenging comedy project. After bringing Minnesota-born animator Terry Gilliam on board, the team created four seasons of the groundbreaking Monty Python's Flying Circus, which ran from 1969-74 on the BBC in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S., building a loyal global cult audience along the way.

Jones typically co-wrote his Python material with Palin, and was largely responsible for the show's free-flowing, open-ended, experimental structure. A naturally droll presence onscreen, with a cheeky fondness for bare-buttocked nudity and an actorly gift for disappearing inside character roles, he also featured in some of the team's most beloved sketches including "Nudge Nudge," "Four Yorkshiremen" and "Spanish Inquisition."

And yet, when quizzed about his comic legacy in later years, Jones often downplayed the show's lasting cultural impact. “It’s such a big surprise to me that we’re still talking about Python,” he told Wales Online in 2014. “The thing is we never thought Python was a success when it was actually happening, it was only with the benefit of hindsight.”

Medieval history was an enduring passion for Jones, and was one of the driving factors behind the Arthurian legend spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), the team's first full-blooded spinoff movie. Co-directing with Terry Gilliam, Jones did a capable job of transferring Python's surrealist TV format onto a big-screen canvas complete with majestic Scottish locations and hilariously goofy musical numbers. This low-budget comic romp was later reborn as the hugely successful, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Spamalot.

Making his solo debut behind the camera, Jones hit his cinematic peak with Life of Brian (1979), Monty Python's contentious satire on the Jesus Christ story. As well as proving his directing chops with huge crowd scenes and tongue-in-cheek homages to Hollywood's golden age of Biblical epics, Jones played multiple roles including Brian's long-suffering mother, earning a place in the canon of immortal comic lines with his oft-quoted quip: “He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy.”

Jones shared directing duties with Gilliam again on the third fully fledged Python feature The Meaning of Life (1983), reuniting the old gang for one last prize-winning assault on every taboo and taste barrier they could imagine. The film's satirical targets inevitably look pretty tame by 21st century standards, but Jones still provides a few flashes of savage Bunuel-esque genius, notably his memorable cameo as a grotesquely obese restaurant customer whose meal ends in a stomach-ripping explosion of blood, guts and vomit. Even in the era of Family Guy and South Park, this scene still packs a pungent punch.

Outside his Python work, Jones enjoyed an idiosyncratic career on stage and page, big screen and small. Between 1977 and 1979, he and Palin collaborated on two seasons of their character-driven BBC comedy-drama series Ripping Yarns, affectionately spoofing the gung-ho adventure stories of the British Empire. Although Jones only wrote himself modest cameo roles, with Palin as headline star, this much-loved cult series features some of his finest work, its gently preposterous tone tempered with a humanity often missing from Python.

Jones received solo writing credit for Jim Henson's puppet-packed musical fantasy Labyrinth (1986), even though little of his original screenplay survived. His first post-Python feature directing job was the low-key British comedy Personal Services (1987), a warm-hearted critique of sexual hypocrisy partly based on an infamous real-life madam. The film earned Jones his third theatrical ban in Ireland, a badge he wore with pride.

Adapting one of his own children's books, Jones assembled an all-star cast including Tim Robbins, Eartha Kitt and Mickey Rooney for his historical adventure comedy Erik the Viking (1989). He then engineered a partial onscreen Python reunion for The Wind in the Willows (1996), an ambitious "live-action cartoon” featuring Jones himself alongside Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin and Steve Coogan. Sadly, this offbeat reworking of a much-loved classic of British children's literature failed to impress Disney, who cancelled the U.S. theatrical release. Both films share a good-natured charm and a childlike sense of mischief, though their humor is hit-and-miss.

In July 2014, Jones joined his fellow surviving Pythons onstage at the O2 Arena in London, their first full reunion in more than three decades. Monty Python Live (Mostly) was planned as a single performance but soon expanded to 10 shows due to the high demand. This hot-ticket residency became the group's unplanned swansong, as Jones was diagnosed with dementia not long afterwards, the condition gradually robbing him of his speech and memory. Attending the opening night to review for The Hollywood Reporter, this writer was struck by the incredible celebratory warmth for the Pythons that filled the cavernous venue. For Jones, it was a fittingly fond farewell, bowing out of his half-century comedy career on a roaring wave of audience affection.