Thoughts by Richard Bleil
One of the founding members of the Monty Python comedy team, Terry Jones, died on January 21. I learned about it on Monday prior to my 8 A.M. class. I think it might have hit me harder than I thought. A few of my students showed up a bit early, and I struck up a conversation with them. The conversation involved about half a dozen of my admittedly young and all female students (I teach at a women’s college), but not one of them knew who Monty Python was. This was rather surprising to me. It was as if they’d never heard of the Beatles of Comedy.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Terry Jones. A majority of my experience with him is as his contributions to Monty Python itself. I was in middle school when the BBC comedy variety show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was airing on PBS. Many Python fans aren’t even aware that they had a comedy show (1969-1974) prior to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). The skit that comes to mind with Terry is a skit called “The Yorkshiremen” where he and three other members were sitting around as old men discussing how hard they had it as kids. “Well, of course, we had it tough,” Terry started out, “We used to have to get up out of the shoe box [in the middle of the road that 150 of them were living in] in the middle of the night and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had to eat half a handful of freezing cold gravel, work twenty-four hours at mill for four pence every six years and when we got home, our dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.” But try to tell kids that these days and they won’t believe you.
Monty Python was a radical idea in comedy. I rather enjoyed watching interviews with the members (especially when all of them were together) and getting some insights. In the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, variety shows (such as the Carol Burnett show) were wildly popular. In an interview, one of them explained how these shows were the inspiration for Monty Python, saying that they would laugh uproariously at the skit set-ups, the outrageous circumstances and silly acting, but were typically let down by the punchline, which often fell flat. As a result, they wanted to avoid the punchlines in their show. They wanted a show that really couldn’t be defined, hilarious situations and outrageous situations but without punchlines, which is why often the skits ended with being interrupted in some silly way.
Terry Jones did a lot of truly irreverent work on his own after the series ended (and outside of his part in the Monty Python films). As late as 2015, he wrote and directed Absolutely Anything. Apparently, he was also in and directed films that few people have even heard of (including me) such as Jabberwocky, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, The Great Muppet Caper and Erik the Viking.
Apparently, Terry suffered from a rare form of dementia called FTD (Frontotemporal Degenerations). From what I understand, most forms of dementia are more likely to strike men with symptoms appearing typically in their mid-sixties at the earliest. FTD, in contrast, can strike starting in the forties, affecting conduct, empathy and foresight. Personality disorders and antisocial behaviors are common among those who struggle with it.
Going back to my students, when I thought about what my young students missed out on by not knowing Monty Python (although, let’s face it, they were much more popular with men than with women), I started thinking about the influence that Terry and the group had on comedy as a whole. The reality is that they are probably not missing on anything at all, although they may not be fully aware of it. Monty Python broke down a lot of comedic barriers in their show, taught us to laugh at the absurdities of life, and created a form of entertainment that was so unique and unusual that “Pythonesque” is often used as a word to describe irreverent humor even today. They might not know Terry or the Python team directly, but they are benefiting from their influence.
Terry, we are going to miss you. He is the second Python to pass on, following Graham Chapman who died in 1989 (before most, if not all, of my students were even born). I want to thank Terry and Graham for their contributions in making reality just a little bit more surrealistic, and the rest of the Monty Python troop (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin) for the countless laughs.