‘We Weren’t Concerned With Making Anyone But Ourselves Laugh’

Monty Python’s Terry Jones on how the legendary group’s work was almost lost to history.

Originally appeared on Vulture, Jan 22, 2020

Terry Jones was the most intellectual Python in perhaps the most intelligent comedy group to ever exist — and this was a six-headed cerebral monster who wrote and aired a sketch called the “Summarize Proust Competition.”

Born in Wales in 1942 and graduating from Oxford, Jones was incredibly bright, as were all the Pythons, and yet this was also a performer who thought nothing of writing and starring in bits that featured him nude before a very large organ (ahem) or strapped into the world’s largest fat suit, vomiting into a bucket and then exploding after ingesting a “wafer thin” mint. (What this says about Jones as a person, I’m not sure, but he then plays the female janitor tasked with the indignity of cleaning it all up with a trowel.)

Jones was also a poet and a member of London’s renowned Poet Society. He was an expert on medieval and ancient history, a knowledge that only made his directorial debut and follow-up, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, that much more realistic and authentically funny.

Three weeks after the death of his good friend and “seventh Python,” the great Neil Innes, comes news that Terry Jones has died at the age of 77, from a rare form of frontotemporal dementia. How ironic, and how deeply sad, that it’s this form of dementia that impairs the sufferer their ability to speak and communicate.

I spoke with Jones by phone in 2014 for my second book of interviews, Poking a Dead Frog. He was gracious and courteous and polite — I only learned later that he most likely already knew of his diagnosis when we spoke. God knows he had better things to be doing than speaking with me. And yet he did so anyway, for hours.

More and more of the comedy-writing greats I talked with for my two interview books are now gone. Since And Here’s the Kicker was released in 2009 and Poking a Dead Frog in 2014, the following writers have passed on: Larry Gelbart, Irv Brecher (Marx Brothers), Buck Henry, Harold Ramis, Peg Lynch, Bob Elliott, and now the sui generis Terry Jones.

“Two down, four to go,” announced John Cleese this morning via Twitter. A bridge to another time in comedy and television and movies seems to be passing quickly.

What follows is my interview with Terry Jones, which has never before appeared online.

He was a very, very naughty boy. Better get a bucket.

Can you remember the first joke you wrote?
The first joke I can remember coming up with by myself — not necessarily writing, but creating — was when I was about four or five. My family and I were sitting around a table. My granny asked all of us, “Does anybody want more custard?” I raised my hand, but instead of giving her my plate, I handed over my table mat. She poured the custard all over the mat. Everybody turned to me and said, “You silly boy! What did you do that for?” It taught me at a very young age that comedy is dangerous business. If you try to make people laugh and they don’t, they can become very, very angry. People do not become angry if you’re writing a tragedy and you don’t do a good job. But people get extremely angry when you create comedy that isn’t funny — or, at the least, with the comedy they don’t find funny.

Did you always know you wanted to write?
Yes, since about the age of seven. I was always writing poetry, which tended to be terribly gloomy. I think my family got worried at some point. I was a compulsive writer. I’ve got essays I wrote when I was very young; my granny kept them. I used to write poems and huge, long essays for that age. Just writing, all the time. There was a wonderful teacher at school, Mr. Martin, who would read out my essays to the class. I loved that. That gave me a great base. It gave me confidence. But Mr. Martin left, and it was then that I began to hear different things from teachers. I would be told, “You can’t make a living as a writer. The best you can hope for is to become a teacher.”

Do you think there’s a connection between poetry and comedy writing?
I think there is a great connection, actually. The [nineteenth-century poet] Robert Browning, in essence, said that you can take three separate ideas, and from those three, you produce not a fourth idea, but a star. I’ve always found that lovely. It’s a somewhat similar theory with comedy. But the difference is that with comedy you take different ideas and put them together and you produce not a star, but a laugh. There’s a magical element to it.

Can you give me an example from Python where vastly different ideas were combined to produce a laugh?
Mike [Palin] wrote a [1970] TV sketch called “The Spanish Inquisition.” I think that’s a very good example of taking separate ideas — twentieth century locations and Spanish Inquisition priests — and producing a star. How did Mike go from England in 1911 to then having three torturers from the fifteenth century burst into the sitting room and announce, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”? Where did he make that connection? And how did he make it work? In the end, you get a laugh. But when you reverse-engineer it, it’s quite hard to follow how he came up with the original spark, the original idea. And yet it still works.

Now that I think about it, there’s another similarity between poetry and comedy: distillation. Both have to be distilled. For both poetry and comedy, the words, the concepts have to be boiled down, and the essence is what you want to say.

It was tremendously difficult to keep up that level of quality with Python. We made it a point to end sketches when they might have just been beginning on other shows. Writing was very serious business; we took it very seriously. But it did take a lot out of us.

Michael Palin has said that the original six members of Monty Python worked together to produce a harmony that they couldn’t have produced individually. This reminded me of something I once read about the 1960s vocal group the Mamas & the Papas. Individually, they had four distinct voices, but when they sang together they produced a fifth harmony — almost another distinctive voice — which they nicknamed “Harpy.”
That’s a good image, actually. I think that’s true. The six of us produced a harmony that was somebody else. We’d write together, and we were almost writing for this seventh voice. There was always that image of another voice that was there. It was the Python voice, really. And it couldn’t quite be duplicated with any other combination — or alone. With Python, we had a lot of different minds at work, and we worked very well together.

I rewatched some of the early Python TV episodes from 1970, and I noticed that the crowd was very quiet for the first few episodes, and then only seemed to grow more and more animated as the series went on.
For the very first show, the audience consisted of a lot of old-age pensioners who actually thought they were coming to see a real circus. They were a bit puzzled. By the end of the second and third series, two years later, we actually had to take a lot of clapping and laughter out of the shows. We had to speed up the shows. I think people got used to it by the end of the first season. There was a great doubt whether the BBC would actually commission another series [season]. We were lucky they did, actually. They hated the show — until they were told it was funny and it was good.

That wouldn’t happen today — executives not being happy with a show, but leaving it completely alone and providing the show time to find its feet.
With Python, the writers were completely in charge, and this was very unique. We were the only people writing for us, so we had a certain strength. We knew what we could perform. We knew what we couldn’t.

With the BBC, we didn’t start off with any problems, but we soon faced some difficulty with the censors. We wrote a sketch [for the third series] called “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition.” It was about a beauty pageant where contestants, instead of impressing judges with singing or flute playing, would attempt to summarize the works and philosophy of Proust. And this was one of the first instances, if not the first time, that the word “masturbation” was ever used on television. Graham [Chapman] was playing a contestant. The host of the pageant, played by me, asked Graham what his hobbies were, and he said, “Well, strangling animals, golf, and masturbation.”

The BBC edited out “masturbation.” Keep in mind, the BBC was okay with strangling cats. But masturbation was definitely out. [Laughs.] If you watch the edited sketch, there’s a lag time after Graham says “golf.” His lips move but you can’t hear him say “masturbate.” And then there’s a huge laugh from the live audience. But this is puzzling to the home viewers. It sounds like the studio audience is laughing at “strangling animals.” It becomes even stranger.

Would Python overwrite? For instance, I’ve heard that the original script for The Holy Grail was much longer, and that only about ten percent of the first draft appears in the movie.
Yes, we’d usually write a lot of material, or at least pitch material, and then cut down. The first draft of Holy Grail was much longer. The first half took place in the present day. Arthur and the rest of the knights found that the Holy Grail was being sold at Harrods [department store, in London]. You could find anything there. But we ultimately decided to have the entire film only take place in the Middle Ages.

For Life of Brian, we had a few scenes that were cut. One of the original ideas was for it to be the story of the thirteenth apostle who missed the last supper because his wife had invited friends over to eat back at their house. That was changed. We spent a lot of time on rewrites. Not so much for Meaning of Life, but certainly for the first two films.

We were talking earlier about how comedy is often created by bringing disparate ideas together. You wrote a scene for The Meaning of Life that might just be one of the strangest scenes in the history of film — at least for a comedy. I’m thinking of the Mr. Creosote scene, played by you (in what I would assume, and truly hope, was heavy makeup). A gigantic man, dining in a fancy restaurant, vomits until he explodes.
[Laughs.] Well, for that one, I just sat down and wrote a sketch in the worst possible taste. In fact, at the top of the paper it read: “Sketch in the Worst Possible Taste.” The first time I ever read that in front of the rest of Python, we had just eaten lunch. No one liked it. That was not the time to do it. It was decisively rejected. But then a month later John [Cleese] rang me up and said, “I’m going to change my mind about this.” I think he spotted that the waiter could be very funny. It was John who came up with the “wafer thin” line and to offer the mint to Mr. Creosote just before he explodes. That’s the only sketch I ever co-wrote with John.

The Mr. Creosote scene took four days to shoot. On the fifth day, a wedding took place in the ballroom where we shot it. That wasn’t a set! The fake vomit was Russian salad dressing, and some other food ingredients. By the fifth day you can imagine the smell. And the poor people getting married had to come into that stench. Not a good way to start off the married life.

Fellow Python Eric Idle has called Meaning of Life a “kind of a punk film.” Do you agree with that?
I think so. I think that might be accurate. But it was really no different from how we always wrote. We weren’t concerned with making anyone but ourselves laugh. And that’s clear in the Mr. Creosote sketch. I mean, we certainly weren’t pandering with that sketch!

Nor with the “Fishy, Fishy” sketch, also in Meaning of Life. The sketch consists of you, dressed in a tuxedo, with drawn whiskers on your chin, waving large double-jointed arms. Meanwhile, Graham Chapman is dressed as a drag queen. And there’s another character wearing an elephant head. All are looking directly at the camera, asking the audience for help in finding a “fishy.”
I was surprised with that one. I pitched it and was shocked after it was voted in. I was totally surprised by that vote. Each of us had different styles of comedy. Mike and I would write, I suppose, zany sketches. John would write bits more having to do with character and human nature. This sketch was silly, with no greater purpose. So it was sort of extreme, and we didn’t always agree on extremes. But when we did fight, it was always over the material. It was never personal. Or mostly never personal.

What’s amazing about Monty Python’s Flying Circus is just how close those original TV shows came to being erased by the BBC.
That’s true. The BBC came very close to erasing all of the original Python tapes, at least from the first season. What happened was that we got word from our editor that the BBC was about to wipe all the tapes to use for more “serious” entertainment — ballet and opera and the like. So we smuggled out the tapes and recorded them onto a Philips VCR home system. For a long time, these were the only copies of Python’s first season to exist anywhere. If these were lost, they were lost for good.

This happened quite often with BBC comedy shows from the sixties. It happened with Spike Milligan’s show from the late 1960s, Q5. All those shows are gone — or mostly gone. It happened with Alan Bennett’s [1966] show, On the Margin. It happened with a British TV comedy series from the late sixties, Broaden Your Mind, a show I worked on before Python’s Flying Circus. All these tapes are gone. They were taped over in order to record sporting events.

This is something I hear all the time: Comedy shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies being erased in order to save money. It happened in the U.S. with the first eight years of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, as well as with shows featuring the comedian Ernie Kovacs. And it happened, as you were just saying, with many BBC comedies. But how much, exactly, was the BBC saving when they would reuse these tapes?
I don’t know. I would guess around one hundred pounds per tape reel.

So to save roughly $150 — in today’s money, at least — the BBC was willing to erase original comedy that could never again be duplicated?
If they’d been wiped, I don’t think we’d be talking now, actually. Python wouldn’t have been discovered in America. And we might not have made as many series for TV. And we may not have created any movies. It goes to show how tenuous history is. It can go in any direction.

Which direction would you recommend young comedy writers head?
If you want to create comedy, try to make people laugh. If you can make people laugh, head in that direction. If nobody laughs … well, that’s not good news. [Laughs.] Head in the opposite direction.