Terry Jones, who passed away on Jan. 21, almost exclusively played the straight man in Monty Python sketches. He was the detail-obsessed organizer, a stickler for timing and order. But he could also be unpredictable as he took the piss out of the unassuming British working stiff archetype. Let’s celebrate Jones’ unique and timeless work with Python, either on TV or in movies, with a breakdown of his best sketches.
P.S: The titles also point out where the sketch appears in the runtime. You can watch all of them on Netflix, with the exception of The Meaning of Life.
Monty Python and The Meaning of Life
It’s fascinating how this bizarre interlude manages to skewer the pretentiousness of avant-garde cinema, while turning into an iconic example of it. The key is in the playful yet suffocatingly pompous tone that Graham Chapman and Jones bring to their performances, channeling the self-assured smugness of art house filmmakers.
Flying Circus Episode 3.11
We expect outbursts of uncontrollable anger from John Cleese—watch the best one here—so it’s a hilarious surprise to see Jones in a Cleese-type role, as a doctor who loses his shit when he can’t open his bag. The sketch follows the expected series of absurdities the Pythons are known for: The doctor flies down, robs an old woman (Chapman), and flies back up. But the bit about the bag, accentuated by Jones’ unexpected temper, makes it an unsung classic.
The premise is simple: A boring lawmaker gives a boring speech, while stripping in a sleazy burlesque show. But Jones’ task isn’t easy. He’s supposed to deliver the speech in a monotone voice, while performing intricate striptease choreography. The gaudy production design and the bargain-basement jazz help sell the gag, but it’s Jones’ commitment that seals the deal.
This famous sketch is a lesson in comedy through repetition. The joke is that not only everything on the menu has spam in it, but multiple menu listings repeat “spam” over and over again. The tired way Jones’ waitress character reads off the menu, as if she does this a hundred times a day, accentuates the humor by portraying the absurd as mundane.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
John Cleese gets the best line in this satire of mob mentality—“She turned me into a newt… I got better”—but Jones puts the button on it with his brilliant subversion of the logical type. At first, Jones’s articulate Sir Bedevere comes across as the sole voice of reason amongst men who are bored, so they want to burn a “witch” (Connie Booth). But of course Bedevere’s “even-handed” solution turns out to be just as cruel and misogynistic.
Jones’ gravelly-voiced Bishop is a badass Bond-type who’s tasked with stopping a series of terrorist attacks on priests. The basic premise is that he’s always late to stop the explosions. Jones is decked out head to toe with flashy Church of England bishop gear, which hysterically contradicts the character’s gruff demeanor.
People will give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who appears professional and speaks in a clear voice. Case in point: The audience in this brief sketch doesn’t react when Jones’ musician describes how he will play his “mouse organ” by hammering a bunch of innocent mice. The crowd finally turns on him only when he begins to torture the poor animals. Jones’ extra enthusiasm to keep hurting the mice as he’s pulled away is one of the funniest moments in Python history.
This sketch is the ultimate example of Jones’s strengths as the straight man. Sure, Eric Idle’s abrasive pervert is the focal point, as he badgers Jones’s mild mannered middle-class bore about whether or not he “does it” with his wife. Jones slyly taps into the absurd lengths such Brits will go to maintain politeness and decorum.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
The joke on paper is funny enough: Chapman’s Brian comes across a naked monk who kept his vow of silence for 18 years. Elated with finally being able to talk, the monk bursts into a joyful rendition of “Hava Nagila”, which alerts the mob who’s after Brian because they believe him to be the messiah. What makes the monk extra special is the squeaky voice and neurotic temperament Jones gives to the character, leaving behind any mystery about why he decided not to speak for so long.
Monty Python and The Meaning of Life
As soon as Jones’s cartoonishly obese rich asshole enters the high-falutin French restaurant and orders everything on the menu, we can tell that we’re in for an especially over-the-top and gross climax. Yet even our wildest expectations can’t hold a candle to how far Jones, both as actor and director, takes the gag, thus turning this classic bit into a masterpiece of excess in comedy.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.