Terry Jones, 1942–2020

Terry Jones

He was known and loved for his wit and warmth

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | JANUARY 22, 2020 • Obituaries

FOR YEARS from the late 70s on Monty Python’s Flying Circus greased the PBS pledge drive engine. That’s how I discovered the eccentric British comedy troupe featuring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones. The show opened a portal to a genre of distinct, English comedy, and working my way back from Python I discovered The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, The Frost Report and more.

The habit of working one’s way back is something I shared with Terry Jones. He was an Oxford English major whose love of Chaucer seduced him into Medievalism. This interest would yield numerous television skits as well as films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. An accomplished historian, his work — whether as director, writer, or comedian — derived from a fascination and familiarity with the past. Combine this with a subversive sense of humour and the results are signature Jones sketches like “Elizabethan Pornography Smugglers” and a satire of the Aristotelian syllogism, from Holy Grail:

Sir Vladimir: So, logically
Villager: (very slowly, with pauses between each word) If … she … weighs the same as a duck … she’s made of wood.
Sir Vladimir: And therefore …
Villager: A witch!

At the end of the 1960s Terry Jones was scripting similar absurdities for The Complete and Utter History of Britain and Twice a Fortnight. His collaborations with Michael Palin brought him into the orbit of John Cleese. Not that Cleese wasn’t already familiar with Jones’ work: both had been involved in The Frost Report months earlier, and the program Do Not Adjust Your Set had given Jones a good deal of exposure. All that aside, it was Palin who was top of Cleese’s list for a new program whose ideas for a name would include Toad Elevating Moment, Ow! — It’s Colin Plint, Owl-Stretching Time, A Horse, a Spoon and a Basin, and Gwen Dibley’s Flying Circus.

Terry Jones
The Norman Invasion, according to Jones, from Twice a Fortnight

In 1969 the Chapman-Cleese partnership already went back some years, to Cambridge (where Eric Idle had also been a student), but so too the Oxford based partnership of Palin and Jones. The formation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a merger of almae matres, by means of which the American Terry Gilliam became an honorary Oxonian. Still without a name for their project, Cleese and the others set up a meeting with Michael Mills, head of comedy at BBC. Mills asked them: What sort of program do you have in mind? No one was quite able to say. Okay, said Mills, but I’m only giving you thirty episodes.

Those of us who delighted in the intelligent absurdity of Python will remember Terry Jones foremost as a Pepperpot; Mandy Cohen, the mother of Brian in the Jones-directed Life of Brian, was a variant of this recurring figure. Or perhaps he will be remembered most as the bowler-topped City Gent, a stereotype of the dull but respectable British businessman that was in decline even as the Pythons were satirizing it. Other honourable mentions include Mr Creosote (“it’s wafer thin”), Ron Obvious, and the Nude Organist. Like his colleagues, Jones played types rather than roles, and his was often the stuffy, repressed, and scandalized upper-class Englishman, bewildered and befuddled.

After Python, Terry Jones applied his talents to television and books, producing Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives and Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery. When Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a live performance, Jones struggled to memorize his lines and read from a teleprompter. This was the first indication of his illness, later diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia. Of course no one failed to see the cruel irony of this disease, whose effects include loss of empathy and of the ability to speak and write, striking a man known and loved for his wit and warmth. ⌾

Some tips for keeping warm in interstellar space. I mean, Canada.

IF YOU LIVE in Canada, or northern USA, you know how nasty Winter can be. Also, if you live on the moon or in interstellar space, where I hear it gets almost as cold as Winnipeg.

Like me, every Winter you ask yourself What on earth am I doing here? Okay, I also ask myself that in the Spring, Fall and Summer. In the Winter, I just add “…in this cold country.” Why do I stay in such an inhospitable climate, year after year, when there are places in the world where you can live on the beach, basking in the life-giving rays of paradise, until a beaver-sized scorpion bites you and you go blind, and then slowly die as thick yellow foam erupts from your mouth.

And that’s how I remember why I stay in Canada.

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Make anything funny with this one simple trick

funny-trick
LAST MONTH my family went on a mission. It was my son’s idea, and it went like this: from a hat each one of us picked the name of a family member and went to the local department store with a budget of $10 to buy that person stocking-stuffers. There was also a rule that what you bought had to be either a) edible or b) practical. So, naturally, I bought googly eyes.

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Some tips on how to make effective New Year’s resolutions

New Year's Resolutions

THE OXFORD English Dictionary says that resolution comes from a Latin word, resolvĕre, meaning “to loosen or dissolve.” Its early appearances, in late Medieval England, refer to a state of dissolution or decay. So if today were December 30, 1389, I would already be well on my way to fulfilled resolutions! Also, I’d consistently be 625 years early for my appointments.

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This new model of the universe requires no math and goes great with Jägermeister

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I DON’T RECALL who first said that time is an illusion: it could have been a famous theoretical physicist, or one of my uncles, or that guy in college who’d always want to talk about quantum mechanics after six Jägermeisters. And, yes, it’s true I haven’t kept up with some of my uncles—so theoretically the crazy college guy could have become a physicist and married one of my aunts, in which case all three answers are the correct answer. Read even a little bit of theoretical physics, and you’ll quickly see that weirder things have happened—and they’re happening all the time, all around us.

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I am fighting the war for freedom on eBay

elgin

YEARS AGO, I bought the 1929 Elgin art deco watch pictured above. Recently the crystal fell out and the minute hand caught on my jacket sleeve and was pulled off.

Off I went to the neighborhood repair person, an old-school Eastern European who I’ve done business with before. Our conversation went something like this.

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How my HAPPINESS CRYSTAL will destroy the business of making people unhappy

car

A FEW YEARS AGO a fictional person I’ll call Max discovered video games. He loved to play Internet games on the family desktop computer. They were freely available and provided the occasional hour or-so, here and there, of fun. But this happy condition didn’t last.

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This is an offensive aboriginal stereotype, even if it does describe me perfectly

haha

I‘M SURE you’ve all seen it: the offensive “Native” stereotype of the guy who has this long, thick, wild-flowing hair and intense, passionate eyes. Often he’s a lean, muscular type—again, passionate and earthy, mysterious, and sexually irresistible to women.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about that I found this week on Amazon.

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This is a book about a time-traveling white female doctor who meets a hot and seductive Sioux warrior from the 1800s. The woman is mesmerized and basically surrenders to this sizzling chunk of Onkwehonwe.

I haven’t read the book, but I’m guessing the plot has something to do with going back in time to acquaint the Sioux of the 19th Century with basic Photoshop concepts, like Layering and Magic Wand. (Yes, that really is a Photoshop term.) Then, in her later novels, I’m guessing Pamela Ackerson will get into more advanced techniques like Masking, Polygon Lasso, Curves, Color Balance, and Lighting Effects.

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Running explained

Bloodynipples

RUNNING WAS INVENTED 4,600,000 years ago by our human ancestors, Australopithecus. In the 34th Century BCE, ancient Sumerians called this activity Naputu—a verb meaning “to not get yourself eaten by wild animals.”

Four thousand years ago, religious festivals led to the popularization of running as sport. Even before the first Olympic Games, human beings were running in honour of the gods—in particular, Muffinius (god of love handles), Wardrobius (god of things languishing in your closet) and Januarius (god of the three-month GoodLife membership).

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My Grade 11 English Teacher, Mrs. Joyce, Marks Christmas Carols

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Jingle Bells

Obviously the bells jingle: that’s what they are made to do. Try “bells, bells all the way.” (See Strunk and White, “Omit needless words.”) Also, does the protagonist have some sort of objection to a multi-horse and/or closed sleigh? If so, explain; if not, cut. C-

Let it Snow

Do you really mean to say that the weather outside is filled with fright? If so, this is a pathetic fallacy. And who exactly is going to “let it snow”? Who could stop it snowing? Use the indicative mood to invigorate your prose. C

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

What is the significance of the chestnuts? You open the scene with them but don’t do much else. Remember: if there is a gun on the mantle in act one, it must be fired by act four. Perhaps the roasted chestnuts could explode and disfigure Jack Frost, or the reindeer could eat them and lose their powers of flight. This would create an interesting narrative problem for Santa to resolve. “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir” should be “a choir sings Yuletide carols.” Avoid passive voice. D+

Little Drummer Boy

What on earth is a pa rum pum pum pum? Does the drummer boy suffer from some kind of compulsive tick? Is he trying to communicate an important message. Is the pa-rum-pum-pum-pum akin to the “ou-boum” of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India? Explore. D-

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer

If the nose is said to glow, then it is implicitly very bright. Show, don’t tell. D

Silent night

Silent? With the quaking shepherds and the streaming glories and the singing hosts. Do you know how many people are in a host? And they’re singing. Try editing this one with a view to making it about a rowdy night. C

O Christmas Tree

Twenty-four lines to establish that it’s a nice tree, because it has green and sparkly branches? Remember: brevity is the soul of wit. D-

Winter Wonderland

Too much going on here. First there are bells, then glistening snow. Why has the bluebird gone? And what is the significance of this “new bird”? Why even bring birds into it? Clearly this story is about a couple who are so eager to marry that they’ll let a snowman “do the job,” as you so vulgarly put it. The rest is just confusing. Cut. C-

Away in a Manger

The baby is either away, or else in the manger. I don’t understand how the protagonist can be in the barn, and then looking down from the sky—all within a few lines. This is fine if you are writing in a genre, such as science fiction, that allows for teleportation. Perhaps you could re-write this as an extra-terrestrial carol about futuristic travel. C

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Find me on Twitter and, also, here is my new book.

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Dear American capitalism, my Black Friday idea is worth $100 million

Here’s a for-reals, not-made-up headline:

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There is nothing special about this photo. Using your metal box, the one that has the World Wide Internetting in it, you’ll be able to find many photos just like this. Come to think of it, you’re reading this, which means you’re already using your little metal box of Interweb. Good for you!

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Are you amazing and full of life? Well here is how you know.

Genius Desk

A WISE MAN once said that a cluttered desk is the sign of a brilliant, active mind. And the reason the wise man said this is that people kept coming into his office and saying Oh my god—LOOK AT YOUR DESK! And frankly, I’d had just about enough of that.

Now I would like to update this irrefutable truism to read as follows:

Any mess that I make, anywhere, is a certain indication of how amazing and full of vitality I am.

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