Interview with Terry Jones
Comedy - VICE

Interview with Terry Jones

You probably think of Monty Python as a symbol of the sad, forced eccentricity your uptight gay British dad used to display when he was in a cheery mood or when he was drunk on schnapps. In fact, maybe the very words “Monty Python” act as a Pavlovian trigger for traumatic memories of the shame of seeing your mum silently cry while Dad went on about the Spanish Inquisition and the Ministry of Funny Walks. But go a little deeper into your id and you’ll realize that your dad was a thwarted artist who secretly wanted to have you aborted so he could pursue an experimental theatrical comedy career. And it’s all Monty Python’s fault. The influence runs that deep.

Read it in VICE UK

Monty Python resulted from an improbable mess of diverse talents and lucky circumstances. It defied the sum of its parts, and for decades it molded the male undergraduate middle-class psyche of Britain and America. For far more men than would care to admit it, adolescence was a blur of furtive masturbation and Python references.

Fan rumors have it that the heart of Monty Python was a Welshman named Terry Jones. His enthusiasm kept them together even as he threw chairs at John Cleese, and he’s credited with introducing the rich, free-form style that is the root of most of the funny shit you like today. He also has the most complex of the Python solo careers, moving hyperactively between scriptwriting, acting, children’s fiction, film directing, medieval history, and, lately, political commentary in a book called Terry Jones’s War on the War on Terror—which is actually pretty good. He also recently wrote and directed an opera that was staged in Lisbon. It’s based on some of his fantasy stories about parking meters and other machines coming to life. There are chances of a movie coming out of it.

And PS: “Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and Spam; egg bacon and Spam; egg bacon sausage and Spam; Spam bacon sausage and Spam; Spam egg Spam Spam bacon and Spam; Spam sausage Spam Spam bacon Spam tomato and Spam.”

Shit. We’re nerds.

Vice: Did you try to make Monty Python satirical and groundbreaking, or were you just trying to be funny?

Terry Jones: We certainly thought we were going to do the funniest show around. I remember having this feeling that this was it—we had to get it right. It was a very knife’s-edge thing. The biggest concern was getting the format right. We loved Spike Milligan’s Q5, which got rid of sketches with beginnings, middles, and ends, and I thought we could combine that with Terry Gilliam’s animations and come up with something very different. I remember putting that to Michael [Palin] and Terry [Gilliam] and getting a response. John [Cleese], Graham [Chapman], and Eric [Idle] weren’t that interested.

Did you think it would last?

Not at all. It was BBC policy at the time to wipe shows that weren’t orchestral recordings or ballet after a few years, so our editor rang me one day to say he was going to smuggle the tapes out of the BBC and copy them. For a while I thought the only record of our first season was going to be in my cellar. But we got away with it.

Do you ever watch any of the old shows?

The last time I watched them was when we did this “personal best” thing, where we all chose our favorite bits—though we really just chose whatever the others hadn’t. I re-edited the killer-joke thing, where there’s a joke that’s so funny that people die and they use it in the war. That was never really satisfactory when it came out—I cut out about three minutes of it without losing any of the jokes.

Do you find any of Monty Python embarrassing now?

Yeah, the camp jokes seem a bit crude. The portrayal of women is a bit dated. We didn’t give women a lot of insight.

Were you and John Cleese the opposite poles of Monty Python?

Well, that’s become the story, but I don’t know whether it’s true or not. Certainly there was a lot of clashing that went on. But I only threw a chair at John once. And it never occurred to us for it to be personal—it was just arguments about material. We were all fighting for what we thought was funny and we were all good chums. Still, I tend to get very heated, more so back then, and John’s much more cool-headed. He liked egging me on, I think.

Were there any Monty Python groupies?

They tended to be male, for a start, and the female ones looked like they may have been men. That’s very unfair isn’t it? It certainly wasn’t really like a rock show.

No drug orgies?

We rather missed out on the drug scene. We were a bit before it. We drank a lot sometimes. But you can’t write decent stuff if you’re not absolutely all together.

But you were friends with the Beatles?

Mainly because of George Harrison putting up the money for Life of Brian. We also got Ringo on the Flying Circus once, as a guest on a chat show where the credits start rolling before anyone can speak.

I was about 13 when I first saw the sex-education scene in The Meaning of Life. I think I may even have masturbated to it. Does it frighten you that you have spawned a generation of geek fans who know your sketches by heart and have learned about life from Monty Python?

No, I feel grateful that people are interested enough to still talk about it.

I think it’s remembered so well partly because you all became writers, actors, and directors. You were like comedic Renaissance men.

I’ll tell you about that from my point of view. We had a law case in the 70s in America because the BBC had sold the show to ABC, and they’d cut the shows around. We saw the first show and hated it, and we tried to stop them from putting out the second show and failed. Then our lawyer suddenly discovered that there was a clause saying that they couldn’t edit the shows without consulting us. So the BBC had to settle out of court and we got the rights to the shows. That basically means we’ve got the income from the TV shows and two of the films, and that’s enabled me at least to carry on doing things that I’m interested in. But I don’t know if I’m much of a Renaissance man.

Monty Python was very unpolitical, but now you’ve published this book protesting against the Iraq war.

I think I’ve become political from reading Chaucer and realizing that the same people go for power as did in the Middle Ages, and use the same techniques to wield power.

Are there new things that make you angry?

Yeah—I can’t believe what’s happening in the States—that McCain even has a chance of getting into power, when you see what the Republicans have done to the economy and the lies they’ve been caught saying. I’d still like to keep writing about the Iraq war, but I get tired of my voice. But the people who are perpetrating these things don’t get tired of saying things over and over again.

So you support Obama?

Well, I don’t know that much about him. Whether he’ll be like Blair, I don’t know. The Bush-Blair decade hasn’t finished yet. If it looks like McCain is not going to get in I’m sure they’ll just bomb Iran because it’ll be the one way they have of getting him elected.

You’re starting to sound like a radical.

I don’t consider myself radical, I just think it’s obvious. I can’t believe how politicians can get away the lies they tell. Tony Blair and WMD! The Republicans said they were going to invade Iraq before they got into power! There’s a document called the Project for a New American Century that a lot of the neocons subscribe to that started in 1997, and they said they wanted to invade Iraq to establish a permanent American presence in the Middle East. And people still wonder about why they invaded Iraq? They said they were going to do it! It was obvious! Anyway, I’m going on a bit now.

Filed under: Comedy - VICE