Remembering 'Monty Python' Star Terry Jones
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with Terry Jones, a member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, who died last night at the age of 77. Jones, along with Michael Palin, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam, formed Monty Python in 1969. Their television show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was a new style of sketch comedy that was sometimes literary, sometimes slapstick and often surreal. It aired for 3 1/2 years on the BBC. Jones wrote for the group and performed, often playing middle-aged women. He directed the Python films "Life Of Brian" and "The Meaning Of Life" and co-directed "Monty Python And The Holy Grail." Terry Gross spoke with Terry Jones in 1987.
First, let's hear a clip from Monty Python's "Life Of Brian." Jones plays the mother of Brian of Nazareth, who's constantly being mistaken for the Messiah. In this scene, a crowd has gathered outside their window demanding to see her son.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN")
TERRY JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Now, you listen here. He is not the Messiah. He is a very naughty boy. Now go away.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Who are you?
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) I'm his mother, that's who.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Behold his mother. Behold his mother. Hail to thee, mother of Brian. Blessed art thou, hosanna. All praise to thee, now and always.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Now, don't think you can get around me like that. He's not coming out, and that's my final word. Now shove off.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Did you hear what I said?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yes.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Oh, I see. It's like that, is it?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yes.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Oh, then you can see him for one minute, but not one second more. Do you understand?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yes.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Promise?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Well, all right.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) All right, here is, then. Come on, Brian. Come and talk to them.
GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (As Brian Cohen) But Mom, Judith.
JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Leave that Welsh tart alone.
CHAPMAN: (As Brian Cohen) I don't really want to, Mom.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: You know, I've always wondered, watching the Monty Python TV shows and also movies like "The Life Of Brian," how come each member of the cast was never identified with the characters that they played?
JONES: (Laughter) Well, I suppose it really came about because when we started doing Python, we very much felt ourselves as being an ensemble group. And we were sort of - we didn't really want to identify ourselves as individuals. The whole thing was to try and keep the, you know, Python as a group thing, together. And I suppose that just sort of carried on through with the films. I suppose the other reason is that, I mean, everybody played, you know, far too many parts, if you started identifying them. I mean, you know, you had Mike Palin in "Life Of Brian" playing about 16 parts or something. There'd be a never-ending list.
GROSS: How would you describe the types of roles that you played when you were with Monty Python?
JONES: I describe them as the roles that nobody else would play, basically.
JONES: That was the thing that I didn't - that was really why I ended up doing all the women because people - the others got fed up with playing women. So by - my voice does tend to go out rather easily.
JONES: It's the Welsh, you know. You know, we sort of started trying to - as we went on, we started trying to cast against type in a way and sort of do things that we were - you know, that's maybe John - a part that John would naturally do, we'd give to Mike, and the part that Mike would naturally do, we'd give to me or Eric or something like that. We tried to mix it up, actually.
GROSS: You did a lot of writing for Monty Python, right?
JONES: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: What are some of the favorite sketches that you wrote?
JONES: I'll tell you what - it's terribly difficult to remember because it all merges into a sort of (laughter) - quite often you can't tell which is which. I remember writing the lumberjack sketch with Mike.
GROSS: Oh, the "The Lumberjack Song?"
GROSS: Oh, that's one of my favorites.
JONES: It was one of those moments. There's very few things that you can actually remember the moment of writing, but that one we'd been struggling with the sketch all day. There was a sketch about this psychopathic barber who kept wanting to stab his patients. And I remember somebody at the end saying, that's - oh, we can't finish this sketch. Let's have a song (laughter). We never get out with a song. So Mike and I just sort of sat down and wrote "The Lumberjack Song" sort of line by line kind of thing.
GROSS: Could you sing some of it?
JONES: Well, I - (laughter). I think it go - I can't remember. How's it go?
(Singing) Oh, I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK. Sleep all night, and I work all day. I cut down trees. I skip and jump. I like to press wildflowers. On Wednesday, I go shopping and hang around in bars.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LUMBERJACK SONG")
MONTY PYTHON: (Singing) He cuts down trees. He skips and jumps. He likes to press wildflowers. He puts on women's clothing and hangs around in bars. I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK. I sleep all night, and I work all day. I cut down trees. I wear high heels, suspenders and a bra. I wish I'd been a girlie, just like my dear papa. He cuts down trees. He wears high heels.
MONTY PYTHON: (Singing) He's a lumberjack, and he's OK. He sleeps all night, and he works all day. He's a lumberjack, and he's OK. Sleeps all night and he works all day.
GROSS: What was your approach to writing? Would you just sit around and free associate?
JONES: Yeah, it's a bit like that. I mean, it was very much a sort of 9 till 5 job, you know, Terry.
JONES: You're sort of getting up, sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and trying to sort of have some inspiration. And usually, I didn't know where it comes from. I remember with the Mr. Creosote sketch, I remember sitting down with a blank piece of paper and writing at the top, a sketch in the worst possible taste. And then the sketch came out of that, really. But I didn't know what it was going to be when I started off.
Generally, our system used to be that we used to write individually. I mean, we'd write in pairs. I mean, I wrote with Mike Palin most of the time. But as we went on, it was very much Mike and I would write separately, then we'd meet together, the two of us, read out what we've got, criticize, maybe swap over what we'd got and so carry on where the other one had left off, kind of like consequences, really. And then after a couple of weeks writing, we'd maybe meet up with the group and then read out what we'd written to the group, and then there'd be the same sort of interchange would go on, with sort of criticism and swapping over.
GROSS: When you were with Monty Python, you first started to get into directing, which you're doing more of now. Remember all those film inserts in Monty Python for the TV show?
GROSS: Did you direct those?
JONES: No. What happened was that - I suppose when Mike and I sort of - one of the reasons why we got into performing was that we originally started as writers on television, and we gradually began to realize that, you know, we'd write things, and then they'd be done - weren't being done how we wanted them to be done. So we started performing things as well. And as we got into the performance, we gradually realized how crucial the direction was as well. Like, it was absolutely crucial to have the right locations.
I remember one example in a series that we wrote - or that we were in - called "The Complete And Utter History." This was just before "Python." And we'd written - it was a lot of it on film, and we were doing this scene. It was meant to be the battle of Harfleur, or something, the English versus the French. And we had the French dressed as onion sellers with the striped jerseys and, you know, berets and French loaves and onions on their bicycle. That was the French army kind of thing. It was pretty, sort of, crude stuff.
But the whole point of the writing of it was we staged it like - you know, they appeared on the horizon. We wanted to cliff, you know, with them to appear on the horizon like the Indians in some sort of - in some western or something. And we got to this location. It's all sort of gentle, rolling hills with forests. And you couldn't do the shot. You know, and we say, what are we doing here? This is not - we can't do it. And, you know, we had to shoot it. But, you know, it made the thing look very much weaker than it was actually (unintelligible). You lost the parody in it.
So it was gradually this realization that everything was crucial in comedy - you know, the location, the costumes, the makeup as well as who's acting it and who's - and what they're saying. Everything's crucial. It's something like poetry, I would feel. So when we actually came to doing "Python," I was by this stage sort of very keen to sort of keep an eye on what the director was doing. And we had a very good director, Ian McNaughton.
But it was a bit of a struggle to begin with because it's - you know, it's like, you know, I was infringing on his territory, sort of always keeping an eye on where the camera was and everything. But as the series went on, it began to get much easier, and we began to work much better together.
GROSS: You know, I figured that all of you who were in Monty Python probably came from very straight-laced, goal-oriented, disciplined middle-class families. Is that right?
JONES: Yes, I suppose so. Except that...
GROSS: What about you?
JONES: ...Things tend not to be quite so goal-oriented in England. It's not quite the same as over here. But certainly sort of - a very straight, middle-class - lower-middle-class families. My dad was a bank clerk. And so I grew up in a household where we never had any money. There was - we never had a car, for example. So it was kind of a genteel poverty, if you like, trying to keep up an appearance of respectability.
GROSS: You went to Oxford, though, didn't you?
GROSS: And you had planned on becoming an English teacher, right?
JONES: Well, not really. I sort of grew up being a poet. Really from age about 7 onwards, I was always going to be a poet, actually, Terry.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
JONES: And then I found that, you know, sort of grammar school rather sort of educates you out of being a poet. You know, the one thing they do teach you is there's no money in poetry (laughter). I learned this lesson. And the only thing, you know, I could possibly see myself qualified for doing after sort of, you know, all that schooling was teaching while, you know, becoming an academic of some sort.
But then when I was at Oxford, I realized that - I was sitting - actually, I'll tell you what. I was sitting in the Bodleian Library, which is this beautiful old library that was built about, sort of, 500 years ago. I was sitting in this library, and I suddenly looked up. And I was getting really angry about what somebody had written about what somebody else had written about what Milton had written. And I said this - looked around and looked at everybody else sort of sitting there and thinking, how many people are also getting worked up about this? And I suddenly thought I didn't want to do this. Maybe when I'm 60, but at the moment, I'd rather write the thing in the first place. So it was a kind of moment of decision where I thought I'm going to actually - whatever comes, I'm going to actually start writing stuff for myself rather than writing commentaries about what other people are writing, what other people about - writing about what somebody else has written about.
GROSS: Did that lead you into comedy, this realization?
JONES: Yes, (laughter) I suppose it did. Again, it was kind of accident in a way. I was involved in a what we call a review, which is kind of like a show with sort of sketches and songs and things. And we did these - a group of us from Oxford would do them in Edinburgh at the Edinburgh Festival. Then when I came down after three years, we did - we got an offer to do this show that we'd been doing in Edinburgh in London for about six weeks. So I sort of - I sort of eased into it that way, never ever sort of really thinking that's what I was going to make my livelihood out.
DAVIES: Terry Jones speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1987. Jones died last night at the age of 77. On tomorrow's show, our guest will be veteran journalist David Rohde, who writes about Attorney General William Barr in The New Yorker. Rohde says Barr is the most feared, criticized and effective member of President Trump's Cabinet. Rohde examines Barr's long-held conservative views and commitment to expanding presidential power and the impact of his controversial actions as head of the Justice Department. Hope you can join us. I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY SPERM IS SACRED")
MONTY PYTHON: (Singing) Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate. Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is good. Every sperm is needed in your neighborhood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.