It’s getting to the point now where I hate getting a call from a producer at the CTV News Channel. Almost invariably, it means that someone of note in television has passed away.
Such was the case Wednesday when Murtz Jaffer called to say that Terry Jones had died. Jones, who suffered from a rare and aggressive form of Dementia, died in North London at 77. You can watch my CTV News Channel tribute to Jones here.
Welsh born, Jones and Michael Palin started writing and performing sketches together while students at Oxford. They began contributing to a few key BBC comedies of the mid-’60s, including The Frost Report, and eventually threw in with three equally twisted lads from Cambridge: John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. Together with American animator Terry Gilliam, they formed the great comedy force of the last half of the 20th century, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Ahead of its time, bewildering at first to some, the series quickly reached cult status in Britain. It snuck across the pond, first to Canada on CBC in 1970 and then, through one enlightened PBS affiliate in Dallas, to the United States in 1974.
Monty Python led a British comedy invasion which exploded by the time it reached Canada. UK exports as stylistically and thematically diverse as Benny Hill to On the Buses and even Dave Allen at Large seemed to be on every night. All of this and more went into the North American comedy blender that eventually led to both SCTV and Saturday Night Live. Anyone looking for the roots of all this madness would certainly hit upon the works of The Goons, Beyond the Fringe, even The Marx Bros.
What Jones and the others understood was that the profound could be seen as very silly and vice-versa (to me, best summed up with the brilliant “Philosophers playing soccer” sketch). As the ’60s were ending, this was a very sane and practical point of view.
The series began in October of 1969 in The UK with an episode titled, “Wither Canada?” There was no further mention of Canada in the episode. Four seasons followed and then some of the funniest, most absurd movies of all time. Jones either directed or co-directed three of them: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Life of Brian” and “The Meaning of Life.”
All of which helped make it so much fun to go to the movies in the ’70s. Every week, it seemed, the choice was the latest film from The Pythons, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen (the early ones) or The Pink Panther series.
Jones was key to the Python success, not just as a writer and director but as a performer. He invented some unforgettable characters, including the mother of the messiah in “Brian” and the grotesquely obese gentleman who ate one thin wafer mint too many in “Meaning of Life.”
He is also a key to their legacy. Jones apparently led the charge to retrieve the master tapes of the original series after he learned that the BBC planned to junk or tape over the series. Tape was seen as more valuable than what was on it 50 years ago, before anybody ever dreamt you could remaster, digitize and stream on demand for future generations.
Tributes from many of Jones’ very funny friends came swiftly on Wednesday. A teary Palin, his oldest and dearest pal among the Pythons, said he felt like he’d lost a limb. Cleese dryly noted, “Two down, four to go.” Russell Brand tweeted, “May the dear, great Terry Jones find eternal peace in the loving embrace of Jesus Christ. Or more likely of Brian.” Stephen Fry tweeted, “Farewell, Terry Jones. The great foot has come down to stamp on you.”
I’ve been in on a TCA press conference with Idle and once interviewed Palin over the phone. Both seemed like smart, fine gentleman. I never did get to meet or speak with Jones, a great regret. By all accounts, his talents extended beyond the world of comedy and into the study and teachings of history as well as the realm of children’s literature.
It’s especially heartening to read the tributes, and see how well he was liked, admired, respected and truly loved. He was Brian-like, and helped all of us around the world look on the brighter side of life.