The death of any creative person with a long and distinguished body of work — and writer, actor, director and Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones qualifies if anyone does — naturally prompts those of us left behind to catalogue and quantify their legacy, isolating those particular fragments of brilliance that lodge most immovably in our memories. Rhys Darby mentioned a throwaway gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“What, the curtains?”) as “the funniest thing I can always instantly picture in my mind.” Every fan has their own. Yours might be projectile-vomiting Mr. Creosote, nitwit-genius Sir Bedevere, Cardinal Biggles or Mandy Cohen (“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”). You may even, as many did, hail him as the brilliant director of Monty Python’s masterpiece, Life of Brian (he shared the job on Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam, an arrangement that didn’t work for anyone involved), the screenwriter of Labrynth, beloved children’s author, insightful historian and so on.
Yet Terry Jones’ legacy is greater, and harder to quantify, than even that. It was not his idea to join with Michael Palin, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Gilliam to form Monty Python back in 1969; that impetus came either from Cleese or a BBC producer named Barry Took, depending on whose account you believe. But Jones harbored ambitions that none of the other Python members had. He wanted to make something, you might say, completely different: a show that was not a university revue filmed for television but a new kind of comedy altogether, something that could exist only on television and which turned the medium’s clichés — the visual language of title sequences, montages, news programs, chat shows and man-in-the-street interviews — inside out.
At its best — which it very often was — Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a once-in-a-generation triumph of both content and form, substance and style. The former was the result of the six group members working as equals; the latter was driven almost entirely by Jones, who spent hours working alongside Python directors John Howard Davis and Ian MacNaughton, obsessively cutting and recutting each half-hour episode into a mini-masterpiece of free-flowing comic inspiration.
Having arguably done more than any other single member to shape the Python comedic style, Jones was the most enthusiastic about the group’s potential and the most reluctant to leave it behind. Naturally ebullient and brimming with ideas, his enthusiasm remained the chief engine driving Monty Python throughout the group’s working life. For a group famously distrustful of outside meddling, his capacity to direct was essential in making Holy Grail and, especially, Life of Brian not only possible, but the well-crafted triumphs they are. The unproductive writing sessions for Meaning of Life might have scuttled the project completely had it not been for Jones, who realized how much strong material the group had managed to assemble and essentially pitched the movie’s final concept to his own teammates — and won them over.
The totality of Jones’ legacy beyond Python — the books, screenplays, television series, editorials and articles and more — is too vast to properly summarize here. Instead, it’s worth remembering that Jones’ contribution to Monty Python’s extraordinary longevity goes far beyond the words of his sketches or the characters he played. He saw their potential from the very earliest days and had the ambition and determination to bring that vision to life, shaping the visual language of television comedy in the process. And he proved an able and far-seeing caretaker, insuring the team retained ownership of their programs (as unheard of then as it is today) as well as complete creative control of any project they undertook. In a sense, it doesn’t matter which Terry Jones moment from Python is your favorite: his stamp is on every one of them.