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Keith Richards Snorted Mixture of Cocaine And Father's Creamtory Ashes | Main | Cleese's & Idle's Eulogies For Graham Chapman
April 03, 2007

Terry Jones: Untalented, Unfunny Nasty Hack

As we see in the case of former barely-a-Python Terry Jones continuing to do what he's always done, which is to say, try to be funny and fail miserably at it. His most recent attempt at the laughs is to parody the British sailor kidnappings.

The big laughs spring from Jones' writing as they've always done.

I didn't want to touch this, because the only way I can respond is to knock on his career, and that gets old. But let me knock on this miscreant's career anyhow.

First up, Allah Bryan at Hot Air is wrong that Terry Jones "jumped the shark." Jumping the shark implies a heyday, a high-water mark (ahem) prior to the shark-jumping. Terry Jones never had that.

I know, I know: He was in Monty Python. Was he? I mean, was he really?

Quick: Rank the Pythons in order of genius. Pretty much everyone would rank them Cleese, Palin, Chapman, Idol, Gilliam, Jones.

The middle section depends on whether you're more of a fan of Chapman's deadpan delivery (and considerable writing talents) or Palin's greater versatility as a comic actor. And whether or not you're a big fan of Idle's stuff.

But the first and the last names on the list -- Cleese, first, Jones, last -- will be pretty much the same for everyone. Except most people probably won't even be able to name Jones at all.

Here's how Monty Python came together (more or less). John Cleese was already a fairly established talent, making lots of appearances on BBC comedy shows and contributing many written sketches. His writing partner, Graham Chapman, was also a terrific writer, but didn't have as high a visibility as Cleese, because Cleese was the more natural performer. Together these two Cambridge grads occasionally worked with fellow Cambridge man Eric Idle.

Now, meanwhile, Oxford grads Palin and his writing partner Jones were working on a BBC comedy show for children. Eric Idle also contributed to the show when he wasn't working with Cleese and Chapman. Terry Gilliam, working on a magazine at the time, asked Cleese how to get into TV, and Cleese put him in touch with a producer that got him on that same kids' show with Palin, Jones, and occasionally Idle. Thus, this kid's show had four of the lesser Pythons in it.

Now, as far as talent, it's really no contest. It was the Cleese-Chapman partnership that ultimately drove the Python show's writing. I had the fortune of seeing Chapman at a college speech/revue sort of thing before he died (of AIDS of pneumonia complciated by throat cancer, sorry!), and during the Q&A, everyone wanted to know which writing team had created which classic sketches.

It was embarassing, because virtually every one of the classic Python bits people were asking about were written by Cleese and Chapman. Cheese Shop, Dead Parrot, Argumen Clinic, on and on and on, every sketch we still remember were Cleese and Chapman written. Really the only exception I recall clearly was the Ministry of Silly Walks, which Chapman said was written by Palin and Jones, but they only wrote that to make use of Cleese's hysterical silly walk, and it's only the visual of the silly walk in that sketch that was funny at all. The actual writing gets no laughs. Jones did of course do the Mr. Cresote vomiting bit from Meaning of Life, which is sort of funny, but come on, Jones was in the troupe for 30 or 35 years. Even bit-players like Carol Cleveland contributed more to Python than that. (And I suspect that the best parts of that bit came from Palin, anyway.)

And I'm pretty sure that the Spam sketch, and the "rasberry tart without so much rat in it" sketches were Jones' sketches, too. (Well, his and Palin's.) Jones seemed to specialize not in actual comedy, but in being so annoying and repetitive as to eventually generate some very small chuckles.

The immense contribution of Cleese is highlighted if one views the last season of Python, after Cleese had departed from the show (more or less; he'd turn up for the occasional cameo or sketch). It had some decent episodes -- like the "Michael Ellis" one -- but mainly it was unfunny, absurdism for the point of absurdism, with few actual laughs.

Python consisted of two writing teams -- Cleese/Chapman, and Palin/Jones (Eric Idle mostly wrote alone, and Gilliam was off alone doing his strange cartoons) -- and clearly one of those carried the show, and the other was primarily filler. Though Palin didn't really rank with Cleese, Chapman, or Idle in terms of writing, he was probably the show's second best (or who knows -- maybe even best) comic performer, which is of course important. The jokes don't read themselves, after all.

And not only was Jones part of the lesser group, he was also, of course, the lesser partner in that group. Python only came together as a six-man team -- with Cleese and Chapman inviting the other four to join them, as Cleese had an open invitation from the BBC to pitch his own show when he felt the time was write -- because Cleese had noted the performance talents of Michael Palin and was interested in working with him.

Thus, Jones' entire career in comedy is mostly due to the fact he was buddies with a clearly-superior talent, Michael Palin, who was in turn sought out by an even bigger talent, John Cleese.

Most people can ID the various Pythons (except for Gilliam, who rarely appeared on camera) except for Terry Jones. Why? Because he was almost never prominent in a sketch that was actually funny. Mostly he dressed in drag in did that awful, shrill "ratbag" "female" voice, but that wasn't funny so much as annoying to the point where it submitted you to a small smile. He was almost never the central character in any sketch, partly because he wasn't writing the good sketches (and the Pythons tended to be like the Beatles -- you could tell who was writing the song by who was singing it), and partly because he was also such a limited performer. He's not funny, he's kind of ugly but not even in a distinctive way, and his voice -- not the ratbag voice, his normal voice -- grates like broken class scratching along a horn of a busted bagpipe.

While Michael Palin was a lesser comedy writer than the potent Cleese-Chapman partnership, at least he managed to come up with the Knights Who Say Ni and, I believe, that whole bit about the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow.

So what exactly was Jones' big contribution to the troupe? Well, he co-directed the later movies with Terry Gilliam. But, um, given that Terry Gilliam is considered something of a visionary (if a scatterbrained and overindulgent one), it's pretty clear that even when it came to direction, Jones was definitely the bit player of the troupe.

Now, I didn't want to go into all that, because even as I pump up John Cleese as the greatest performer and writer on Python, it turns out he's a bit of a New Age left-liberal space-case prick himself. Still, he's not as loud about it (possibly because he's still got a career, unlike Jones, and probably gets paid big money for speaking to corporoate gatherings, again unlike Jones). Either way, as much as I don't like Cleese's goofy New Age moronpolitics, I can at least take some solace in the fact that he's not funny anymore. At all.

Honestly, the only Python that's aged well and still doing good stuff is Palin, who may not have the crackling writing skills he once had, but is still thoroughly likable and humorous in travel documentaries like Around the World and Pole to Pole. He just seems to be a very normal middle-class guy (and something of a randy pervert, which is cool by me).

I'm guessing Eric Idle is still pretty funny, too, but I haven't seen Spamelot and I don't know any projects he's been on since National Lampoon's Vacation.

So is Terry Jones a Python? Many say Neil Innes, a guy who frequently contributed to the show and wrote a lot of its silly songs, is the seventh Python. I'd elevate him and say he's actually the sixth Python, and Terry Jones is the seventh Python, officially a member of the troupe but contributing very little at all to it.

Where Did I Get This From? Well, I've known a lot of it for a while, thanks to the "Evening With Graham Chapman" thing I attended. Other stuff comes directly from the commentaries to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which I just watched.

Gilliam said that virtually every argument in the group came down to a 3-3 split, with the Cambridge guys -- Cleese, Chapman, and Idle -- always on one side and the Oxford/American crew -- Palin, Jones, and Gilliam -- on the other. He also notes that, oddly enough, the Cambridge guys were all tall and the Ox-American guys "normal."

Anyway, one thing he said was that the Cambridge Three were more responsible for actually writing the show and carrying it, reducing the other three to support roles -- including gruntwork and fetch-it type stuff. He specifically named himself and Jones and Palin as being "nicer guys" who would do the little grunt-work type crapwork that needed to be done while the other three would assume they'd do it; while this may indicate they were "nicer guys" (and Palin does seem like a nice guy to me), it also indicates that there was very little question within the group who were the Big Guns and who were the guys who laid down some occasional covering fire. There was a pecking order to the show, and Jones was always at the bottom of it.

Correction! Chapman did not die of AIDS but of pneumonia brought on by throat cancer. I guess I'm remembering the early speculation about his death, as he was gay and he died during the big push for AIDS awareness. You know, the days when your college orientation consisted of being told, look to the left of you, look to the right of you, one of you will die of AIDS.

I apologize for the error.

Another Great Palin Sketch: Whether Dead Parrot is credited to Cleese or Palin is a matter of opinion. Cleese techincally wrote the sketch. However, he got the idea from Palin, who would do an impression of his mechanic -- using the Dead Parrot pet-shop owner's voice, which was apparently what his mechanic sounded like -- and the mechanic was always saying Dead Parrot-esque things, like "Oh no, no problem, squier. The engine's not supposed to work in these later models."

Palin's story about his mechanic cracked Cleese up, and he simply wrote a sketch around the basic joke/impression Palin already had.

digg this
posted by Ace at 05:03 PM

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