Something Completely Different

Time passes, and you forget how absolutely stunningly funny something can be.

Or disgusting.

Terry_Jones

Quite the accomplished chap

Don't do it!

Don't do it!

I was reminded of that yesterday, when I saw Terry Jones at IO. Jones has been the less visible of the remaining members of Monty Python; he’s focused most of his attention on writing and directing, rather than acting. (His works include BBC shows on ancient and medieval history, which I now feel compelled to check out.) Jones was in Chicago for a special screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. At IO, he gave what were billed as two workshops on comedy writing. The two-hour session I saw was less about the nuts and bolts of crafting comedy and more a trip down memory lane. But that was OK.

The afternoon started with the disgusting: the scene from Meaning of Life with Mr. Creosote, the grotesquely obese diner at a snooty French restaurant. If you know the bit, I don’t have to tell you about the explosive conclusion. If you don’t and you plan on seeing it, best have a strong stomach for things vomit-related. I have to admit, seeing the scene again after so many years left me shaking my head at the excess; I once thought this was riotously funny? (Well, it is funny in its excess.) As Jones said, it was really John Cleese’s portrayal of the waiter and the offering of the wafer-thin mint that make the sketch. Jones described how the smell of the fake puke permeated the restaurant after the week’s shooting there, and the staff had to quickly clean up after the finale to prepare for a wedding. Wonder if there was still a little faux vomit left in the fronds.

Mr. Creosote was Jones’s creation. In general, he and Michal Palin worked together, preferring a more visual approach to comedy, as Jones demonstrated in a short, silent sketch the two wrote in the mid-60s for British television. Cleese and the late Graham Chapman often collaborated, taking a more verbal and argumentative approach (think deceased parrot). Eric Idle, Jones implied, was off in his own little world, though he and the other two Oxfordites – Cleese and Chapman – tended to side together against the Cambridge duo of Jones and Palin, with Terry Gilliam on their team as well.

Jones showed and commented on a number of clips, offering insights into how the group worked. As far as how to write comedy – Jones said the hardest part is not knowing what others will find funny. Thus, the key role of collaboration within the group, and the sense that if the others laughed, an audience would too. One solid tip: Jones said don’t pander to or underestimate an audience. And use deadlines to your advantage. Struggling to end one sketch, Palin left Jones to work while he went to the bathroom. Jones gave himself a challenge: come up with an ending before Palin returned. He did, and it worked.

As influences, Jones cited Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, and Spike Milligan. Within Python, Jones helped shape the group’s signature style of cutting abruptly from sketch to sketch, and even within one sketch, in a stream of consciousness way. Early on in the Python show, Jones took a strong interest in directing and editing, and he directed the major Python movies. He had the distinct pleasure, he said, of directing three of the four films ever banned in Ireland: Life of Brian, Meaning of Life, and his post-Python effort about a notorious, real-life madam, Personal Services.

How many main weapons was that again?

How many main weapons was that again?

Of the sketches he did with Palin that became classics, I think my favorite is the Spanish Inquisition. He played it at IO, and I forgot how it started: an elderly woman showing various pictures of a man, with a younger woman ripping them up. Then that great line: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Ah, the comfy chair…

Jones was laid-back and engaging, funny but, as you would expect, not in a jokey, punch-line way. Most of the humor came from recounting the past with Python. He seemed surprised when an audience member said that the creators of South Park and Family Guy have cited Python as an influence, not really seeing it (though he said “Blame Canada” was brilliant). I’m not sure what all the parallels are either, but I know a whole generation of comedians and comic filmmakers have been inspired by Python, if only in subtle ways. As Jones said, maybe the group’s legacy was just unleashing the notion that silliness and fantasy were OK for adults. I know their records and movies and shows that I enjoyed so long ago were some of the highlights of that part of my life, and when I come upon then again today, I laugh at the inherent humor, and enjoy the nostalgic glow. Thanks, Terry, to you and your mates, for your genius. I guess it was pointless to think you could teach others how to replicate that in a two-hour workshop.

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~ by mburgan on May 10, 2009.

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