We’re past the age where it’s safe to assume that a certain type of nerdy kid is into Monty Python. The troupe’s films and their legendary sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, are now deep into the past. Two members — John Cleese and Terry Gilliam — are currently in the habit of saying icky, out-of-touch stuff that turns off younger generations. And while their output left an indelible mark on comedy in the Western world, there remains its veneer of white male privilege: apart from Gilliam, who is American-born, they all met at Cambridge and Oxford, and their humor, even at its silliest, is peppered with jokes and references of high academic vintage.
But the passing of co-founder Terry Jones this week, at 77, after some years of living with a form of dementia, affords an opportunity to remember why Monty Python was essential viewing for weird, precocious, creative young people. Michael Palin, his longtime writing partner, said it well in an interview about Jones’ diagnosis in 2017, noting that while a supposed symptom was loss of inhibition, “Terry was never very inhibited in the first place.” Here was a man who, after all, appeared in the breaks between Monty Python sketches as a nude organist with a ridiculous leer on his face. Palin remembers him as hard-working and organized — in addition to appearing onscreen, he directed Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life — but also wild enough to sell a gag where he had to thrash his way out of a sack while playing a Tchaikovsky concerto.
Things like that escape artist scene — or Jones’ unforgettable turn as Mandy, the crotchety mom of an accidental messiah in Life of Brian, which drew on an impression of his own mother — point to what was infectious in the Monty Python formula: It was a bunch of lads trying to crack each other up however they could. And sometimes, it would be the delight of everyone else that kept an idea afloat, never mind an individual complaint. Cleese famously hated the “Ministry of Silly Walks” concept, but his performance of it was so brilliant that his mates pressured him to keep doing it. Now it’s regarded as a classic, defining segment of the show.
Even without this behind-the-scenes context, kids watching Python absorbed the goofing-around, double-dares and one-upmanship at work, and they could bring that energy into their own social lives by acting out and riffing on their favorite material. If you know every line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s because you and your buddies memorized it together.
Of the internal friendships among Monty Python, the one between Palin and Jones seems to have been the ideal. That Guardian piece about Jones’ dementia, a condition that involved great difficulty with speech, ends on the image of Jones silently grasping Palin’s hand. The pair stay joined that way “for a couple of minutes, a gesture that perfectly reflects their 50 years of friendship — and its importance in sustaining Jones through his tribulations.” It’s a serious and tender moment built on a lifetime of hilarious ones, the bond forged in the constant laughter Palin recalled after Jones’ passing. That’s how Kim “Howard” Johnson, an writer and actor long acquainted with the Python crew, and an author of several books about them, sees it as well.
“I think that what brought Terry Jones and Michael Palin together, and kept them together for the rest of their lives, was their shared sense of humor,” Johnson writes to me in an email. “Before Terry met Michael, he had other writing partners, but once he met and began working with Michael, there was an indisputable bond. When you find someone that laughs at the same things you do, you feel a closeness you don’t get around others. I was able to see Terry and Michael in real life, relaxing with their families, having dinner and enjoying each others’ company, and there was always laughter — so much laughter. And I think that’s the secret.”
That joyous sort of harmony is unfakeable, and it rarely emerges from the casting choices of a movie or TV series. It’s what makes the Monty Python oeuvre worth remembering, even as a few bits reveal their age, or a couple co-founders fall out-of-step with the cultural conversation. At the peak of their powers, these guys were gloriously funny in the simple act of having fun — and showing you how to have your own.
Behind the absurd stream-of-consciousness style that Jones, Palin, et al preferred was a conviction that whatever gets your pals giggling is art by definition, and that nonsense is its own reward. May we all be blessed with such comrades.