It’s now been just over a month since beloved British funnyman Terry Jones died (on January 21). References to his films and the comedic skits floating around social media have been a comforting reminder of how much his comedy resounded with so many. One thing I often forget when revisiting Jones’s roles, whether it be the waitress in the “Spam” sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Brian’s mom in Life of Brian, or Mr. Creosote in The Meaning of Life, was that he and the other members of the Monty Python comedy group were notably nonreligious.
Jones, who contributed to the Python oeuvre as both a writer and director (co-directing 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam and solo directing the two films mentioned above), was given a humanist funeral ceremony. Fellow Python Eric Idle doesn’t believe in a god, and John Cleese confirmed in an interview that he’s not religious.
Clear elements of their nontheism show up in one of the Pythons’ best movies, Life of Brian (personally, I’m more of a Holy Grail fan). The film, in which the title character is mistaken for the messiah, pokes fun at religious figureheads, blind followers of faith, and the story of Jesus. Emphasizing their intention to make comedic social commentary, when the Pythons have discussed Life of Brian, they’ve often emphasized that it doesn’t make fun of religion—it makes fun of how people follow religions.
The film portrays Brian as a regular person (albeit one born on the same day and next door to Jesus) who tries to rebel against the Romans in Judea and is suddenly lauded as the savior overnight by a crowd of disciples outside his mother’s house. It also questions the strength of authority among the Romans occupying Judea by showing guards as second-guessing orders or having low levels of confidence when interacting with Brian. Another hilariously satiric moment in the movie is when Brian encounters the “People’s Front of Judea,” a local group of rebels against Roman rule, and erroneously asks if they’re the “Judea People’s Front.” The names (and assumingly the objectives) of both groups are so close that the extreme offense they take and the utter disdain they show Brian (“Bugger off!”) is the joke—a la “the narcissism of small differences.”
Born in Wales in 1942, Jones attended Oxford University, where he met writing partner and fellow Python Michael Palin. They performed together in the Oxford Revue comedy group. About ten years later they would link up with Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and John Cleese to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Jones was perhaps best known for directing the films and for playing older British women in various skits. (My favorite Jones’ character is Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson.) In the midst of all their seemingly random, jocular humor, one of the most valuable contributions Jones and the rest of the Pythons made to popular British culture was to cast a satirical eye on it.
Immediately after World War II, Britain had very conservative governments. Shows were much more “family-friendly,” and programs did not hold critical slants against authority figures. It was the expectation for a journalist to listen patiently as a politician explained their platform or votes, not prod them for answers or accountability.
A major turning point was the Suez crisis in 1956, which made Britain recognize both that its global status around the world had diminished and that its leaders were fallible. Monty Python and other comedic actors like Peter Cook and David Frost were part of the “satire boom” of the 1960s that opened the door for more unique, zanier takes on reality than had traditionally graced the British airwaves.
Satire is written in a way that fundamentally provokes skepticism. Monty Python, and satire in general, are politically valuable assets because they show inconsistencies in powerful institutions as well as prominent public individuals. The Pythons energized an important skepticism in people to question their trust in religious faith, in their decision-makers, and even pet shop owners who sell dead parrots.
Terry Jones and the rest of the Pythons not only brought joy into our lives with their zany and goofy humor (I remember being as young as eight watching some of their movies with my family). They taught me to question the world—a fundamental pillar of humanism—through the laughs. In his later years Jones lived with degenerative aphasia, which gradually made him lose the ability to speak, and he eventually died of frontotemporal dementia. It was very sad to hear of Jones’s death, but he leaves behind a rich body of irreverent, inquisitive, skeptical, politically valuable, and utterly hilarious material.