Terry Jones, ‘Monty Python,’ and the Quest for Supreme Executive Power

News of Terry Jones’ recent passing at 77 likely drew a blank from anyone under 40. The British comic was hardly a household name in America, but he is worth recalling for several reasons, partly because he never made it on his own.

Jones was part of the Monty Python troupe that hit its stride close to 50 years ago. This was collaborative comedy at its best, with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Jones all playing off each other in grand style. Jones excelled in roles such as game show host Arthur Mee on the “All-England Summarizing Proust Competition.”

Contestants had to summarize Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, once in a swimsuit, and once in evening dress, all in 14 seconds. As one contestant played by Graham Chapman has it, “Proust’s novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstallment of extratemporal values of time regained, ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, re-stating as it does the concept of intemporality . . .”

Nice try but he gets gonged off. Other contestants, including a men’s choir, fail to measure up.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Arthur announces, “I don’t think any of our contestants this evening have succeeded in encapsulating the intricacies of Proust’s masterwork, so I’m going to award first prize this evening to the girl with the biggest tits.” As they say, you couldn’t do that today, but the skit was only funny if viewers knew something about Proust, as the French say, a real pisseur d’encre.

Jones excelled in drag roles and in one home-invasion sketch he breaks wind. John Cleese tells him to lay off the beans and Jones says “I only had three cans!” In another sketch, he tells a man who supposedly speaks in a roundabout way that he finds “nothing of the discursive quality” about him. And as fellow Python Eric Idle put it, “I hate people who vent their loquacity with extraneous bombastic circumlocution.”

Idle is the unctuous master of ceremonies for “The British Show Biz Awards,” an Oscar spoof in which he hails a man “who has done only more than not anyone, but who, nevertheless, has only done more.” When the time comes for the “award for the most awards award,” that goes to the “Dirty Vicar Sketch,” starring Terry Jones as the Reverend Ronald Sims, the Dirty Vicar of St. Michaels.

“How do you find the new vicarage?” asks an elegant lady.

“I find the grounds delightful, and the servants most attentive,” the vicar says, “and particularly the little serving maid with the great big knockers, and when she gets going. . .” Never politically correct, Jones could nevertheless deliver insight on political themes.

For example, playing a woman in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Jones asks King Arthur “how’d you get to be king?”

As Arthur explains, “The lady of the lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying that by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!” This draws a response from Dennis, played by Michael Palin.

“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government,” Dennis argues. “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

“Holy Grail” came out in 1975, but it packs some relevance for a farcical ceremony now going on in the Senate. Supreme executive power still derives from a mandate from the masses. Some Democrats don’t get that but Terry Jones would understand.

Meanwhile, in 1989, Graham Chapman was the first of the Monty Python troupe to depart. As John Cleese put it this week, “Two down, four to go.” To all, thanks for the laughs and the memories.

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