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TERRY JONES in person wears normal clothes. He does not kick up his heels or make outrageous jokes, or get down on his haunches and scrabble and mumble Rather, he socializes politely over a restaurant table, fielding questions like "So, is Yorkshire really the Third World?" and "D' you suppose the fish are watching us now?" In an urbane London accent, he discusses film distribution and financing and the way he and Terry Gilliam and John Cleese and the rest met while pursuing degrees at Oxford. But then he happens to mention his Welsh roots--"I've always felt Welsh, you know, the exciteability"--and his voice goes up and up and suddenly he is jabbering away in several simultaneous Monty Python accents.

To release The Meaning of Life, the six members of Monty Python Enterprises--Jones, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese, Graham Chapman. Michael Palin and Eric Idle--split up and followed publicity routes, lunching with groups of admiring reviewers and cavorting before advance-screening audiences through most of March. Jones, the director, covered Boston and New York, but he admits that the effort is somewhat allen to the six-man troupe's usual way of operating. Former pictures have been supported by small independent backers, usually musicians, frequently George Harrison; work habits are commensurately informal, with the six writers splitting into teams and then getting together to wrangle over scene order. They tried having a business manager once, but soon gave up the attempt.

"It's complicated enough having six people without adding a manager." Jones says. Having a consultant for purely financial matters tended to constrict the team, he explains, by introducing worries about an audience and "what will sell, what will go over." Left to themselves, the Pythons adhere to only one rule: "If we're not laughing when we're reading the script, then it's a bad sign."

Aside from that, though, there are no taboos, and Jones refuses even to speculate on topics that might be considered too sensitive, too tasteless, or otherwise off-limits for humor. "As soon as you say any subject is out of bounds," he maintains, "you're up against the wall." Not everyone finds those standards agreeable--one backer of Jabberwocky abruptly pulled out, leaving some legal threads dangling, after he saw the script--but the strategy has paid off with audiences. Monty Python and the Holy Grail made 200,000 pounds, or about half a million dollars; Life of Brian did nearly as well.

On the group's string of mildly embarrassing experiments--including The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, Time Bandits and Jabberwocky --Jones deftly avoids discussion. He steadfastly resists analyzing what has made any of the Python or Python-offshoot products bad or good. Nor, despite considerable hinting from several quarters, does he agree that Python humor has evolved in any particular way since its creators started dabbling in the commercial feature-film world. For him the most important comic influence remains the English tradition springing from the likes of Tristram Shandy, and after that the "goon shows" of early radio and the comic compilation Beyond the Fringe.


"Really," he says, "as long as it seems funny to us...I don't see humor changing that much."