Comedy gold

I think that Fawlty Towers is the funniest six hours of television ever filmed. I also recognize that my sense of humor goes off in odd directions, and most of the other things I find extremely funny I tend to keep to myself rather than endure blank or suspicious looks. But I think that an objective case can be made for this show being canonically funny, universally funny. And the world seems to agree with me —the show is known around the world, and still shown regularly thirty-five years later. We watch it regularly here at home, when we need a brief entertainment.

For awhile we watched it using Netflix instant view, but I got tired of spending our meager allotment of minutes on that and went ahead and bought the set of twelve episodes on DVD. The disc of extras is pitiful, but each of the episodes has a commentary by John Cleese, and so we are slowly working our way through the series, first watching an episode, then watching it again with the commentary.

If you like the show and have a chance, I strongly recommend this approach. It’s best to watch the episode without commentary first, then with commentary right afterward. It will spare you being annoyed about Cleese talking over your favorite bits, and you will have the entire episode firmly in mind while he discusses it.

Cleese’s commentary contains the occasional delightful anecdote, but mostly it is focused on how each show is constructed. Cleese and his wife, Connie Booth (Polly) spent roughly one month writing each episode, and the scripts ran twice as long as the average TV script, making the results rich and intricate. Cleese explains how farce works, how they deliberately compressed huge stories into 30 minutes to make them funnier, the limitations of a TV show compared to a movie, fast pace as a key to humor, and much more.

Not only am I learning why I find these shows endlessly watchable, I have a better idea of how key elements sometimes need to be woven in unnoticeably rather than highlighted. For example, Cleese mentions that all attempts to remake the show (there have been several) failed because they only perceived Basil Fawlty’s hilarious rudeness, and never dug deeper to understand the reasons behind it. Cleese unpacks all that, explaining how Basil’s behavior is rooted in insecurity, fear of exposure as a fraud, and especially fear of his wife, Sybil. The humor comes when he tries to cover up his blunders—and almost gets away with it. But the show itself never explores those weaknesses, only the insanity that results.

Which reminds me of a lesson I learned long, long ago: always own up to what you did right away. Because it’s never the mistake that causes the trouble, it’s the subsequent attempts to cover it up.

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