Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Now a few weeks ago I was talking to my friend about British and American comedy and the subject of Fawlty Towers came up. Long story shot, she didn’t find it that funny. Each to their own, I guess, but I think the biggest problem was the cultural barrier. So, considering I’m a big fan of the show, lets work out what makes Fawlty Towers so wonderful.
I think the first thing that anyone who wants to watch British comedy needs to comprehend is the class structure that exists within the British society. Now while some will argue that the Americans have a class structure, it’s not nearly as pronounced as it is in England. In England you’re kinda stuck in the same class system for your entire life. People will spend their time getting higher up in the social ladder, even though the chances of this are next to impossible. It’s just something that exists within British culture, the idea of one rising above their station even though it’s subtly discouraged within the society. The best metaphor is the ‘crab in the buckets’ syndrome, where you can keep a bucket of crabs somewhere without a lid because they’ll always pull each other back down. Similar concept applies to British society (New Zealand suffers from ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, where the tallest poppy gets the lawnmower blade, but that’s a tangent I like to bring up to show the differences in culture). It is this class-ism that is so ingrained within Fawlty Towers. If you don’t even grasp the very basic concepts of this, you’re kinda never going to grasp any of the show. So how does this work within the culture of the show?
Basil Fawlty is a horrible snob that thinks the best way of rising up the social ladder is by stepping on those beneath him. It’s a common enough trope within fiction, the lower-class man who tries to get above his station by putting down those around him, while also hobnobbing those who are above him. He’s quite a horrible character, but is pretty much the concept of British wish fulfilment twisted in a disgusting way. All people secretly wish to be richer, more popular, in a better place in life. It’s part of human nature. Well Basil Fawlty is this concept given life. He desperately wants to have a better life to the point where he’s destroying the one he already has. He is envy personified. He is the worst aspect of British mentality put out there for us all to see. And that’s what makes him such a funny character. We can recognize those desires within ourselves and can laugh at seeing someone else try so tragically badly to do likewise. It’s something everyone can relate too, but British audiences more than American ones. So Basil Fawlty is, in part, exaggerated wish fulfilment of the audience. What else is important to note about his character?
Well one of the greatest parts of Fawlty Towers is that it’s often twenty-nine minutes of build-up for the ultimate pay-off at the end. All the really great episodes illustrate this concept fantastically. We’re presented with a problem fairly early in the episode and the story revolves around trying to resolve this problem in the most convoluted way possible. More often than not Basil does something against his wife’s wishes and has to quickly find a work around to solve the problem, while not revealing away the original lie. Of course the really great part of the episode is the exact moment it all falls apart miserably. When the lie collapses in on itself and poor Basil is left examining the ruins of his life. It’s a fantastic pay-off for a good twenty odd minutes of build-up. It’s a master of screen-writing. It’s essentially telling a really long, really in-depth set-up for the mother of all punchlines. Sometimes you can see the joke coming a mile off, sometimes it comes out of nowhere and is hilarious. But the important part is that this set-up not only pays off, but is continually built. Very rarely do the episodes deal with something that doesn’t have to do with the build-up. Everything comes together to hit a fantastic climax. While most sitcoms fail this basic nature of sitcom writing (by trying to focus on cramming as many jokes as they can in succession rather than building a truly great narrative), Fawlty Towers elevates it to a new art form of sorts. It’s something all script writers should watch.
So Fawlty Towers satires the British class system and winds up for a great pay-off. What else does it do well? Well some critics will be quick to point out how ‘obnoxious’ Basil Fawlty screaming all the time is, they miss the skill it takes to be that angry. When Basil hits his car with a tree branch that level of anger is instantly recognizable. We know what it’s like to be that angry, so seeing it play out in front of us is almost cathartic. Plus John Cleese is just a fantastic actor who can really nail angry. No one can get angry like John Cleese gets angry. It’s basically an art form at this point, going through all the different shades of angry. There’s snide anger, the ‘I’m too tired for this shiz’ anger, the righteously outrageous anger, the explosive anger, and that rare type of anger where the person goes full circle back into calmness. So sure, Basil Fawlty might just be doing a lot of yelling… but damnit if he isn’t the best darn yeller in the business.
So is there anything else to add to it? Yes, but not enough to justify a full paragraph. The side characters are great, giving Basil a nice range to bounce off. His wife he has to keep happy, his female employee who gets wrapped up in his schemes, his foreign employee from Barcelona who barely understands what’s going on at any point. The slapstick nature of the show is done to perfection. Andrew Sachs has perfected both the pratfall and the ability to take a (fake) hit. The set design is simple enough, but really helps with what they’re trying to achieve. Hell even the sign out of the front of the hotel (which is changed to say something else at the start of every episode) could be said to be the inspiration for the ‘couch gag’ popularized by The Simpsons. But at the end of the day, the greatest achievement of the show is its writing. All writers, but especially TV comedy writers, should be watching this show. You can’t get a better education than that.
So there you have it. My defence of sorts of the criticism aimed at Fawlty Towers. If you disagree with anythig, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.