In this weekly column, I’ll introduce you to the world of British comedy in the chronology of how I, an American anglophile, discovered it in my life. This week: Fawlty Towers.
When legendary rock groups break up, the members often go on to put out less than legendary solo work (I’m looking at you, Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds, Slash’s Snake-Pit, Duff and Chinese Democracy era Axl Rose). It’s hard for lightening to strike twice, to have multiple phases of brilliance in any creative career.
There are exceptions though. True geniuses that reinvent themselves with seeming ease. Lennon and McCartney, Bill Murray, Vern Troyer…you know, the masters.
Well, if Monty Python were the Beatles of sketch comedy, John Cleese was their Paul McCartney, rolling out a post-sketch career of innovative and landmark work. For my money, the greatest of his solo efforts was the pitch perfect farcical sitcom Fawlty Towers.
The series, co-written and co-starring Cleese’s then-wife Connie Booth, followed the misadventures of Basil Fawlty, a long suffering hotelier whose domineering wife, inept porter and loopy guests drove him to the brink of insanity.
A forerunner to boorish lead characters (hello, The Office) Basil Fawlty was rude, sneaky and full of repressed anger that would boil over hilariously in each episode. He was a classic anti-hero. Someone we loved to see suffer, yet somehow felt genuine empathy for. Basil was the kind of character you wanted to see broken each week, but not so badly that he wouldn’t come back again for the next.
Not only is Fawlty Towers a classic for comedy fans, it should be absolute required viewing for modern comedy writers. Cleese and Booth put on a clinic of sitcom execution, making somewhat stock or cliché scenarios vibrate with new life. Their performances, along with the withering Prunella Scales (Best. Name. EVER!) as Mrs. Fawlty and Andrew Sachs as the hapless, Spanish-only speaking porter Manuel, formed the core of a brilliant ensemble, who delivered epic physical comedy and razor-sharp dialogue like it was nothing.
Check out this silly-walk from the classic episode, The Germans:
Let it suffice to say that John Cleese is no Scott Weiland. To be a standout in Monty Python, kill it with Fawlty Towers then pen the story for and star in A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese solidified himself as multi-phased comedy legend.
Let me also say, thank God for PBS (support them! Go buy a tote-bag or something, right now!). If it weren’t for their elitist, smarty-pants programming schedule, I might have missed this show as a kid. Luckily, my Dad was a huge Anglophile, so I was introduced to Fawlty Towers early on.
If you haven’t seen the two series, 12 episode run (damn the BBC and their short series orders!) do yourself a favor and get educated, fool!
I’ll leave you with a YouTube clip of some best-of moments from the show:
Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He’s written for The Onion, MTV’s Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.