A while back, I was brainstorming — just for fun — a list of famous people who had improved the quality of my life. I deliberately excluded religious figures (Jesus and Mary: duh) along with spiritual writers, as I think and blog about them a lot. I wanted to see which other folks — novelists, entertainers, musicians, etc. — had given me laughter, insight, inspiration, and other great things that make life worth living.
High on the list was John Cleese, the English actor. You may know him from “Monty Python” and “A Fish Called Wanda.” I know and love him because of “Fawlty Towers,” the English series from the 1970s that has seen me through oh- so-many blue periods. Do you know this show? It is hysterical, the funniest TV series I’ve ever seen. It is about a small English hotel, run by Basil Fawlty (Cleese) and his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales — don’t you love that name?), with a very small and overworked staff. They face all kinds of awkward and zany situations, including an overbearing American guest, a pet rat on the loose on the same day that a health inspector is coming to call, and a cook who gets drunk the very night that they are hosting a posh dinner. Even people who don’t typically like British comedy seem to like this series, because the plots are so well-constructed (you appreciate the genius of the writing the more you watch them — believe me, I’ve seen each episode at least fifty times) and because the acting is so darn good. Cleese, as the short-tempered and overwrought Basil, is the stuff of legend, and the rest of the cast is just as superb.
I was given the new DVD version of the show for my birthday, and I’ve been listening to them with Cleese’s commentary (in addition to being the star, he also wrote the scripts with his ex-wife Connie Booth, who plays the waitress Polly). It’s nothing short of fascinating to get an insider’s perspective on the series. I have often heard actors say that comedy is far more difficult to pull off than drama, mainly because it has to be so precise; there is a very fine line between a gesture or a facial expression that is funny and one that is not. When you hear Cleese talk about the experience of playing this role, you really understand this in a new way. If comedy is done right, it appears spontaneous; in reality, it’s very intentional. And I actually appreciate the show’s humor even more for having this glimpse behind the curtain.
There have been many times, since high school, when the Fawlty Towers tapes (or, now, DVDs) got me out of a funk. They are pretty magic that way. It’s not just due to the witty writing and the perfectly-executed slapstick; it’s also, quite simply, because there is something innately cheering about seeing highly talented people at work. It always makes me feel more hopeful and positive.
If you haven’t seen it, take a look. (My personal favorite episodes: “Gourmet Night,” “Basil the Rat,” and “The Psychiatrist.”) It’s brilliant, brilliant stuff.