65. "The Germans," Fawlty Towers (1975)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
My Jack Benny Rule holds that a comic character with bad personality traits can still be sympathetic if those traits are mere exaggerations of weaknesses we all have (fear of getting old, insecurity about money, etc.). I don't think the rule is quite expansive enough to cover hotel owner Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese on Fawlty Towers.
Basil is a despicable person. To make the comparison suggested by "The Germans," he may not be a Nazi, but it's hard to imagine he'd stick his neck out for the Resistance.
He's no one's idea of a hero. Still, in his fits of temper he swings in and out of a zone where we can understand his frustrations. Basil has an infantile attachment to order and predictibility, similar to a young child who freaks out if served cereal in the wrong bowl. He has an anti-id: Ashamed of his own pleasure drive, he constantly tries to thwart everyone else's. Unfortunately, he runs a hotel in a resort town, where people go specifically to pursue pleasure and toss aside rules. (I was going to write that the only worse profession for him would be a pornographer, but he'd actually be perfect at taking all the joy and sponteneity out of sex — as Cleese does teaching schoolboys about intercourse in The Meaning of Life.)
In "The Wedding Party," he scolds maid/waitress Polly over her T-shirt: "Polly, I'm afraid we've abandoned the idea of the topless afternoon teas, so if you wouldn't mind changing before you go in where people might be trying to eat..." Then he answers the phone with "Hello. Fawlty Titties!"
All in the Family's Archie Bunker is similarly repressed, but he's too emotionally connected to his family, and too proud of his role as breadwinner, to ever get as bonkers as the misanthropic Basil. On the other hand, Seinfeld's George Costanza (and Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David) share Basil's frustration with people who don't follow their idiosyncratic rules of etiquette, but they have no shame about indulging their sensual appetites. Basil is a pretty lonely character in the sitcom pantheon.
Still, I think we all have flashes of Basil-like behavior, when we just want all the stupid or annoying people in our lives to just shut up. In his insults and physical violence (usually against hapless bellboy Manuel), Basil goes further than just about any of us would dare. Just when he crosses the line is surely a matter of individual taste; perhaps the mental health profession should develop a Fawlty Scale for diagnostic purposes.
"The Germans" opens with Basil visiting wife Sybil in the hospital, and he's not up to the role of doting husband, asking her, "How is the old toenail? Still burrowing its way down to the bone? Still macheting its way through the nerve?"
Back at the hotel, he's interrupted in the act of mounting a moosehead to the wall by Sybil calling to remind him to mount the moosehead to the wall. ("I was just doing it, you stupid woman! I just put it down to come here to be reminded by you to do what I'm already doing!") Finally freed from Sybil's moderating influence, Basil lets his dictatorial tendencies bloom, as when he announces a fire drill to the guests in the lobby:
Basil: Splendid. Well, now that's settled, we'll have the fire drill, which will commence in exactly 30 seconds from now. Thank you so much.
(Everyone stands still)
Basil: (immediately exasperated) What are you doing? I mean, are you just gonna stand there?
Mr. Sharp: What do you suggest?
Basil: Well, couldn't one or two of you go in the bar and a few in the dining room? I mean, use your imagination!
Mr. Sharp: Why?
Basil: Well, this is supposed to be a fire drill.
Mr. Sharp: There's only a few seconds.
Basil: Right, right. Well, stay where you are because, obviously, if there was a fire, you'd all be standing down here like this in the lobby, wouldn't you? I mean, why do we bother? We should let you all burn.
A freak accident then gives Basil a concussion that erases any tact that had been in his brain. When a group of German tourists arrives at the hotel, Basil warns Polly not to bring up the topic of World War II, then welcomes them with this:
Basil: Ah, wonderful! Wounderbar! Ah, please allow me to introduce myself. I am the owner of Fawlty Towers, and may I welcome your war, your wall, you wall, you all, and hope that your stay will be a happy one. Now, would you like to eat first, or would you like a drink before the war... ning that trespassers will be, er, tied up with piano wire? Sorry, sorry!
The "don't mention the war" scene, which continues in the dining room and culminates with Basil's silly-walk impression of Hitler, is a landmark in offensive humor. It's also an example of "ironic process," or the failure to suppress certain thoughts, and anti-social behavior can become quite funny when a character tries but fails to control it. (The rule about crying, going back to Mary Tyler Moore's breakdown in the "My Blonde Haired Brunette" episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, is that it's funny when the character is trying very hard not to cry.)
There have been plenty of Basil Fawlty-like spectacles on more recent "cringe comedies" such as The Office (especially the British version) and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; still, few have come close to being as funny as "The Germans."
• This Was Television's Les Chappell reviews "The Germans" (and the preceding episode, "Gourmet Night") here.
So what makes “The Germans” stick out so much, even amongst the high caliber of episodes that we’ve seen? Simply put, this is the episode that presents us with Basil Fawlty unchained. In the last five episodes there have been plenty of points where Basil’s lost control of himself, pushed to ever-increasing outbursts and leaps of logic, but he’s still been restrained by the scalding words of Sybil and his exaggerated British sense of propriety. “The Germans” strips both of those controls away, and it exposes Basil’s true character or lack thereof, and transforms his usual inability to connect with people into high-functioning sociopathy.