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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #59: Basil Fawlty

Running a hotel is clearly too perilous.

Basil Fawlty owns a hotel. At least, his wife Sybil does, and she allows him to think he does too. Running that hotel would be a joy to Fawlty if it weren't for the guests and their incessant requests and desires. He's a broken man, beaten down by his inescapable position in Britain's class structure, by the incompetence of his staff, by the airy condescension of his wife, but mostly by his own inability to properly navigate most social situations. The simplest complications leave him flustered and manic, and his overreactions to minor problems inevitably cause those problems to exacerbate and multiply.

It is here that John Cleese's comic talents reach their apex. A national treasure (who cares if it's another nation?), Cleese mines trapped frustration for more laughs than ought to be possible. He blusters, he snarks, he compounds his errors, he trips, he falls, he never, ever, wins. And he knows he won't. Life, and his wife, won't let him. Cleese's Fawlty is abusive to everyone, all the while feeling the victim. And he is a victim, both of his own frantic obnoxiousness and a life that bears no resemblance to what he wanted for himself. My favorite Basil Fawlty moment comes when things are coming apart as usual, and he stands behind the reception desk, seething with impotent wrath. "Is it a dream?" he asks no one in particular. He then slams his head down on the desk, and pops right back up. "No?" he realizes. "Well then, we're stuck with it."

That's the core of my affection for this character. He's a hilarious jerk, a terrible boss and terrible husband. He makes the lion's share of his own problems. And yet there's a heart-wrenching optimism to Basil Fawlty, a resilient sense that today, things will go well. He knows it's a lie, and yet he keeps reaching for that brass ring. It's a spiral of self-deception we all know well. It's funny because it's true. And yes, we're stuck with it.

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