A psychiatrist and his wife are dining at Fawlty Towers in Torquay. He asks proprietor Basil Fawlty how often he and his wife Sybil are able to get away on holiday each year.
But Basil—put on edge by the presence of the shrink—walks away for a brief moment as the psychiatrist is talking. When he steps back to the table, the shrink asks him how many times they manage it? The ever-paranoid Basil mistakenly assumes the doctor is talking about how often he and Sybil have sex. While the true answer is almost certainly “Not very often,” Basil puffs himself up and boasts, “Two or three times a week.”
It’s not for nothing that Fawlty Towers has been called the “Sistine Chapel of sitcoms.” I’ve never laughed harder in my life than I did when I first saw this episode.
Very few of us who try to write humorous stories ever achieve the John Cleese/Connie Booth level of brilliance. But in the second King Harald cozy mystery, which is now with my editor, I did my best to earn some laughs with Andy and Harald’s shenanigans. One of the plot devices I use is that of the mistaken assumption.
How many good gags are based on one party in the scene assuming one thing, and another party assuming he or she is talking about something else?
Here’s an old (slightly edited) classic version of that technique, found among some family letters from my wife’s grandmother. My guess is that it dates back to the days of the Model T. I hope it gives you a smile as we ring out the old year and welcome the new.