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.
A newly married couple were looking for a house in the country, and after finding one that they thought was suitable, happened to think that they had not noticed a water closet [flushing toilet] on the premises, and decided to write the owner about it. The young wife did not like to write out the words “water closet,” being very modest, so she referred to it as the W. C. The owner did not readily understand just what she meant, but after pondering a while came to the conclusion that it was the Wesleyan Church to which she referred, located near them, and answered her letter as follows:
I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, and now take pleasure in informing you that the W. C. is located about nine miles from the house and capable of seating 200 people. This is very unfortunate indeed if you are in the habit of going regularly. No doubt you will be interested to know that a great many people take their lunches with them and make a day of it, while others come by auto and usually arrive just in time.
The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and we had to stand up all the time. It may also interest you to know that it is planned to hold a bazaar to raise funds for plush seats, as that is a long-felt want. I might add that it pains me very much to be unable to go frequently. It is really through no lack of desire, but as we grow older it seems more of an effort to make the trip, particularly in the winter time.
Very truly yours,
Wat. A. Simp.
D. R. Martin is a writer and photographer based in Minnesota.
December 29, 2014 at 9:32 am
Hilarious! And this was an actual letter! Thanks for posting. It made me laugh on a cold Monday after Christmas!
December 29, 2014 at 10:11 am
I think it was a joke in a letter. But it is hilarious. Glad it made you laugh.
February 8, 2015 at 1:37 pm
Yes, this is a “wrong assumption” carried through to the height of hilarity. Delightful!!