Basil Fawlty earns an “A” in the Science of Great Comedy


Fawlty Towers has to be the greatest 12 episodes of comedy ever. The UK version of The Office is a close second (much better, I think, than the American version, but that’s a debate for another day).

In 2000, the British Film Institute selected Fawlty Towers as the best British television show. After a year-long poll looking for Britain’s Best Sitcom, the BBC announced in mid-2005 that Fawlty Towers ranked as the fifth best sitcom of all time by British viewers. A huge feat considering there were only 12 episodes.

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Even Fawlty Towers, the hotel itself, was voted #1 in a poll conducted by Hotels.com to determine the all-time most memorable screen hotel. It outdistanced other such “hotels from hell” as the Bates Motel from Psycho and The Overlook Hotel which provided a winter home for Jack Nicholson and family in The Shining.

Such polls are a measure of the enduring popularity of a show, but how does one physically measure what makes a great comedy, well, great?

The perfect formula for classic comedy: [(R x D + V) x F + S]/A

Perhaps you’ve heard it before that sitcoms are too formulaic. But, have you ever taken the time to actually consider what is the perfect formula for a classic comedy? What makes some Britcoms fail to make the grade and never get passed the first season, while others are timeless treasures that make us laugh year after year? Is there actually a science to all the laughter?

Dr. Helen Pilcher, a British molecular neurobiologist by day and stand-up comic by night, set out several years ago to answer all of the above in a study commissioned by UKTV Gold, the satellite channel in the UK known as the home for classic Britcoms. Pilcher and her team of research scientists analyzed almost two decades’ worth of British comedies and actually came up with a mathematical expression for success – and failure.

It’s quite simple. A Britcom is a success if it scores high marks when applied to the following formula: [(R x D + V) x F + S]/A

Where’s the simple part, your asking?  Pilcher explains:

“Comedic value is determined by multiplying the recognizability of the main character (R) by their delusions of grandeur (D). This is added to the verbal wit of the script (V), and the total is multiplied by the amount someone falls over or suffers a physical injury (F). The difference in social status between the highest – and lowest – ranking characters (S) is added. Finally, the total is divided by the success of any scheme or stratagem in the show (A). Each term in the formula is assigned a value up to a maximum of 10 people to give an overall scientific score.”

See how simple it is?

From theory to practice, ‘Orrible was horrible

To actually put this formula into play, Dr. Pilcher established a baseline which, hopefully, no comedy would score lower than. One BBC show from 2001, ‘Orrible, came dreadfully close to achieving the lowest score among those tested. The bottom score was a pitiful 6.5.

After lengthy research, the long-running classic, Only Fools and Horses was voted No. 1 with a score of 696. At No. 2, a relative newcomer to the British comedy scene at that time was The Office, which finished with a 678 score.

Not to be outdone after 30 years of making people laugh in more than 60 countries, everyone’s favorite irascible hotelier, Basil Fawlty, and Fawlty Towers came in at No. 3. Another perennial favorite amongst Britcom fans, Blackadder, came in at No. 4.

So…next time you sit down and watch a new entry into the Britcom line-up, try thinking of [(R x D + V) x F + S]/A and be your very own network television Head of Light Entertainment and give it a thumbs up or down.

When you watch Fawlty Towers, make note of just how much “D” Basil has to go along with his perceived “S” and then marvel at all of the “F” and “V”!