Where there’s smoke there’s fire…

“That’s not the fire alarm! It’s the burglar alarm!”
“Well how would we know? It sounds like the fire alarm.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Yes it does.”
“No, it doesn’t! It’s a semitone higher!”

I think that’s how it goes, more or less. The Germans episode of Cleese’s Fawlty Towers could be a short course in comparitive semiotics and linguistics. It’s got a burglar alarm without burglars, a fire drill that’s mistakenly read by hotel guests as a break-in, followed by a real drill that’s not followed, then a fire for which there is no fire alarm but only a weakened Cleese yelping the words “Fire! F-f-f-f-fire!” And then, Germans speaking German, Germans speaking English, Cleese, suffering a concussion, mistaking the Germans’ lunch orders (“H’ordouvres, which must be obeyed at all time!”), the notorious Sieg Heil walk, oh, and a talking Moose from Canada that the elderly Major believes must be from Japan…. A greater semiotic caper there never was. That show has it all.

The British raised self-deprecation to an art form in the works of Monty Python—Fawlty Towers included. By unfolding criticism on a roll fitting script and toilet, discursively baroque and visually burlesque, the troupe quite nailed it, their insights creating pitch-perfect humor on matters that were at times totally unfunny.

I was thinking of them, and of the Germans episode in particular, when the news came on, showing the burning vehicles of France in recent days. Where there’s smoke there generally is fire. There is always fire, in fact (smoke is an indexical sign.. it doesnt just refer to its signified, it’s produced by it). Interesting that the vehicle of the message is a vehicle… I had written in my last post that the language of violence was speaking. The language is more than that, as the burning of vehicles is a symbolic act of violence, not a violent act of revenge (war).

Cleese: “That’s not the fire alarm, it’s the burglar alarm!”
Chirac: “Are there burglars?”

Cleese: “Well, this isn’t the drill! I only sounded it so you’d all know what it sounds like when we have the drill!”
Chirac: “This is not a drill…”


The comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked that he agreed with picket lines but he didn’t know how to show it.

They say that French youths are motivated less by social inequality than by social isolation. Given that they dont have cars to drive, I suppose it only makes sense to send a message with burning vehicle instead. Sometimes smoke signals work.

Oh, this is bad… If French youths had smart mobs technology, would they still need to send smoke signals?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.