There is something very alluring about comedy and humor. Laughter is wonderful. It puts everyone in a good mood, at ease and lowers their defenses. To be able to make other people laugh and be happy is a wonderful talent and people like people who can make them laugh. It is no accident that public speakers often begin with a joke.
I have always enjoyed humor. My earliest childhood influences were the books by Richmal Crompton (author of the William series) and Frank W. Richards (creator of Billy Bunter). As I got older I started reading P. G. Wodehouse, S. J. Perelman, and Stephen Leacock and any other writer I could find in the library who was described as a comic or humorous writer. The comedy writers who appeal to me are those who edge on the absurd and who use the nature of the English language itself as a source for much of their humor.
Of them all, Wodehouse was, and remains, my favorite writer to this day. I have read the classic Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings Castle series many times over. He is the perfect choice for those days when one is feeling blah and nothing appeals to you to do.
Wodehouse’s craftsmanship was so meticulous and his use of language so sublime that his readers did not care that the stock plots were contrived and the characters stereotypical, and that you knew that there would be a happy endings all around in which even the villains were let off lightly. With Wodehouse, the pleasure lay on two levels, the surface one in which one is just carried along by the smoothness of the writing and the frantic pace of events, and below the surface by the appreciation of observing a language master at work.
Take for example, the classic The Code of the Woosters. Bertie Wooster, the rich, idle, none-too-bright narrator once again, through a series of misunderstandings, finds himself in the situation in which Madeline Bassett, a woman whose personality he finds revolting, is convinced that Bertie is madly in love with her. Wodehouse, via Wooster, paints a portrait of this ‘ghastly girl’.
I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their mind. A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and daisy chains. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God’s daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort.
With those few deft lines, the reader is immediately made aware of what kind of person Madeline is and what the problem is. She is someone who oozes ‘soul’ from every pore, while Bertie has none.
The sappy Madeline, however, loves the equally sappy newt-fancier (and Bertie’s friend) Gussie Fink-Nottle, and they become engaged, leaving Bertie relieved that he is off the hook. But she has told Bertie that if it should ever turn out that her marriage to Gussie should not take place and she can’t have the happiness she desires with Gussie, she will sacrifice herself and at least make Bertie happy by marrying him. This is a prospect he finds alarming to the utmost but he is too chivalrous to tell her that the thought of marrying her gives him the heebie-jeebies. He has his code of behavior and it does not allow him to dump a girl. Many of the Jeeves/Wooster stories center around Jeeves’ strategies to get the girl to dump Bertie.
When Gussie sends Bertie a telegram from Madeline’s country estate saying that the two of them have had a tiff and their engagement is off, an alarmed Bertie quickly rushes to his friend’s aid to try and patch things up. This has happened before in previous books and Bertie’s earlier desperate attempts to reconcile Madeline with Gussie have been seen by her as noble self-sacrificial efforts on Bertie’s part, to put his friend Gussie’s interests above his own, and have only increased Bertie’s esteem in her eyes.
On arrival, Bertie immediately runs into Madeline, who is surprised by his appearance at her home, leading to this priceless bit of dialogue.
“Why did you come? Oh, I know what you are going to say. You felt that, cost what it might, you had to see me again, just once. You could not resist the urge to take away with you one last memory, which you could cherish down the lonely years. Oh, Bertie, you remind me of Rudel.”
The name was new to me.
“The Seigneur Geoffrey Rudel, Prince of Blaye-en-Saintonge.”
I shook my head.
“Never met him, I’m afraid. Pal of yours?”
“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”
I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.
“For years he loved her, and at last he could resist no longer. He took ship to Tripoli, and his servants carried him ashore.”
“Not feeling so good?” I said groping. “Rough crossing?”
“He was dying. Of love.”
“They bore him into the Lady Melisande’s presence on a litter and he had just strength enough to reach out and touch her hand. Then he died.”
She paused, and heaved a sigh that seemed to come straight up from the cami-knickers. A silence ensured.
“Terrific,” I said, feeling I had to say something, though personally I didn’t think the story a patch on the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. Different, of course, if one had known the chap.
I must have read this book at least half-a-dozen times and this passage never fails to make me laugh.
Of course, humor is highly idiosyncratic and what brings one person to tears of laughter can leave another mystified. But if you like humor and have never read any Wodehouse, you owe it to yourself to try him. I suggest starting with The Code of the Woosters and Leave it to Psmith, two of my all-time favorites.
POST SCRIPT: Right wing outrage, part MMCMLXVI