Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jeeves Takes Charge

I've never seen the 1990s TV show based on P.G. Wodehouse's stories, Jeeves and Wooster. But I know of its existence, and I have two things to say about it.

First, of course Jeeves and Wooster were played by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I mean, that's pretty obvious. Read the stories and you'll notice that Wodehouse clearly had Fry and Laurie in mind as he was writing. The fact that neither man had been born yet is just testament to Wodehouse's genius: he wasn't stuck within a one-way arrow of time, remembering only the past.

Second, even though I haven't seen the TV show, when I read Wodehouse's prose I hear Hugh Laurie's voice in my head, as if he's narrating the audiobook. I haven't seen Laurie play Bertie Wooster, but I have seen him on the latter two seasons of Black Adder, and I assume the mannerisms and voice he used were pretty similar.

(All this probably sounds quite peculiar if you know Hugh Laurie primarily as Dr. House.)

Jeeves Takes Charge is not so much a novel as it is a series of short stories strung together, but there is enough continuity that I don't feel too uncomfortable foisting the title of 'novel' on it.

Reading Wodehouse, I am struck with a bit of cognitive dissonance:

1. Wodehouse is supposed to be one of the foundations of modern British comedy. He's the guy who influenced Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and countless others.

2. But his plots remind me of low-brow American sitcoms, complete with tropes and cliches that would not be out of place on Gilligan's Island. (There is, at one point, a perfectly formed example of what TV Tropes calls the 'Gilligan Cut'.)


I'm a snob. I'm making the mistake of thinking, If it reminds me of American sitcoms, it can't be good. Because I think sitcoms are Not Sufficiently Cool.

Wodehouse scoured the history of comedy for his plots, some of which are based on Ancient Greek comedies. The same plots and tropes get re-used again and again, to the point that many modern-day American sitcoms employ plot developments that had their origins over two thousand years ago. There's nothing new under the sun.

Or, another way of looking at it is, we don't read Wodehouse today so much for his plotting as his dialogue and his use of language, particularly that which comes from the fictional mouth of Bertie Wooster, possibly my new favorite first-person narrator.

No comments: