In Writing with Jeeves and Wooster, my upcoming online class, one of the things we’ll be talking about is how P.G. Wodehouse manages to be so funny…which puts me on the spot to understand and explain his particular humor. Few things, I’m afraid, are less funny than an explanation of why a thing is funny—something you have noticed if you have ever started a sentence with the phrase, “Yeah, but it’s funny because…”
Anyway, I am happy to report that I have made some progress in my investigations into Wodehouse’s humor.
One key aspect of humor writing is the distortion of scale and proportion. In Wodehouse, this kind of distortion is happening on many levels, and all at once. At the sentence level, this tendency expresses itself as a near-constant stream of gross overstatement, punctuated by the occasional gross understatement.
For instance, in the first chapter of Right Ho, Jeeves, when Bertie Wooster first hears that his bashful, retiring friend Gussie Fink-Nottle is in love, he doubts that Gussie has the gumption to woo and win the girl…
“especially if the girl he had earmarked was one of these tough modern thugs, all lipstick and cool, hard, sardonic eyes, as she probably was.”
How did Wodehouse arrive at this hilariously overstated vision of a “modern” girl? I don’t know for sure, of course, but I suspect it was something like this: he started with the image of an odd couple—Gussie Fink-Nottle, the hermit-like fancier of newts, in love with, say, a brash flapper. (When Right Ho, Jeeves was published, in 1934, the Flapper Era was still a recent memory.) That’s a funny image already, but I love the way Wodehouse exaggerates the idea of the modern, worldly girl who (gasp!) wears lipstick into one who is “all lipstick and cold, sardonic eyes.” And to refer to such a girl as a “modern thug” is a stroke of genius.
I often warn writers to be very cautious with the thesaurus, lest they find themselves misusing the words they find there. But it’s not hard to see how a thesaurus might have been helpful in writing the above sentence about Gussie Fink-Nottle’s prospective girlfriend. In contrast to Gussie’s diffident, retiring personality, Wodehouse envisions a tough, possibly bullying young woman. With the thesaurus, to get from “tough person” (not funny) or “bully” (sort of funny) to “thug” (very funny) is the work of a moment. As for my concern about thesaurus-users misusing words…well, in this case the misuse of words is more or less the point.
It soon comes out that Gussie’s true love is not a “modern thug,” but Madeline Bassett, an acquaintance of Bertie’s. Bertie approves of the match. And upon learning that Jeeves has agreed to help Gussie win Madeline over, he approves of that too. “He’s just the type for her,” Bertie tells Jeeves.
“In fine, a good thing and one to be pushed along with the utmost energy. Strain every nerve, Jeeves.”
An employer authorizes his employee to help a friend and encourages him to give it his best effort. That idea is not inherently funny. Add some overstatement, however, and it IS suddenly funny (especially since it’s hard to imagine the level-headed, unflappable Jeeves “straining every nerve” in any cause).
This is a key insight into Wodehouse’s humor: his intricate plots are always setting up for a big punchline, but this kind of over-the-top, exaggerated language ensures that even the workmanlike, unavoidable stage business—the setup for the big punchline—is itself riddled with little punchlines, several to a page.
A few pages later, Bertie and Gussie discuss what Gussie should wear to a fancy-dress ball where he will encounter Madeline Bassett. Gussie mentions that he had considered dressing as a pirate chief, but he didn’t want to wear the piratey boots that such a costume would require.
Quick, come up with a joke about Gussie Fink-Nottle in sea-boots. Oh, I’ve got one: “The thought of Gussie Fink-Nottle in sea boots was depressing.” What’s that you say? That’s a lame joke, you say? We’ll see about that. Here’s how P.G. Wodehouse frames this exact joke:
“There is enough sadness in life without having fellows like Gussie Fink-Nottle going about in sea-boots.”
See what he did there? There is an important principle at work:
LAME JOKE + OVERSTATEMENT = HILARIOUS JOKE
Ok, one more instance of overstatement in Right Ho, Jeeves. When Gussie leaves for the fancy-dress ball, where he will (hopefully) voice his love to Madeline Bassett, he gives Bertie a weak smile. That’s not a bad touch. It gives the reader something to look at. It provides a little foreshadowing. It reveals character. But it’s not especially funny—until Wodehouse gets hold of it:
“And giving me the sort of weak smile Roman gladiators used to give the Emperor before entering the arena, Gussie trickled off.”
Over-the-top sentences like the ones I’ve quoted above appear on every page of Wodehouse—actually, more like two or three per page, sometimes more. Everything is dialed up higher than you would expect.
But then, every few pages, Wodehouse hits you with an understatement that is just as funny as all the overstatement.
Speaking of Gussie’s inability to put his love into words, for instance, Bertie says,
“And yet, if he wants this female to be his wife, he’s got to say so, what? I mean, only civil to mention it.”
This speaking of big things in small terms and small things in big terms is characteristic of Wodehouse’s sentences. But the principle applies above the sentence level.
Next week we’ll look at the ways Wodehouse distorts scale and proportion at the story level—and especially with regard to the characters’ motivations.