Why we should be taking notes on comic genius
By Caz Zyvatkauskas
Don’t be surprised if you’re not your merry old self this Valentine’s Day—or any other Valentine’s Day for that matter. The truth is, most of us can’t get all that chuffed about it. And that is why I prefer to recall that it was on Feb. 14 some 33 years ago that the one man consistently able to raise the spirits without the aid of heart-shaped everythings passed away. I speak of P. G. Wodehouse.
On a day so cloyingly filled with chocolates, flowers, frills and other escapist frippery, it is worth recalling the work of an artist who portrayed a life so marvellously rife with ridiculous and profligate excesses that it rivals Valentine’s Day itself. And for all the fallings in and out of love that one does throughout one’s real-life career, an ardour that never fades is the one felt for really first-rate fiction. A fair doff of the cap to Shakespeare and Tolkien but for my escapist sojourn I inevitably return to the remarkable world of Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves.
I once had a rather rotund script-writing teacher with a disturbing comb-over who told us that all humour was based on the misfortunes of others. He was right, of course. Yet while the moronic exploits of Homer Simpson manage to elicit a laugh and the cruel slapstick that Moe visits upon the hapless Curly still evokes an equally cruel guffaw, in neither situation would I want to be those characters—or any other of a host of misfortunate comic heroes who, in gaining our laughter, also encourage our scorn. The trick to a really brilliant comedy is that it elicits the desire to emulate and become involved.
Take the bachelor bon vivant Bertie Wooster — sublimely preposterous by virtue of his ignorance and bliss but also immensely endearing in his desire to do the right thing by his chums, as it were. Wodehouse elevates Wooster not only by placing him in a setting of absurd affluence but also by counter-balancing his silliness with a character of impeccable reasoning and resourcefulness, the erudite and sophisticated valet Jeeves. And so as the former becomes embroiled in sticky situations—some as dangerous as retrieving a stolen antique cow creamer—the latter always manages to extricate his gentleman charge from the predicament.Wooster exerts just the right amount of effort to make us care and Jeeves embodies just the right amount of feudal spirit to keep us amused.
In short, the world that they inhabit—one of moneyed boys tossing buns at each other at the Drones Club, pinching policemen’s helmets, cultivating newts and playing games at country estates—is one the reader would gladly inhabit, even if they had to do so as the wastrel Bertie Wooster. Alas, without the proper funding we’ll never be able to pass the afternoon at Aunt Agatha’s country estate or escape to a posh art deco apartment in Manhattan. But we can still run off the old-fashioned way, as Wodehouse intended—through his literature. Now this escapism stuff is like one of those soap bubbles that delights the eye but then, pftt, it bursts and it’s gone. I’m suggesting we do something more permanent and notable: something commensurate with our standing as a world-class institution.
Universities in particular tend very much towards the serious, especially when it comes to sciences and such.When we do teach the arts, it’s usually of the very severe sort. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but perhaps, just as we indulge for only a day with the silliness of Valentine’s, could we not carve out a similar niche in our academic calendar for a little study of transcendent silliness? Long overlooked due to his ignominious position as a character in a book of humour, Bertie Wooster has been mostly passed over when it comes to serious study. I think we should put aside the boxes of flowers that will accumulate at our doorsteps Feb. 14 and consider a better way to celebrate. We must ask ourselves: what would Bertie Wooster do?
This is strong stuff I’m suggesting. I know the English department has managed to slip in a little humour here and there — a Shakespearean comedy, a bit of Mark Twain and a little Stephen Leacock. However, what I am proposing is a whole course on Jeeves and Wooster and nothing but. The fundraising possibilities certainly seem more appealing than the usual courting of deep pockets (I envision a lot of shallow fun and frolicsome activity).
This year, I’m not spending any money on Valentine’s Day ephemera. Instead, I’m squirrelling my pennies away for donation to the first fund anyone has the audacity to open in support of the above-mentioned effort. If every blasted Wodehouse fan chips in, we likely won’t have to linger around until the very last call at the Drone’s club… sir.
- This article originally appeared in the University of Toronto Bulletin • Tuesday, February 2, 2008
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