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RUNNING TIME: 19 hours, 10 minutes
• Bio/filmography of author P.G. Wodehouse
“What if the mirror-universe Jane Austen wrote a series of comedies of the ill-mannered?”
Hugh Laurie (House, Blackadder), Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta, anything else that requires a dry, soothing English accent).
Bertie Wooster (Laurie) is one of the original trust-fund kids: Independently wealthy, idle, and determined to remain so. His Aunt Agatha, concerned for his wellbeing and the family’s image, sends around a “gentleman’s gentleman,” Jeeves (Fry) the valet to help him get his life on track. It’s all futile, of course: Wooster will never be a gentleman, no matter how long Jeeves hangs around. Wooster doesn’t mind the company, though; a gentleman of Jeeves’ sort can be a handy thing to have around when one’s escapades often require untangling by someone with more, shall we say, finely-honed sensibilities.
“I have Lupus?”
If you’ve never seen Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry work together, you kind of ought to. Their sketch comedy show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, shows off their comedic versatility, but I’ll heartily recommend Jeeves and Wooster for the lead characters and how perfectly they match the personas that Laurie and Fry had carved out for themselves during their television careers. Laurie, the bumbler, the idiot, the enthusiastic fall guy. Fry, the refined wit, the self-aware straightman. A pair of actors more suited to these roles I can’t imagine.
There’s an Abbot and Costello parallel in here somewhere, I’m sure. Until I find it, let me just say that these stories represent some of the original situation comedies. The characters are static. You can almost always predict how Bertie Wooster will react to a given situation, and you can always depend on Jeeves to bail him out, effortlessy and with dignity. The fun and the humor descend from placing these characters in a host of unpleasant, uppercrust situations. They don’t globetrot to the mummy’s lair, or meet Frankenstein’s monster, but the common structure is there: take a beloved team, foul them up, and enjoy watching them survive by the strength of their wits.
“Jeeves! You ought to be ashamed. There are ducks present.”
Well, one of their wits, anyway.
In the case of Jeeves and Wooster, those foul-ups center mainly around love (misguided, unrequited, courted, deflected, and narrowly avoided), station (stamping on the feet of the classes just beneath on the social ladder, while making a halfhearted attempt every now and then for the next rung up), and money. Though it’s all very genteel, you can’t help but feel the beam of irony that supports each individual story. The love is foolish, the concerns of station transient and minor, and the money only a thing to complain about. It’s plain Wodehouse had just as much fun lampooning his literary predecessors’ comedies of manners as he did inventing these characters to inhabit them.
It’s good to remember that word “fun” here It’s all to easy for me to fall into the pit of deconstruction, and examine the dark and serious undertones in comedies. I’m getting sick of hearing myself talk about it. Instead, let me highlight one of those things which plainly offers fodder for serious criticism, but can (and should) also be enjoyed superficially. That’s right, it’s time for class warfare!
First Lieutenant Archibald Hrrrrgruaagh reporting for duty.
One trait appears in each and every character inhabiting the England of Jeeves and Wooster, sometimes subtly, sometimes overwhelmingly: the superiority complex. Each manifestation motivates its owner into action in one way or another. Wooster nonchalantly believes himself the best of his peers; Jeeves, with wicked restraint, takes delight in exemplifying his superiority over Wooster and his stratum; love interests believe themselves too good for Wooster; divas hold themselves in dazzling esteem; friends and relations bully poor Bertie around with orders couched in gentle concern.
I love that Jeeves is as guilty of such a defect of personality as anyone else, because it highlights my favorite endless circle of character dynamics: those under the stairs believe themselves the cogs of the world, maintaining order, structure, and operation; those above the stairs believe themselves the inherent betters of their servants, divinely touched, singled out to be providers. That Jeeves and Wooster get along so well is a testament to the power of cooperation, not to mention the necessity of conflict in comedy. It certainly helps that Wooster is about as capable of holding a grudge as he is at pulling down an honest day’s wage.
“…and I’ve still got two wishes left!”
All this background wit comes across almost invisibly, but very little of the humorous dialogue or situations are liable to appeal to you if you don’t appreciate the nature of the show’s world. There’s slapstick, wordplay, and unlikely coincidences a-plenty — the bread-and-butter of modern sit-coms — but they occur in a world fleshed out for a purpose. Sure, the purpose and the characters who bear it show striking similarities to each other every which way, but I’m all right with that. Instead of a series of variations on a theme, call it variations on a single note. A single, gloriously English note.
Like a bugle at a fox hunt.
“Put on a lousy tux and I don’t even get my own soup tureen…”
Are you interested in Wodehouse and his novels? You should be. I envy anyone that first experience of the man’s work. You can take a spin through a brief biography and filmography of the man. Then go to the bookstore.