The Scarcity of Humor


Humor is difficult to do well. There are many comedies that are lame, downright stupid. I howl with laughter when I watch A Night at the Opera by the Marx Brothers, but it’s the only movie of theirs I really like. The others are unfocused: great bits, but incoherent.
That’s less true of more recent movies. Those I’ve watched (I don’t claim to have watched a large percentage) are often simply dumb ideas pursued at great length. TV comedies have to be more focused than that. I don’t mind watching bits and pieces of them when at work, but they aren’t the sort of thing I’d care to spend much time on. I’ve had periods of watching a lot of TV, and I can take it, but also leave it.
Recently I reread an early favorite for the first time in decades: Leave It to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse. It reminded me just how much and why I liked it.
Wodehouse was about 42 when it was published. He had been writing for a living for quite awhile, and was pretty close to the top of his game in this novel. Psmith, the main character, had been a character in earlier stories featuring him and a friend when attending a public school (what we would call a private school) in England. I think the story is also the first appearance of the Earl of Emsworth and Blandings Castle, both of whom would appear again, if not quite as felicitously.
The story is not, of course, about anything profound. It’s partly a love story, but more about various people trying to steal a valuable necklace to finance their plans, some more nefarious than others. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot in which the Earl (extremely vague about everything except his gardens and his prize pig) interacts with his sister (who intimidates him), his son (not excessively bright, but less vague), a visiting poet (the visit arranged by his sister, in which the Earl could hardly be less interested) whom he manages to alienate, and Psmith who, observing that the poet has absented himself, replaces him, thus advancing the plot.
Psmith actually reminds me of a longtime friend (whom I don’t think I had met when I first read this) who also enjoys talking at length and having fun with whatever life throws at him. I don’t think Psmith makes a later appearance in the Wodehouse canon, probably because he’s both independent and competent. Jeeves is also competent, but he makes a pair with Bertie Wooster.
Psmith’s habit of talking at great length (he seems to delight in informing newly met people that the P is silent) is disconcerting for those with whom he has conversation. We meet him just at the point when he has decided he will not work among fish, as his uncle wants him to do, and will take any job that might plausibly be congenial. He doesn’t keep his situation secret, and the coincidence of meeting the Earl advances the plot because the Earl’s son has asked him to steal his aunt’s (the Earl’s sister’s) necklace. On the same day we also meet Psmith’s love interest, a woman friend of his school friend’s wife, who has coincidentally been hired to catalogue the castle library. As Psmith is impersonating a poet, we also meet an actual poet who is also a thief. Does this convey Wodehouse’s opinion of writers who see themselves as on a higher plane than he? This is not impossible.
The necklace eventually does get stolen, but then disappears. The exceedingly intelligent and efficient secretary to the Earl (who the Earl dislikes) sleeplessly considers where it might be, gets locked out of the castle, and is unable to wake anyone to let him back in in the middle of the night. He then has an inspiration about how to get attention, as all Nature seems to say to him, “Say it with flower pots.”
That’s just the most memorable line. There are many of them scattered throughout the book. I found myself chuckling if not howling with laughter every couple of minutes. As far as I’m concerned, Wodehouse never achieved that height again (another person would probably have a different favorite), though he had a tremendous output: between ninety and a hundred novels, more or less.
He seems to have had a pretty sunny personality too. During World War II he was detained by the Germans for awhile, and people in England seem to have thought he was writing German propaganda since he was so cheerful about it, which may explain why he moved to America.
I don’t know exactly why I find so few things funny–REALLY funny, at least. Some things are amusing, but many that aim at comedy fall short even of amusing. Maybe if I looked for comedy and comedians I would find more that I really liked, but I think I’d find more that weren’t even amusing. Maybe I’m just too demanding, but I think it’s very difficult to be really funny, especially in a sustained kind of way. I don’t expect to find many really funny things, and I haven’t. There are things that make me chuckle, and there are things that are peculiar, but really very few that delight me.
I’m grateful for the existence of P.G. Wodehouse and the Marx Brothers, though.


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