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Comedy Post-Wodehouse

William Lamb discusses his passionate love for the humourist writer, P G Wodehouse and debates whether comedy has changed in the 21st century with the dawn of stand up acts and TV shows.

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If you were to read the opening paragraph of my personal statement – something which I would not recommend – you would come across something a bit like this: “I have always loved P.G. Wodehouse, and no matter how many times I read his novels, I find an unadulterated joy in his prose”. It’s pretty turgid stuff and makes one wonder what Exeter was thinking. Nevertheless, reading through it now I wonder what pompous, 17-year-old me meant by ‘Wodehousian’. Well, being an intrepid English student I obviously went straight to the OED.

To be ‘Wodehousian’ a work ought to have a ‘light tone, farcical situations, upper-class characters, and humorous wordplay’. Yet, this totally disregards two elements of Wodehouse’s style. Firstly, he could be a true absurdist. Some passages of his work would more readily be compared to the oeuvre of Daniil Kharms (the early Soviet-era surrealist poet) than, say, his British contemporaries Waugh or Chesterton. Secondly, Wodehouse was, to my mind, one of the wriest satirists Literature has had the pleasure to possess. One common misconception is that Wodehouse was from the class of which he writes. However, he did not even attend university but instead was forced to go straight into the job market in a clerical role he detested. It is this outsider perspective which allowed him to criticise and critique so beautifully.

one of the wriest satirists Literature has had the pleasure to possess

Take, for instance, The Code of the Woosters, which is perhaps the greatest of the Jeeves and Wooster novels. There is a character called Spode, who is so clearly a caricature of the (regrettably) real Sir Oswald Mosley of Ancoats, who was the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Spode, who runs the fascist regiment of the ‘Black Shorts’ has “a grip like the bite of a horse”. In one of the concluding speeches, he is cathartically chastised with:

“You hear [the Black Shorts] shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’”

There has never been such a devastating pair of words as ‘footer’ ‘bags’. The novel, coming out one year before the ignition of World War Two, uses Wodehouse’s lightness of touch to confidently criticise the burgeoning fascist movements across Europe (and especially the predilection for antisemitism from the Upper-Classes). This is a strain of British comedy which has lasted well into the 00s. Perhaps the most notable examples of this are the work of Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. Brass Eye, which remains on the Channel 4 website, retained the whimsy of Wodehouse and upped the ante on bite.

Currently, in the UK and USA, there is a niche in alarmingly biting programmes such as The Daily Show, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which have blurred the lines between comedy and journalism, and The Mash Report. However, compared to Brass Eye or The Day Today (the launch pad of Alan Partridge), they have less of the scabrous edge and perhaps lean too far on to Hollywood bombast.

there is a new world of comedy which one ought to embrace

This is where a slightly different form has taken the baton; the stand-up routine. Although we are far from the fireside cosiness of Wodehouse, a well structured stand-up set can be (almost) as witty. It can create that satisfied ringing in your ears of an idea that swirls around your head well after the screen switches to black. James Acaster has achieved this with his recent Netflix special Repertoire, which discusses ideas of faith, doubt, and heartbreak, whilst also having extended monologues on the honey industry and his favourite Chilean miners. Or one may look at Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show Fleabag, which has since been adapted for television and similarly blindsides you with a surprising level of warmth and nuance. However, personally, the crowning achievement to date is another Netflix special. Nanette by Hannah Gadsby approaches and dissects topics such as sexual harassment and abuse, homophobia, and misogyny, through a layered set which crescendos to an emotional peak.

Although I shall always champion P.G. and maintain that he is as relevant as ever, there is a new world of comedy which one ought to embrace. The old 45-minute sets of one-liners and sexism are thankfully coming to a close, and the art form is maturing at such a rapid pace thanks to the acceptance of new voices, which shall change the game forever, whilst respecting the heritage which they follow.

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