Rosa told me lots of good jokes. Even better, she taught me how to tell them. Boys tend to race through jokes, desperate to get to the punch line. My aunt taught me to slow down. She showed me how each joke was put together – where to pause, what to emphasize, how to deliver the pay-off. She made me practice the same routine over and over again, and then sent me home to perform it for my brothers.
Encouraged, I began to study the professionals. Jette had a radio in her living room, and we would listen to the first superstars of comedy while we leaned over the chessboard: Abbott and Costello, Amos n’ Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen. Rosa liked Jack Benny best, but Eddie Cantor was my favorite. Sunday nights belonged him. I adored his fast-talking, wise-cracking delivery, but what I liked most of all was that he was a monologue merchant. The other comedians worked in teams and played off each other, but Cantor’s comic momentum was sustained by nothing more than the sheer, unrelenting force of his wit.
The next stage of my education in comedy began in the summer of 1950, on my thirteenth birthday. Rosa appeared at our house while we were still eating breakfast. “Here,” she said, thrusting a small package into my hand. “It’s time to introduce you to the master.” I eagerly tore off the wrapping paper and then had to try and hide my disappointment as I held up the gift for general inspection.
My aunt had given me a book.
I was at an age when covers were the only thing I ever thought of judging a book by, and this one did not look promising. There was a picture of a young man dressed in a tuxedo, leaning back against a table with an anxious look on his face. He had raised one elegantly-clad leg, at the end of which dangled a small dog, hanging on to the man’s trousers with its teeth. In the background was a woman in a red dress, her hand raised to her face in consternation. I took all this in, dubious. At the time my tastes in fiction were limited to cowboys, aliens, and wartime derring-do. I gazed at the man in the tuxedo suspiciously, but it was the presence of the woman that really set the alarm bells ringing. I could not imagine why I would ever want to read a book with female characters in it. At that point in my life, my knowledge of women was derived exclusively from the lyrics of barbershop songs, and as a consequence I regarded all females with deep suspicion. They were to blame for all the mushy drivel that we had to sing week in and week out. Girls were to be serenaded, put up on a pedestal, and worshipped. Much of our repertoire was really no more than elaborate begging: Won’t you please be mine? Dream a little dream of me! Let me call you sweetheart! Women made men act like idiots, I knew that much. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be much use in a shoot-out, of either the intergalactic or terrestrial variety.
“Thank you,” I said politely.
“Funniest thing I’ve ever read,” Rosa told me.
The book was called The Code of the Woosters, by P. G. Wodehouse. Again, this was far from promising. I did not know if this P. G. Wodehouse was male or female. I turned the book over, looking for clues. “P. G. Wodehouse,” I mused. I pronounced it Woad-house.
“Wood-house,” corrected my aunt.
“That’s not how it’s spelled,” I objected.
“Yes, well, he’s English, you see,” said Rosa, as if that explained everything.
I greeted this news with mixed feelings. Everything I knew about the English I had learned from cheap dime-store paperbacks whose stories were set in wartime Europe. It was not uncommon for a brave but stupid English pilot who had been shot down over France to stumble in half way through the narrative and complicate matters for the gutsy American hero who was single-handedly trying to save the Allied war effort from defeat by delivering secret battle plans, intercepting secret battle plans, or possibly destroying secret battle plans. The Englishman’s principal dramatic purpose was to introduce an element of levity. His attempts to help the gutsy American hero would be benign but hapless, and invariably ended up making things worse. Still, at least the English always acted honorably – which was more than could be said for the French.
That afternoon I settled down on a quilt in the back yard, the sun warming my back, and began to read. By the time Jette called me in for supper, I was lost in another world.
The plot of The Code of the Woosters is so convoluted that any attempt at summary is doomed to failure. It is a story of policemen’s helmets, antique cow-creamers and temperamental French chefs. There are splenetic magistrates, weak-chinned aristocrats, doe-eyed maidens, and a would-be fascist dictator who designs ladies’ underwear. There is theft, burglary, and blackmail. All this is delivered in Bertie Wooster’s trademark high narrative style. Rhetorical flourishes rained down on me like a shower of mud. The combined complexities of plot and language made for a confusing but compelling read. By the time Bertie had left London on a mission to help his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle out of a romantic predicament, I was ensnared by the peculiar foreignness of it all. The world I had jumped into was so unrecognizable to me that it might as well have been about the aliens I was so fond of.
By the following afternoon I had finished the book. I put it down, walked thoughtfully around the yard once or twice, and then picked it up again. I turned back to the beginning. Rosa had been right. It was hilarious. The trouble was, I wasn’t sure why. A slight fog lingered over matters as I finished the last page, which led me to suspect that I had sailed past large parts of the story without really grasping what was going on. Subsequent readings clarified certain plot points, and I soon stopped worrying about precisely why people behaved in the way they did. Instead I just reveled in the jokes, all those deftly delivered one-liners that I didn’t quite understand. Bertie describes Roderick Spode, his nemesis, as having an eye that could open an oyster at sixty paces. I knew that was funny, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what it meant.
After three re-reads, I had more or less worked out what was going on. The Code of the Woosters finally dispensed with, I begged my aunt for more. Delighted, Rosa sent me home with my arms piled high with Wodehouse. These were the books that I escaped to during those long Friday evenings on the baseball bleachers. While my brothers were heroically engaged in the quintessential American pastime, I was half a world away, swept up in the misadventures of silly English aristocrats.
I enjoyed all of Wodehouse’s creations, but I loved Bertie Wooster the most. I adored his loyalty to his feckless chums, his eloquent, if occasionally baffling, turns of phrase, and his manifest idiocy. Besides, I fancied we had much in common, he and I. In particular, we shared the same suspicion of women. (Bertie’s aversion to romantic commitment has often made me wonder whether he, too, had sung in a barbershop quartet while he was up at Oxford.) The books teemed with females, legions of them, and Bertie’s entirely sensible attitude was to stay as far away from them as possible. He left the mooning around to his imbecilic male friends, who were forever falling in love. I was grateful that the various romances that drove many of the stories forwards were devoid of the ghastly sentimentality that I had feared when I gazed down at that first cover. Hand-holding and the whispering of sweet nothings were largely conducted off-page. Instead amorous entanglements were more like business transactions. There was good reason for this, of course: in Wodehouse’s world, falling in love was about far more than two people sighing sweetly at each other – that was the easy part. Every romance involved a series of knotty negotiations with an army of third parties, usually old and cantankerous family members, who seemed, for reasons that I could never readily fathom, to have the ability to kill the affair stone dead. It was years before it dawned on me that having two people simply fall in love just isn’t very funny. I wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or saddened by the news.