The New York Times, November 7, 1915
War Will Restore England’s Sense of Humor
P. G. Wodehouse, Noted English Novelist, Says That Class Prejudice, Which the War Has Destroyed, Has for Years Blighted the British Joke
By Joyce Kilmer.
IT has been said—in the United States, for example, in Ireland, and in France—that to get a joke into an Englishman’s head a surgical operation is necessary. England is now undergoing a very grave surgical operation—the surgical operation called war. And the result will be, an English humorist recently told me, the restoration of England’s long-lost sense of humor.
The English humorist who made this prophecy is Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Formerly known as the author of whimsical tales of English life, especially of the life of the English schoolboy, he has during the last few years turned his attention to American subjects and scenes. And his work, into which there now always enters something which seems distinctively American, has been for some time appearing in magazines on this side of the Atlantic. The publication of his novel “Something New” has increased his American audience.
Of course, Mr. Wodehouse is not so unpatriotic as to say that the English are a humorless race. But he thinks that of late years English humor has suffered from a blight. And this blight, he says, the war will remove.
“Since W. S. Gilbert,” he said, “England has had no humorist of first rank. Gilbert was an originator; he got a new angle on things. But the English humorists since his time have worked by a pattern; they have turned out, all of them, the same polished conventional sort of thing.
“There is nobody in England today to compare with George Ade, for example. George Ade is the greatest American humorist, I suppose. What a delight his work is! ‘In Babel,’ ‘Archie’—everything he has written. And we have no one in England to match your great company of modern American humorists—Franklin P. Adams, Burt Leston Taylor, Booth Tarkington, (surely the Penrod stories were written by a humorist!) Ring W. Lardner, Harry Leon Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, George Horace Lorimer, Irvin Cobb—there are so many of them that I cannot name them all.
“Of course we have had our accomplished humorists, but their appeal has been special and limited. W. W. Jacobs is unique, he is in a class by himself. The most genuine humorist in England is Edward V. Lucas. He is a real humorist, but there is something delicate and restrained about his work. In fact, his humor nearly always is tinged with melancholy.
“There is Gilbert K. Chesterton, of course, with his wonderful essays. There is James Milne, there are many people who would be roughly classed as humorists, but there is no one in England with the general appeal of any of the American humorists whom I have mentioned.”
“What is the reason for this condition?” I asked.
“I think,” Mr. Wodehouse answered, “that one important reason is the peculiar character of the English magazine. You see, we have class publications. The only vehicle for expressing the best English humor is Punch. And Punch is circulated exclusively among the educated classes, among the people who have private incomes.
“And then we have papers which appeal only to the lower classes, to people who are almost illiterate. The humor, so called, which they print is the work of men who are carefully writing down to their audience, and the humor in Punch, too, is written with a special audience in view. No English humorist writes for a paper which is to be read, for example, by a prosperous business man and his chauffeur; to reach these two men it is necessary for him to write two different sorts of jokes for two different publications.
“Now, these conditions naturally hinder the development of English humor. The best humor is universal; a joke is a joke. And the humorist who writes special sorts of jokes with special sorts of people in view cannot write anything that is really funny. These conditions make a joke something deliberate and studied, instead of the spontaneous expression.
“You will understand what I mean when I say that so mirth-provoking a writer as Ring W. Lardner could not succeed in England today. The slang and bad English of his writings would shut them out from the appreciation of the English educated classes. This would be unfortunate for the English educated classes, but it would nevertheless happen.
“Now, over here Ring W. Lardner seems to appeal to every one, to people who never went to high school, and to people with university degrees. He is, of course, a real humorist, gaining his effect, it seems to me, by methods not altogether unlike those of Artemus Ward. But in England he would not be appreciated. And this lack of appreciation would be due principally to the English prejudice against slang. And this prejudice is so strong that there could never be an English George Ade.”
“The English humorist,” said Mr. Wodehouse, “leads a sheltered life. Generally he is born in the private income class; he goes to a public school, then to a university, and then he probably is called to the bar. He writes for people with similar experiences and traditions, and he is careful to write nothing that might offend them.
“The American humorist, I believe, has not been sheltered in this way. As a rule, he has been a newspaper man. He has knocked about, mixed with all sorts of people, and been in all sorts of places. And as a result he is not so careful about what he writes; he puts down on paper what seems to him to be funny, without thinking whether its appeal will be chiefly to the college professor or to the bartender. His humor is spontaneous; his jokes are real jokes.
“The class idea seems to dominate English humor. The best English humor always is rather upper class.
“The writings of Sir Francis Burnand were typically English. His ‘Happy Thoughts’ and other works of the sort, very amusing in their way, dealt with the adventures and misadventures of a young man well educated and well bred, in possession of an income sufficient to enable him to spend most of his time paying visits to big country houses. And the only people who could enjoy his humor were people who lived the same leisurely life as his hero.
“Jerome K. Jerome was the first English humorist of distinction to write in the person of a man who had to work for a living. His ‘Three Men in a Boat’ was, as a matter of fact, a phenomenon. No other English humorist would have used Jerome’s method in writing ‘Three Men in a Boat.’
“The conventional way for an English humorist to write ‘Three Men in a Boat’ would be for him to write in the third person, humorously but rather patronizingly and unsympathetically telling the adventures of these queer people on their humble holiday. But Jerome wrote in the first person, making the narrator one of the three men.
“I think that Mark Twain was responsible for Jerome K. Jerome’s delightful violation of the sacred canons of English humor. Mark Twain was at the bottom of what was called, in the nineties, the ‘New Humor.’
“English humor has gradually been growing more alert. The English humorist has been adopting a less patronizing attitude toward his readers; he has credited his readers with a certain amount of intelligence and has not considered it necessary to explain his jokes in detail as he used to explain them.
“You remember the old volumes of Punch, and Pierce Egan’s hunting pictures. The point of every joke, however obvious, was put in italics, so that it might not possibly be missed. If the joke was about a child’s bright retort, or something of the sort, there would also be given, after the italicized point of the joke, a phrase in parenthesis, showing the effect of the retort on the other character in the dialogue—‘Consternation of Mr. Brown,’ or ‘Total Collapse of Mr. Brown,’ or something like that.
“This has been done away with in comparatively recent years, certainly since Mark Twain's great vogue has been established. It is not that English humor has become less subtle, less in need of explanation; what has happened is that the English humorists have learned to place more reliance on their readers’ intelligence. And I think that Mark Twain is responsible for this.
“A typical example of American humor is the eyeball story. The scene is a Western mining town. An Englishman enters the bar, where men carrying six-shooters are standing around talking and gulping down great slugs of clear whisky. He turns to the bartender and says, ‘Will you give me a highball, please?’
“The bartender looks at him for a moment and then turns to the bar waiter. ‘Jake,’ he says, ‘this gent wants an eyeball. I don’t know what he wants it for. But run out and catch a Chinaman.’
“Now, that is an excellent story, and over here it has a general appeal. But in England it would be considered coarse and vulgar. The typical British joke of the best sort has to do with motor cars or butlers or Bishops or week ends.
“I think,” said Mr. Wodehouse, reflectively, “that the chief characteristic of English humor is that it is cautious. American humor takes chances. That is the principal difference.
“The American humorist is single-minded; he wants to be funny. The English humorist wabbles; he would like to be funny, but he is haunted by the fear of being vulgar.
“The English humorist has had ten years’ training in repression, and the worship of good form at public school and university, and this cramps him. The American humorist has probably developed his powers on the staff of a newspaper, and his reverence for good form has worn thin. He aims to have his work have the punch at any cost.
“But I think that the war is going to have a great effect on the attitude toward humor of the British public. People will be so depressed that they will become less critical of the methods used to cheer them up. The years that follow the war will afford a great opportunity to the new English humorist who works on the American plan. Hitherto he has only had to raise his head to have it bludgeoned.
“Jerome K. Jerome is a case in point. There was a large section of the public which received his early work as a personal insult. But the war is changing all this. The classes are getting to know each other. They are facing a common danger; they are animated by a common passion. Democracy is common; democracy, which breaks down the barriers between the classes, and when these barriers are broken down, the English humorist will no longer write for one little group, but for every one.
“Even before the war there were signs of a change. Punch, ever since Owen Seaman became editor and made it the best humorous paper in the world, has been a young man’s paper. And it has become an ordinary thing for American farces to succeed in London. A few years ago it would have been a miracle.
“It may seem paradoxical that the tragedy of the war should restore England’s sense of humor, but I feel sure that this will be the case. The classes are being forced to know each other better than ever before. They are discovering that they have many things in common, and one of these things is the sense of humor. This general sense of humor has been there all the while, but class distinctions have kept it from being recognized as a common possession.”