The butler's silent guffaw

Or, where Jeeves came from

Every superhero needs an origin story, and Jeeves is no exception.

The best butler known to literature is described by his employer, Bertie Wooster, as “a godlike man in a bowler hat with grave, finely chiselled features and a head that stuck out at the back, indicating great brain power.”

But where did his creator, P.G. Wodehouse, get the idea for this deity in spats? He recounts his influences in Over Seventy: An Autobiography With Digressions, and the best story therein illustrates how wit is fundamentally democratic and not aristocratic.

It begins with young Wodehouse invited for lunch at the home of W.S. Gilbert, the great wit and dramatist who, with his frenemy Sullivan, gave us the HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance, Savoy Societies around the world, and the perfect last line for your LinkedIn bio. 

Midway through the meal, Wodehouse recounts, his esteemed and affluent host began to tell a story.

It was one of those very long deceptively dull stories where you make the build-up as tedious as you can, knowing that the punch line is going to pay for everything, and pause before you reach the point, so as to stun the audience with the unexpected snaperoo. In other words, a story which is pretty awful until the last line, when you have them rolling in the aisles.

Wodehouse notes that it didn’t seem to him to be a funny story, but given his accomplished and celebrated host, he knew that he must be mistaken. The emperor had to be wearing clothes, in other words. Why else would be be the emperor? So, he notes, “when the pause before the punch line came, thinking that this was the end, I laughed.”

I had rather an individual laugh in those days, something like the explosion of one of those gas mains that slay six. Infectious, I suppose you would call it, for the other guests, seeming a little puzzled, as if they had expected something better from the author of The Mikado, all laughed politely, and conversation became general. And it was at this juncture that I caught my host's eye.

I shall always remember the glare of pure hatred which I saw in it. If you have seen photographs of Gilbert, you will be aware that even when in repose his face was inclined to be formidable and his eye not the sort of eye you would willingly catch. 

To wit:

And now his face was far from being in repose. His eyes, beneath their beetling brows, seared my very soul. In order to get away from them, I averted my gaze and found myself encountering that of the butler. His eyes were shining with a doglike devotion. For some reason which I was unable to understand, I appeared to have made his day.

I know now what the reason was. I suppose he had heard that story build up like a glacier and rumble to its conclusion at least fifty times, probably more, and I had killed it.

The butler’s shining eyes witnessed a passing of the torch, from a writer who preserved his best lines to one who was about to start creating them. 

The lesson: Wit can’t be bottled up and served many years later in small doses to fancy friends. It has to be made to order, the fresher the better. Money, fame, and an attentive coterie of servants can’t change that. Even if your guests eat it up, your butler will know the truth. And even if you’re between butlers at the moment, you should know better.

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Quick quips; lightning

“A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”
— John Updike

“I don't believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates.”
— T. S. Eliot 

“Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant — better left unstirred.”
— P.G. Wodehouse


I’m frightfully bucked that you’ve read GWQ No. 58. Wodehouse’s guide to the French Exit appeared in No. 22, and there’ll be much more of him in future issues. I must agree with Hitch, though: No matter how much you love the man called Plum, please don’t refer to him as “The Master.” Pictured at top are Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the 1990-93 series Jeeves and Wooster, which can be mostly found on YouTube. Haters gonna hate; butlers gonna buttle. Do send your valet out for a copy of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting, and do also give the ♥️ below an unexpected snaperoo.