Unhand that butler!

Ask Jeeves and its new agent, Mike Ovitz, claim that their butler isn't Bertie Wooster's.


David McDonough
January 11, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

The October news that Ask Jeeves, the online search engine, had signed up with Hollywood power mogul Michael Ovitz sent the company's stock soaring. Ask Jeeves uses as its trademark a well-fed cartoon butler with clasped hands and slightly obsequious smile, and the firm has plans to make his figure the focal point of the kind of aggressive licensing, merchandising and marketing campaign that Ovitz and his Artists Managing Group do so well. Books and cartoons featuring Jeeves have been mentioned.

There were hosannahs among the stockholders of Ask Jeeves that week, but among admirers of the author P.G. Wodehouse the news was greeted with rather less enthusiasm. Their position is that the character of Jeeves, the all-knowing servant, belongs irrevocably to his creator, Wodehouse, the prolific British humorist.

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Wodehouse, who began his career at the turn of the century, wrote comic stories about amiable, vacuous, vaguely Edwardian young men who spent their days tossing rolls at each other at their London club, the Drones, their nights in nightclubs, and their weekends in country houses. In 1919, he needed a character to extricate his dim-witted hero, Bertie Wooster, from the light-headed predicaments in which he and his friends -- whose collective IQ is well within double digits -- invariably entangle themselves. In a flash of genius, Wodehouse decided to make Bertie's valet a mastermind.

He named him after Percy Jeeves, an English cricketer. Jeeves is there to bail Bertie out no matter what troubles he's getting into, or thinking of getting into: bad racing bet ("I should not advocate it, sir. The stable is not sanguine"), bad matrimonial plans ("I would always hesitate to recommend as a life's companion a young lady with such a vivid shade of red hair. Red hair, sir, is dangerous), and especially, bad sartorial choice ("Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir"). By the late '20s, Jeeves was firmly established. Wodehouse wrote his first Jeeves book in 1923, and his last shortly before his death in 1974. In all, he produced 14 immensely popular books about the sagacious gentleman's gentleman.

Ask Jeeves does not have quite so long a pedigree. The company was founded in 1996, and launched its consumer site in 1997, and in 1998 it launched its corporate question asking service, which enables customers to ask specific questions of corporations, and includes among its clients Dell, Microsoft, Williams-Sonoma and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

For those who have not availed themselves of the service, the idea is this: you ask Jeeves a question in ordinary English (for example, "Who is the world's richest man?" He then directs you to several variations of your question. You click on the one that comes the closest to your intent, which is itself linked to the appropriate Web site. In this case, you'll reach The Bill Gates Personal Wealth Clock.

That's how it works -- ideally. ABCNEWS.com has noted that "Questions remain about how effective the service is in providing accurate answers to a wide range of questions." Many people assert, however, that they have had excellent results using Ask Jeeves; that is, if 10 responses to a question are given, usually, five of them link to helpful Web sites, and it is not a difficult task to ignore the inappropriate ones.

"Ask Jeeves is about making your life easier," says Heather Staples, vice-president of corporate communications for the company. "It allows you to ask questions in plain English and get answers to most frequently asked questions." She estimates that the site answers more than 2.5 million questions per day.

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Ask Jeeves creators Garrett Gruener and David Warthen wanted a name that would stand out and convey what the search engine would do. "They knew they wanted a butler character," explains Staples, "so they thought about lots of different names for butlers, everything from Hudson to Cadbury, and they ended up with Jeeves." And had they read P.G. Wodehouse? Says Staples, "I would imagine that they had, but I don't know for a fact."

Tony Ring, a founder of the Wodehouse Society in Britain, and author of several books on Wodehouse, is irked by the whole Jeeves-as-logo situation. He insists that the site initially did mention Wodehouse's creation as its inspiration.

"My personal view is that having tried to use the engine to find a few things, Ask Jeeves is more like Ukridge [a decidedly thick-headed Wodehouse character] than Jeeves. So although when it was set up (acknowledging our Jeeves as the inspiration) it might have been regarded as something of a compliment, the fact that it does not now acknowledge his existence, coupled with its incompetence, says to me that like so much marketing today, it is no more than a con-trick."

Arguments as to antecedents aside, there remains the question of licensing. Where there's merchandising, there's money. Will the estate of P.G. Wodehouse collect any of what Bertie Wooster would have called "the oof"? It seems doubtful.

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"They are a completely separate entity at this point," says Heather Staples firmly. "We have an amicable relationship with the Wodehouse estate, we just have no formal affiliation right now."

The Wodehouse estate isn't talking, but is rather giving the impression that should Ask Jeeves show up at the door, it would be about as welcome, to use a Wodehouse phrase, as "King Herod at an Israelite Mothers Social Saturday Afternoon." Linda Shaughnessy of A.P. Watt Ltd., literary agents for the estate, will say only, "We are in touch. We are having discussions through our legal representatives."

"It's unconscionable for anybody to steal Jeeves from his creator," protests Susan Cohen, vice-president of the Wodehouse Society in America. "It is ludicrous to say that Jeeves has nothing to do with P.G. Wodehouse. It's like saying that Hamlet has nothing to do with Shakespeare."

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A simple trip to the Internet doesn't clear up the issue, either. The name "Jeeves," when typed into Ask Jeeves, puts you, not surprisingly, in touch with Ask Jeeves. So it does on the search engine Excite, which will also connect you to a laundry and dry cleaning service called "Jeeves of Belgravia." Web Crawler links you to Ask Jeeves, but also to credits and episode information for the BBC television series "Jeeves and Wooster," and plugging Jeeves into Infoseek puts you in touch with the International Guild of Professional Butlers, who have a whole Web page devoted to the books of P.G. Wodehouse.

Meanwhile, Ask Jeeves and Ovitz are pressing ahead. They have already displayed Jeeves as a 20-foot-tall float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, gazing benignly down at the crowd, and comfortably rubbing elbows with Bugs, Buzz Lightyear and other pop icons. The actor who has played Jeeves in limited-release TV commercials also appeared on the runway in a November fashion show celebrating the launch of Animal Fair magazine, a journal for pet lovers. (He was carrying his bulldog, Abbey.)

"We're taking a look at how we can move Jeeves the character into popular culture ... to a kind of Popeye status," says Staples. And in the end, there may not be a lot that ardent Wodehouseans can do about the matter except shudder. The wonderfully named Elin Woodger, president of the Wodehouse Society in the United States, says, "We'll probably just bung a bread roll at them. We're not known for our official stances." Susan Cohen is fiercer. "We don't have to sit silent. Our job in the Wodehouse Society is to encourage people to discover and love P.G. Wodehouse. We are going to be vocal. We can speak for Jeeves and Wodehouse."

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But it seems only fair to let the author speak for himself, from beyond the grave, as it were. In 1931, in the introduction to "The World of Jeeves," Wodehouse wrote, "One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a 'comic strip.' But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves' deprecating cough and his murmured 'I would scarcely advocate it, sir,' to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book."

Of course, Wodehouse was also a pragmatist. Jeeves was portrayed on film back in 1936, and has appeared on the stage and television. Shortly before Wodehouse's death, Andrew Lloyd Webber secured the rights to a musical version of Jeeves. "By Jeeves" bombed, but let's see Michael Ovitz try to cut Lloyd Webber out of something he thinks he's entitled to. Although if anyone can do it, Ovitz can.

When Ask Jeeves was queried online with the question, "Who is Michael Ovitz?" the answer was, ominously, "This machine has performed an illegal function and will shut down." Behold the awful, far-reaching power of Michael Ovitz. Or, as Jeeves would say to Bertie, "The mind boggles, sir."

And Bertie's response? "I inspected the mind. He was right. It boggled."

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David McDonough

David McDonough's work has appeared in GQ, Movieline, Mirabella and the New York Times. He is a former member of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Society, but he quit when he realized he was never going to make Head Goober.

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