THE NODDER

Posted by jlubans on September 29, 2010

While in Hollywood during the 30s, P. G. Wodehouse saw a lot of “Yes men”. He wrote a short story about this phenomenon entitled The Nodder*. In the story, decades before Robert Kelley set forth his Follower grid, Mr. Wodehouse established a hierarchy of toadyism. Sunny Hollywood, of course, was (is?) a natural breeding ground, equal to Wall Street, for the worst kind of followers what with its megalomaniacal studio bosses, a sycophantic press, the star system, and - being the only show in town during the Depression - a generous stream of cash to cover vanity payrolls, including a colony of Brits: writers, actors and penniless members of the peerage. The colony had its own cricket team.

One of those colony writers (and cricketer) was P. G. Wodehouse. It is said he endured being paid thousands for doing next to nothing (not his choice) for three years, and then his contract was not renewed. Shortly after (more likely during his three years of being under used) he wrote several stories, including at least one novel that exposed child labor in the film industry. Not at all like the muckraker Sinclair Lewis, all of Wodehouse’s writing was in good humor and with his usual celebration of the absurd.

The story includes a definition:

“A Nodder is something like a Yes-man, only lower in the social scale. A Yes-Man’s duty is to attend conferences and say “Yes.” A Nodder’s, as the name implies, is to nod. The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes. He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man - or Vice-Yesser -, as he sometimes is called- and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed, do the Nodders begin to function. They nod. “

The Nodder in the story is a young man who seeks the hand of a bird imitator – yes, back in the day there were vaudeville performers paid to warble. He encounters difficulty in his suit until the Cecil B. DeMille-type studio boss fires the bird imitator when she speaks truth to Cecil’s power: the cuckoo exclaims with a Wuckoo!, not a Cuckoo!. Now, the Nodder has his chance to demonstrate to his true love that he is a Real Man – or not, by telling off Cecil. Will he? Will the worm turn?

When teaching about leaders and followers, I combine the assigned reading for Kelley with Wodehouse’s Nodder short story. Some students never quite get the connection. Others immediately see the link and probably learn more from it about the iniquitous side of following than from reading Kelley with his elaboration of sheep, yes men, alienated followers and survivors.

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*P. G. Wodehouse, “The Nodder”, in his Blandings Castle.
NY: The Overlook Press (original copyright, 1935) 2002,

Copyright John Lubans 2014
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