Butlers in American pop culture tend to provide comic relief — think The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or The Birdcage. Or, like Batman's Alfred, the butler is more of a friend than an employee.
But one show has brought back the classic butler, with a vengeance. Since the British period drama Downton Abbey made its debut on PBS in 2010, the demand for butlers in some parts of the world has surged.
In a piece for GQ, contributor David Katz wrote about the increased demand for high-class assistance among the ".001 percent."
"Thirty-five years ago," he writes, "there were only a few hundred butlers left in Britain; today there are roughly 10,000, plus thousands more abroad."
He tells NPR's Arun Rath that these days, most of the demand is coming from wealthy individuals in emerging markets — from Russian oligarchs, to billionaires in Dubai, to rich Chinese. Some of these individuals may already have housekeepers or servants at home, but the desire for a butler goes beyond that.
"When you're talking about hiring a proper British butler — the guy in the uniform who obeys a certain protocol of service — what you're hiring is essentially a status symbol," he says.
In China, he says, "they want an Anglo person that telegraphs to their other equally wealthy friends that they can afford to do this."
In his reporting on the modern-day lives of butlers, Katz took some classes at a butler school in London.
"So much of being a butler is what you don't do in front of your principal," he says. ("Principal" is butler speak for the super-rich employer.)
Katz says during one of his first lessons from the instructor, who was a life-long butler, came with this scenario: Imagine that you're serving a dinner party for your principal and you get a call from your wife or your partner that your child is sick. What do you do?
Almost everyone in the class, made of mostly people with lots of prior service experience, thought that it would be appropriate to get things in order and then get someone to cover for you.
They were all chastised by the instructor, Katz says. The instructor said the employer should never even know that the butler's child is sick. "Your problems are not your employers' problems," the class was told.
As far as compensation is concerned, butlers can do very well in some markets. In the U.S. and U.K., they may start making $30,000 a year, before quickly moving up to several hundred thousand dollars per year. But in the markets with high demand, like Dubai or parts of China, butlers can start at $60,000 — without having to work their way up to head of household.
Nowadays, butlers don't tend to stay with the same principal for life, like Alfred in Batman.
"They used to [stay put], and there's a certain pride in those that do, but because of the great demand — like with any great market — there's been a lot of jumping around lately," says Katz.
"This kind of bugs some of the older butlers," he adds. "They see guys staying with people for two to three years and then jumping to be paid more or have any easier life."
Katz says the hardest part of butler school for him wasn't the labor or food-service protocol, which he says he was pretty bad at.
"My bigger problem was I had a very hard time keeping my ego in check. You know, you cannot resent the people that you are serving," he says. "You have to believe in service as something beautiful in itself, and you hear them often say, 'We serve but we're never servile.' They really believe in what they do."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Now we present, for your inspection, the humble butler.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN AND ROBIN")
EFREM ZIMBALIST: (As Alfred) Good morning, Master Bruce. Rise and shine, sir.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIRDCAGE")
HANK AZARIA: (As Spartacus) Good evening. I am Spartacus, the Goldman's butler.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR")
JAMES AVERY: (As Philip Banks) Geoffrey, go fetch my tools.
JOSEPH MARCELL: (As Geoffrey) You mean, your knife and fork?
RATH: In American popular culture, the butler tends to serve up comic relief. Or like Batman's Alfred, he's more of a friend than a servant. But one show has brought back the classic butler with a vengeance.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
RATH: Yep, you public-broadcasting-type's all know "Downton Abbey." Mr. Carson oversees the help downstairs. Here, he explains the responsibilities to another servant.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
JIM CARTER: (As Mr. Carson) To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant, at all times, retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.
RATH: Since "Downton Abbey" made its debut in 2010, the demand for real butlers has surged, particularly in a country that has over a million millionaires.
DAVID KATZ: One of the main reasons that the butler has caught fire, in China, is just this craze down Abbey over there.
RATH: David Katz is a contributing writer for GQ. In a recent piece, he explored the lives of modern-day butlers.
KATZ: These days, most of the demand is actually coming from wealthy individuals in the emerging markets - rich Russian oligarchs or vastly wealthy Chinese. In fact, because China is such a booming economy, there is a huge service industry. And even middle-class Chinese can hire servants now. But when you're talking about hiring a proper British butler, the guy in the uniform who obeys a certain protocol of service, what you're hiring is essentially a status symbol.
RATH: So the Chinese employer doesn't want a Chinese butler, though. They want Jeeves.
KATZ: That's right. They want an Anglo person that telegraphs to their other, equally wealthy friends, that they can afford to do this.
RATH: So you went to butler school. Where is this place? What's it like?
KATZ: It is in the U.K. in London. And the school that I went to - and there are several - is designed to take people who already have pretty serious service experience and really take them to the next level of buttling - which, by the way, is the real and proper word for what butler's do. So much of being a butler is what you don't do in front of your principals. I mean...
RATH: Principal is your...
KATZ: ...Right, that's butler speak for the very rich person, whose beck and call you're constantly at. Our instructor himself, a life-long butler said, imagine that you're serving a dinner party for your principal. And you get a call from your wife or your partner that your child is sick. What do you do? Now, almost everyone in the class, and keep in mind these are people with a large degree of service experience, said, OK, well, you get someone else to cover. You make sure everything is set. We were all chastised. Your employer should never even know that your child is sick. Your problems, we were told, are not your employer's problems. And if you can't deal with that, the life of a proper British butler is not a life for you.
RATH: Wow. So that's an extreme level of dedication. How well do they get paid?
KATZ: Very well.
KATZ: It obviously depends on the market. In places like the U.K. or even in the U.S., you will start maybe at 30,000 U.S. dollars a year and then quickly work your up to several $100,000 a year, once you're more established. However, if you go someplace where the butler demand is really really high right now, such as Dubai or a lot of places in China, you can start at $60,000 a year and not even have to apprentice as an underbutler before you're head of household.
RATH: And do they tend to stay with their principal for their lifetime, like Alfred and Batman, or is that...
KATZ: Very much no, these days, actually. They used to, and there's a certain pride in those that do. But because of the great demand, like with any great market, there's been a lot of jumping around lately. And this kind of bugs some of the older butlers. They see guys staying with people for two to three years and then jumping to be paid more or have an easier life.
RATH: So when you were in butler school, what was hardest about it for you because buttling is not something you are aspiring to?
KATZ: One, it was just the kind of practical ability to serve. I'm not very good at it. And I would drop arugula and, you know, it was just - I was a mess. But, my bigger problem was I had very hard time keeping my ego in check. You know, you cannot resent the people that you are serving. You have to believe in service as something beautiful, in itself. And you hear them often say, we serve but we're never servile. They really believe in what they do. And often times, they believe they know more than the nouveau riche employers that have hired them. That it's their job to impart a certain wisdom to these people. And so that's why, if they feel like their boss is just hopeless, often times they will walk away and get another job.
RATH: David Katz is a contributing writer for GQ. His piece "The Real Butlers Of The .001 Percent" is in the May issue. David, thank you.
KATZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.