Let’s hear it for the comedians. We never needed them more than now in the age of Trump. Historically, societies have learned with a stunning unanimity that power untamed by humor turns quickly despotic. In what has been called a “universal phenomenon,” the jester found a place in the court of the king who was the prime target of his cleansing barbs and chastening foolery. Our comedians are part of that history.
The jesters were busy in medieval and Renaissance Europe, as well as in China, India, Japan, Russia, Africa, and elsewhere. As Beatrice Otto writes: “A cavalcade of jesters tumble across centuries and continents, and one could circle the globe tracing their footsteps.” There is a reason for this. Jesters are part of a society’s immune system. They are important civil servants. Jesters rise like white blood cells responding to an infection.vThe Trumps of history have all felt and resented their sting.
Today we call these civil servants Samantha Bee, Michael Moore, Tina Fey, John Oliver, Amy Schumer, Bill Maher, Wanda Sykes, Trevor Noah, Steven Colbert, Saturday Night Live, etc. And we the people instinctively look to them, even more than to editors and pundits for the fresh air of sanity. The cartoon may say more than the editorial. We know that with the magic of laughter comedians can change merde into merriment. They can, like lightning, cleanse the air bringing clarity and light.
The jesters were funny, but never just harmless entertainers. Like our comedians, they were busy relativizing the pomp and the power of the court and bringing perspective to a society that might otherwise be smothered by the pretensions of monarchical power run riot.
Societies institutionalize what they find important. Beyond the historical jesters, medieval Europe also had the annual Festum Fatuorum, the Feast of Fools, a kind of Saturday Night Live writ large. The roots of this stretch back to antiquity, all the way back to the old Saturnalia, the yearly permission, usually in December, for a revolution of strategic buffoonery. For these few precious hours, power and impunity were given to those ordinarily in a subordinate position. Schoolboys and clerics dressed as prelates and magistrates and made fun of all “the powers that be.” A line from Luke’s Gospel became a banner text: “deposuit potentes de sede, “he has cast the mighty down from their thrones.” (It was even call the Deposuit Feast.) The political import of humor was and is obvious.
As with Trump, those on the thrones of church, state, and academe took poorly to this feast. The Council of Basel in 1435 imposed severe penalties on participants and the Theology Faculty of the University of Paris in 1444 huffed and puffed about this alarmingly irreverent frivolity, only demonstrating their need for more of the same. These protests availed nothing; the practice lasted centuries.
Today’s power centers have screaming needs for jesters. Fact-allergic climate change deniers and humorless bankers who cook up witches’ brews of silly “sub-prime mortgages” and fuzzy “derivatives” are downright ridiculous. Make room for jesters at all those corporate board tables. Militarists who see kill-power not skilled diplomacy as the surest route to peace are laughable. All the power centers from the White House and the Kremlin to the Vatican and to the halls of the academe need the sweet exorcism of well pointed humor.
Indeed, so important is this social service of comedians that there should be a Nobel Prizes for the best jesters of our time. Just imagine their acceptance speeches!!