Thursday, April 01, 2004

A Great Year for Fools

by William S. Kowinski

April Fool's Day is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays: it gets no respect. But maybe it should this time, because it's been a great year for Fools.

For instance, best-selling author Al Franken, who inaugurated Air America Radio, a liberal talk radio network, on April Fool's Day Eve (March 31.)
Along with fellow best-sellers Michael Moore, Molly Ivins and Bill Maher, he made humor a political weapon, and his outspoken outrage towards the Bush administration helped to set the tone for the Democratic primary campaign. It's hard to imagine Howard Dean or even the later rhetoric of John Kerry would have been possible without these Fools paving the way.

(For the uninitiated, Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" was the second best-selling political book last year(to Hillary's), ranking 21st in sales overall. After leading the list in 2002, Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men (And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation)" remained in the top 100 last year, and has been followed by his current best-seller, "Dude, Where's My Country." Molly Ivins' "Bushwhacked" took up where "Shrub" left off as mordantly witty chronicles of George W. Bush (both books cowritten with Lou Dubose). Together with Bill Maher's best seller "When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden", these books arguably dominated political reading lists for the past year or so ---the less deliberately comic works of self-righteous rightists Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and Ann Coulter notwithstanding.)

Regardless of political orientation, this tactic of attacking power with laughter is in the tradition of the court jester and the official Fool that this day more or less celebrates. April Fool's Day harks back to the ancient festivals of spring where all kinds of bad behavior was allowed, including making fun of important people.

The Roman New Year's festival of Kalends (from which we get the word "calendar") featured music, masquerades and all imaginable definitions of fooling around, along with gluttony, drunkenness and gift-giving. A similar festival in ancient Greece was called the "komos," the origin of our word "comedy." We get "comedian" from "komidos," the festival's "chief singer," who was probably a lot like the master of ceremonies telling rude jokes between fan dancers at the burlesque.

Then in the A.D., village spring festivals throughout Europe eventually featured comic performances by a King or a Bishop of Fools, or a Lord of Misrule, often elected from among the common folk to poke fun at the established order for a day.

From ancient Egypt until the last Russian jester hung up his motley in the late l8th century, official Fools were found in royal courts throughout the world. The first court fools weren't kidding: they were authentically deranged, or simple-minded "holy fools" who were both feared and admired as God's chosen innocents. Or they were physically different, or they were considered funny just because they were foreigners. But fools were indulged and well-treated, so "playing the fool" became a prime show business gig.

The resulting "artificial fools" became wildly popular. Pope Leo X was reputed to be so fond of them that petitioners who wished to gain a Papal audience were advised to announce themselves as jesters. The French jester Brusquet was said to have come to the royal court to practice law, but realizing he could make more money in a day as a jester than in a lifetime as a lawyer, he made the modest switch of professions. Will Somers, jester to England's Henry VIII, was a national hero. (It's not clear, however, that Somers actually invented the joke, "Take my wife--please!")

By the 16th century, court jesters were doing just about everything that we now associate with comedy. They told jokes and funny stories (which in French is "geste", and therefore "jest" and "jester"), and performed slapstick in imitation of clumsy country bumpkins (the original meaning of "clown".) Some sang songs and passed on gossip like the troubadours, while others (such as L'Angely, jester to Louis XIV) prefigured the wits and political satirists of European society by whispering penetrating observations and sarcastic remarks in the king's ear.

Fools were hired not only by kings but by lesser officials (one of the annual duties of the Lord Mayor of London's fool was to jump into a tub of custard) as well as clergy and the first corporations. In the homes of the rich it was considered the height of good manners to employ a fool to insult the dinner guests.

Officially, the Fool's function was religious: he (and occasionally, she) was supposed to teach the king or queen humility, even if the royals were more interested in the dirty jokes about the cardinal. But this justification led to the most important legacy of the fool tradition: freedom of speech.

Because official court fools could fulfill their purpose only if they were permitted to speak freely, they had to be protected from punishment from those who were offended, including the king. So for centuries throughout Europe, while others could be beheaded, exiled, excommunicated or burnt at the stake for something they said, there were only two people in all the realm with the absolute right of free speech: the king (or queen), and the jester.

So when the idea of free speech for everyone began to spread, it was envisioned as an extension of the right of fools. In France, young men formed a kind of Free Speech Movement to criticize the government, while wearing traditional jester's clothes. Freedom of expression became so closely linked with the court fool that England's Magna Carta, the first great document challenging absolute royal power in the chain of history leading to the American and French revolutions, was decorated with the figure of the court jester.

American colonists used the jester's brand of free speech to parody and lampoon England's king. Their first revolutionary act was buffoonery: they dressed up, ran around, and dumped tea in the cold water of Boston Harbor.

The British aristocracy made fun of these colonists as backward clowns, which is what they meant by calling them "yankees"(meaning dumb Dutchmen.) But the early Americans relished the fool's image of impudence and transformed Yankee Doodle into a symbol of independence, though he remained a pretty goofy character. (What else can you say about a guy who sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni?) A similar figure, a Yankee "wise fool" stock character popular in early American stage comedies, was a source for Uncle Sam.

American presidents haven't had official jesters (make up your own joke here), but they've often had to endure comedians who got away with saying what other people wouldn't dare. Their humor varied from the relatively gentle chidings of Will Rogers during FDR's presidency, to the excoriating mockery of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce in the Eisenhower-McCarthy-Nixon years, to the cultural as well as political explosions of Richard Pryor and Lilly Tomlin, and the parodies of "Saturday Night Live," Canada's "SCTV" and England's "Spitting Image" during the Reagan reign.

These days we have so much mockery-from the nonpartisan laughs on Leno and Letterman to the stinging abuse from both right and left-that we risk a general cynicism towards political leaders and ideas: what playwright Michael Frayn calls the "permanent sneer."

Caustic political humor walks a fine line, easily falling into a universal cynicism and stereotyping, that can set the scornful tone for political reporting and general attitudes. Perhaps that's why some of today's jesters avoid nihilism, though they risk partisanship, by such political activities as Franken's liberal talk radio, or the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour of political workshops folded into a roving country fair, organized by political humorist Jim Hightower, with appearances by Michael Moore and Molly Ivins.

Though the Fool remains dangerous, most societies (including various Native American cultures) provide roles for tricksters and "sacred clowns" who mock authority. These societies are willing to risk disorder so that the unspoken becomes part of the balance, that renews their common values. This may be why clowns are sometimes considered to be healers. Renewal through the self-recognition of laughter is also an ancient rite of spring.

As for April Fool's Day itself, the most plausible explanation is that when individual nations began replacing the Julian calendar from Roman times with the new Gregorian calendar, New Year's Day was moved from its usual spring spot to the first of January. (Even today, some indigenous cultures retain the tradition of celebrating the New Year in the spring.) One of the first countries to change was France in the 16th century. But old habits die hard, especially if they began in 45 B.C. When the change was made, pranksters greeted the forgetful with a "Happy New Year" on April 1, and if the mark fell for it, they cried, "April Fool!"

Actually, they cried, "April Fish!" Those wild and crazy French.

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