There is an old saying that only a jester can speak truth to a king. Throughout world history, comedians have played a vital role in using humor to poke fun at leaders, revealing their shortcomings in a humorous way.
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Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: So today we have a fun topic that is very near and dear to my heart, which is comedy. So not just comedy in general, but it’s how comedy is used to stand up to, you know, authority figures, which are actually two of my favorite things cuz I hate authority and I love to make people laugh. So this is very exciting for me. So some of you might know I am actually an aspiring standup comedian, so I like to stand in front of crowds of people and embarrass myself trying to be funny on a regular basis. But it’s something I love doing. It’s something that makes me happy. But, you know, comedy isn’t a just about making people laugh. For, for me it is, I don’t technically do political comedy, I just don’t have the energy but a lot of people do. And it’s a way to kind of make a political statement and stand up to the powers that be so to speak. So there’s a great quote that got me thinking about this episode. And it’s only a jester, Yeah, a jester can speak truth to a king. And I really wanna unpack that today. So first let’s talk about jestes. So court jesters, and I’m trying to think of like what cartoon has them, and I couldn’t think of anything. but a court jester was somebody appointed by the king during the Renaissance era. And their main job was to be a comedian, to entertain the court. The court would be like the king and all his powerful and rich French friends. And so you might have seen ’em, they, they wear like pointy hats and have like bells on their hats on like weird elf shoes. Like they were meant to be like goofballs
Connor: Kinda looked like a clown a little bit.
Brittany: Yes. In fact, they were kind of an earlier predecessor, like they came before and, and set the path for clowns. They were often called fools, which is because again, they were silly and clown-like, which being foolish, they’re being foolish, right? And it’s funny because they were not like, even though they were really important, they were not viewed by other people as having a lot of power. They were seen as kind of like servants and lowly people. But it’s funny because in reality they actually had a lot more power than even some of the aristocracy, which is what you call like the rich class of society. So throughout history, criticizing a king was a crime that couldn’t just get you punished or like thrown in jail. Like people were killed over this because how dare you insult the king. The king is, you know, appointed by God or anointed by God and he knows everything. But jesters had this really special privilege. They were exempt from this law. There was something called, and I love this word, a comic dispensation was what it was called, fancy yes. Or freedom from restraint. So these were special legal privileges given to gestures that basically said, you’re allowed to poke fun at the king and nobody can and can punish you. And I think, you know, Connor and I were talking before the show and while this was a general rule of thumb, there were definitely kings that couldn’t handle it. and jesters who were punished. Not everyone, right? Yeah. Not everyone has a good sense of humor. We’re gonna talk about what a roast is later and that’ll bring that to light. But, so anyway, this power though gave gestures a really important rule in society and that was that they were allowed to keep the king in check. In fact, that was one of their main purposes was to what they called ground the king. Cuz remember, kings are only around people praising them all day long. And even though that sounds great, I am someone who loves praise. Imagine constantly, everybody just being, you’re so great, you’re so wonderful, you look great today. Like at some point you’re gonna say like, what is the truth? Nobody’s telling you what’s really going on. So that was the jester’s role. He was allowed to poke fun, to say, remember that silly thing the king did the other day? And even though it was funny, these were real things, like these were real things the king was doing that were wrong. And the jester could present them in a funny way and kind of be like, Hey king, you know, maybe you messed up here.
Connor: I mean, you mentioned a roast is when comedians get together and they’ll kind of, you know, make funny sometimes kind of punchy jokes, poking fun at powerful people. Often celebrities. You see celebrity roasts a lot, where, you know, some, one celebrity who’s doing a roast will just basically, usually with the help of comedians who will kind of prepare the jokes for them or help them write these, they’ll deliver kind of these jokes that are kind of teasing or poking fun at this other celebrity. These people who are powerful, who everyone is always praising as you point out, just like, you know, royalty in the past. and they’ll kind of bring them down to earth and kind of humiliate them a little bit in kinda.
Brittany: Yeah, it’s a little bit humiliating.
Connor: Yeah. Like, but in this kind of friendly way, that’s kind of in this controlled environment where everyone expects it. It’s not like you’re just walking up to them on the street or knocking on their front door and then delivering all these, you know, criticisms and poking fun at them. It’s understood that it’s all kind of meant in good humor.
Connor: Ingest. yeah. Oh. Interesting.
Brittany: Yeah, I just thought of that right now.
Connor: Yeah. Interesting. I didn’t make that connection till now. So, you know, in the case that we’re talking about, it was a king and you’d think that maybe this would make the king kind of resent the jests, but it was often, as you’ve said, kind of not like that at all. There was in the year 1047, there was this jester named Golet, I guess is how you pronounce his name. And he warned his master, the Duke William of Normandy, about a plot, against him, kind of a conspiracy. And he did it in rhyme while pounding on the Duke’s door. This was.
Brittany: Which to me honestly would be annoying if I was like, just catch.
Connor: Tapping is that happy birthday song?
Brittany: Just about you like jumping and singing like in rhyme. It’s like, just tell me what’s happening.
Connor: So certainly it was a creative way, I guess, of warning the cue and you know, maybe he had to do it like in code or something like that. Other people were listening at the time, King Charles the Fifth, he threw lavish like very fancy funerals for a couple of his court gestures. I think that’s especially important cuz again like no one was allowed to speak to the king like this. Kings weren’t given criticism in the media, you know, like today they’re you know the media’s critical of cuz of freedom of speech, right? They’re critical of powerful people all the time. Probably not enough, right? Yeah. They’re often kind of lapdogs for the powerful now instead of being critics. And, but you know, Kings didn’t have any critics at all in the media. I mean, there basically was no media. There was just kind of official pronouncements from the king. You didn’t really have this journalism at all.
Brittany: People couldn’t write I think for the most part. Yeah.
Connor: Yeah, There was a lot of illiteracy. So people couldn’t read, they couldn’t write. And so the gesture in a sense, it was kind of this prestigious role to hold, even if you were called a fool. but I think that kind of something that lives on in its own way today. I think we see similar people using comedy to poke fun at powerful people still today.
Brittany: That’s right. And, you know, political satire I think plays an important role in satire is when you, you criticize, you poke fun at politicians or certain policies, but you do it in a way that’s humorous. So it sounds like fake, but it’s, but people know that it’s fake. So, Babylon Bee, I think Connor, you and I have talked about this before. I’m trying to think if I know any good headlines, but they’re an entire publication and they’re dedicated to silly headlines. They’re not true, but they, you know, they highlight the absurdity of certain political actions. So one of them, and this is probably the most accessible to younger audiences, you know, I’ve talked about Jordan Peterson before. He’s got this whole thing where he is always yelling at people to clean their room and, you know, fold your laundry, clean your room. And one of the Babylon Bee headlines said like, laundry hears Jordan Peterson unfolds itself like silly, right? Like, that’s not real, right? But it made people laugh. So that’s like political satire. So satire is kind of exactly what the gestures did. You know, they would tell these stories that weren’t actually true, but they didn’t write it down. I think satire might, isn’t satire specifically written or acted out? It’s a little different, like if we get into the technical terms. But satire is something that we see a lot today, and it’s that form of political humor. But the funny thing about this is, and this goes back to how some people don’t like to be, you know, made fun of, A lot of people have called for censorship because they don’t like that they’re the ones being poked fun at. And so now social media platforms will even flag something. They’ll give you an alert that says, this isn’t real. Like this is satire, even though most people can tell because it’s so ridiculous that it is that now we’re getting into this era where like, some people don’t wanna be criticized, and so they’re making the intranet tell them when something may not be true, even if it’s just a joke.
Connor: Well, the head of the Babylon Bee has gone on the news to talk about this because, you know, Facebook will put those little fact-checker things on. It’s so silly on Babylon Bee articles to exactly, as you point out, like, oh, beware, this is not real. This, you know, the claims made in this article are disputed. You know, this isn’t quite real. And it’s like, well of course it’s not real. This is satire. They’re being silly and making a point. and so I think, you know, Babylon Bee has become a very, popular example. Like I remember one, that happened recently. It was this post that the Babylon Bee did, and it showed this picture of Nancy Pelosi, who’s a Democrat congresswoman, right? And the headline says, Democrats, say true lockdowns have never been tried. And why that’s funny is because these are all socialists these Democrats and the argument that a lot of socialists make when you say that socialism is destructive and harmful and leads to poverty and all the rest. They say, oh, no, no, no. True socialism has never been tried. Right? They say all of those failed attempts in Russia and Cuba and North Korea and Venezuela and all of these failed states that have tried to pursue and imposed socialism on everyone, they weren’t really doing socialism. Right, of course. Right. So that’s the argument. And so then here comes the Babylon Bee being satirical, cuz now the Democrats, the socialists, they’re all in support of lockdowns shutting down business shutting down the economy, you know, forcing people to stay in their homes and so forth. And so now then of course the criticism is that lockdowns don’t work and they’re destructive just like socialism. And so then their headline is, oh no, true lockdowns have never been tried. And so it’s an effective way to use, you know, a little humor to poke fun at powerful people like we’ve been talking about the king. So let’s talk about, the President of the United States, right? We have freedom of speech. People can poke fun of the President. Of course, we’ve talked about in the past there was the sedition acts that President John Adams.
Brittany: That’s right. He did not have a sense of humor. He would not like him, Rose did.
Connor: And so here were many of the people who signed the Constitution, the framers of the Constitution, who passed a law called the Sedition Act that made it a crime to criticize the president. You had Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, who was the editor of this newspaper that he set up, and he was criticizing John Adams cuz he was in a different political party. He didn’t like what President Adams was doing. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson for the crime of being critical, of the president was thrown in jail. So silly. And, so, you know, we haven’t always done it perfectly in America, but, you know, generally speaking, we can poke fun at the President, which leads to the Babylon Bee headline, one of many, right? This one I chuckled at, the headline was, Americans Finally Unified Against Common Foe or Common Enemy, and it’s just a picture of President Biden. And they, this came out after the whole Afghanistan withdrawal debacle because now like all these Democrats are criticizing him, and like everyone was upset about how horrible this withdrawal was going. And so we’re finally unified against a common enemy, and it’s the President. And so, you know, it makes us laugh even. I mean, to be frank, like, you know, they’ll criticize things sometimes that, I’m kinda like, Ooh, ouch. That one kind of hurt a little bit or whatever. And, I think that’s, you know, satires that they, push a little bit, not just the Babylon Bee, but satire in general. you know, it pushes a little bit if it stings, you know, maybe there’s an element of truth or maybe they’re onto something or I don’t know. Like, we don’t have strict rules today, fortunately, like the ones that existed in the medieval ages, as I said, we can criticize the President and others. and so comedians can still be a little bit, I don’t know what the word is, maybe irreverent, you know, a little bit, you know, controversial. They can highlight how silly certain views are by presenting them in a certain funny manner. And I think it’s, frankly, I mean, you would know better than me, but I know some comedians who’ve become famous just, being critical of, you know, politicians in the government. There was the one, George Carlin, who definitely is not for kids.
Brittany: Definitely not for kids.
Connor: A Lot of comedians have potty mouths. Yes. But, you know, this, George, he’s dead now. He did a lot, in his comedy, to highlight the absurdity of governments and the abuse of power. He criticized collectivism, he called out the government for frequently lying to people. he’s hardly the only one. Plenty of other people have done it. And it is kind of like, do you remember that whole, what do they call it? The king is not wearing clothes. I’m getting that wrong.
Brittany: Oh, it’s emperors.
Connor: Yeah, the emperor has no clothes. they’re wrong. It’s kinda like, everyone’s like laughing looking at one and they’re like, Like, what’s going on here? Right? And yet everyone kind of knows this is a problem, right? And, we all agree that there are these problems here so we can at least laugh about it to try and discuss what the problem is cuz it’s often a serious issue. But with a bit of humor, we can still work through some of these controversial issues.
Brittany: It’s almost like laugh or cry, which is sad. Like these, terrible political things are gonna happen regardless. It’s almost like, at least we can laugh about it because that’s all we can do. Laugh or cry. There was, you said one thing, where sometimes the jokes like, like hit you or it’s like, oh, they just made fun of me. There was one, late-night comedian who did a calendar. He goes, well, here’s a calendar for libertarians and the picture. Cause you know, calendars have a picture. It was just a mirror. So every time you flipped to a different month, libertarians could just look at themselves in the mirror and, you know, a lot of people say Libertarians are selfish and, you know, blah, blah, blah. So that was a play on the individualism thing and how people think we’re selfish, but I thought it was clever. So, that was one thing where I was like, Ooh, I don’t like that You’re making fun of me. But also, this is funny. So one thing I wanna touch on before we wrap up is, while we still have freedom of speech, and we’re very lucky a lot of times now though, the ability to speak freely, especially for comedians and to poke fun at everybody’s being jeopardized by this thing that we’ve talked about before called Cancel culture. So where Connor and I just talked about, sometimes we’re the butt of the joke, meaning like, we’re the people, people are poking fun at and we don’t like it, but like we can still laugh. So now people don’t like it at all. Now you have people who get offended and they can’t just walk out. Let’s say you’re at a standup, you know, you’re seeing a standup comedian and they say something you don’t like. You have every right to walk out. But instead of just walking out, people are standing up and screaming. Not only that but then they’re recording and they’re taking to Twitter saying, you know, how dare you make a joke about something. But again, joking is how we get through things, joking is how people cope, It’s how we make political statements. So we think we need to be really careful to remember that even if we’re the ones maybe being poked fun at that you know, just like the gestures, it’s really important to have that venue, that platform to be able to, to say what you feel and to, to maybe confront these political views, whether we agree with them or not.
Connor: That’s a great way to conclude. Thanks, Brittany. Until next time, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.
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