Many may have forgotten that a year ago a comedian was slapped on international television. But the comedian, whose job it is to talk about his observations of life, did not forget, and his recent remarks not only were some of the best lines he ever delivered, but were an opportunity to remember why an increasingly fragile society needs what comedians have always offered: a good look in the mirror.
How It Started: Jesters
During the Middle Ages a jester was someone who would entertain the household. Before there was endless streaming and scrolling, people sat around after dinner and talked. And if they were wealthy enough, they had a jester, who might sing, dance, juggle, tell jokes or stories, or simply tease members of the audience.
While we think of the word “jester” as relating to the word “jest,” which sounds a lot like “poking fun,” the truth is that the word comes from a French word relating to storytelling. Apart from all of the fun that a jester could bring to a household, he ultimately was a storyteller.
Outside of noble households, a jester who lived in a royal household had the additional privilege (or responsibility) of speaking or mocking freely without punishment. In fact, his cap and bells mimicked the crown whose protection he was under.
A jester was able to “speak truth to power,” whether that meant delivering bad news, offering criticism of a bad decision, or reminding the ruler that everyone needs the ability to laugh at himself sometimes.
How It’s Going: Comedians
Our society has evolved and we no longer employ people to entertain us at home in the evenings, nor do most of our rulers employ someone to openly mock or truth-tell to them (though maybe they should). But our human need to laugh while hearing stories about ourselves has continued and these days is served by comedians. And while some comedy is mindless and slapstick, of the “you might be a something if you something” variety, the best comedy, the type that is talked about for many years later, uses laughter as a vehicle to cut through to the heart of issues that seem hopelessly gridlocked in the court of public opinion.
Take George Carlin’s legendary bit on endangered animals and “saving the planet.” By using statistics and common sense, he lampoons the arrogance of those who think humans have the ability or moral authority to control which species live and die or how much carbon dioxide belongs in the atmosphere.
Bill Burr some time ago managed to make pro-abortion advocates squirm a bit as he noted that he was 100% pro-choice while saying that he couldn’t see it as anything other than killing a baby.
Rock followed in this same line in his recent special (also on Netflix) in which he claimed to be “pro-choice,” which got a huge amount of applause, followed by his saying, “I believe women should have the right to kill babies,” which got almost no applause.
Rock kept pushing this a bit further, implying that like a criminal ordering a hit, he wants evidence of a “dead baby” when an abortion is performed.
What Burr and Rock were able to do in these instances is directly confront an issue that divides American society in particular while speaking truths held deeply by the opposing sides, i.e. that this is an issue of women’s choice and that a baby is being killed. Their ability to hold both “truths” can cause many of us to do what we so rarely do these days in public discourse: examine what it is we really think on an issue. The gap in applause in Rock’s set certainly told a story.
Timing Is Everything
One of the basic rules of comedy is that timing is everything. Rock waited one year to retaliate for the slap he received from someone, he noted, played Muhammad Ali in film. He responded with the muscle that he has, incisive comedy, and put Will Smith on the mat, perhaps forever, even as Smith was preparing for a rehabilitation tour. He did this all while never mentioning Jada Pinkett-Smith by name during his special, which is what Smith insisted on that fateful Oscars night.
And that’s why, in all of human history, it’s never made sense to punish a jester. Because eventually, the joke will always be on you.