The Age of the Jester

This was a post that I wanted to write at the end of last year, but the departure of Stephen Colbert from late night TV made it feel poorly timed. Recent events in France, however, reminded me of why I wanted to talk about this is in the first place.

A man holds a placard which reads "I am Charlie" to pay tribute during a gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris

Je Suis Charlie

I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times by people better and smarter than me, but as someone with the temerity to express his opinion publicly on the internet, I can’t help but feel that yes, #JeSuisCharlie. Sure, Charlie Hebdo is crass, offensive, and more than a little bit racist, but satire is difficult like that. Before the attacks, I probably would have had nothing positive to say about the paper, and I don’t know that I do now, but the existence of such publications forces us to stay on our toes as a society, one way or another.

Relevant to this post though, was that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo reinforced what I had already been thinking for some time — that we need our jesters more now than ever.

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The Jester

Traditionally, the role of the jester was to entertain — dressed in motley rags and treated like an amusing pet rather than a person, the medieval jester nevertheless had license to criticize beyond that of an average citizen. The first practicioners of political satire, the King’s fool was encouraged to do what none of his sycophantic courtiers were willing to do: mock. Jesters could mercilessly lambast the rich and humorless, and were celebrated for doing so. Scandals, affairs, inadequacies, failures, nothing was off the table. King Phillipe VI’s fool famously delivered the news of a crushing naval defeat at the hands of the English by saying that the English sailors “don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French”.

Some of this is romanticized or exaggerated, but history is clear about one thing: jesters were valued because of their ability to speak truth in the service of humor. Someone had to tell the emperor that he had no clothes, after all.

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Our Modern Fools

You probably already know where I’m going with this. Even with Colbert sadly departed, the unpleasant truth is that our very best news comes from satirical news programs — Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’, John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’, The Onion, etc. Sure, they’re not out there reporting breaking news 24/7 as CNN endeavors to do, but one can only handle so much discussion of missing fuselages before longing for meaningful reporting.

Whether it’s corruption, political idiocy, overlooked stories, sexism in the media, or general hypocrisy, The Daily Show will be there to highlight and mock it, and there is a great deal worth mocking in today’s America. This last year TDS has reported on catcalling, homelessness, wasteful government spending, racism, Russian corruption, immigration, and dozens of other pressing concerns that often go overlooked by other networks who are hoping to stay ahead of the competition. I can remember dozens of Daily Show reports — I haven’t seen anything from a major network that was worthy of anything but a sigh.

These reports are funny, engaging, and always relevant, but they are also depressing. Many in America would love for the major networks to report on topics the way that the Daily Show does — honestly, without the false equivalency that poisons most network news — but we are being denied the journalism we rightly deserve. Our jesters should be able to focus on mocking the powerful, as is their birthright They shouldn’t have to do actually journalism as well.

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Sympathy for the Jester

It could be worse. Bassem Youssef was jailed for daring to do what Jon Stewart does in Egypt — at least we can take solace in that. But our society is looking less equal and less free by the day, and our reliance on comedians and late night hosts to do what our journalism should do is a troubling trend. Jon Stewart has had to take off his makeup multiple times to reassure us in ways that the mainstream media could not — like after 9/11, or following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He has also, on multiple occasions, apologized for mistakes or failures, when his detractors — Fox news in particular — hardly ever do. Noble indeed, but it is hardly a funnyman’s job to be perfect.

I watch a ton of satirical TV. I get my news from the internet, and only watch mainstream channels when I desperately need up-to-date coverage — pretty exclusively during elections. I have no complaints about the state of comedy in our country, but sometimes I despair that our jesters not only have to mock the news, but report it as well.

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