“A Funny Idea, a Jester!”

Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester is one of the most delightful films you could hope to see. Made in 1955, when he was in his prime, the movie shows Kaye (as a traveling actor) impersonating a jester in a medieval court. In one memorable scene, while hypnotized he flips from bumbling coward to debonair hero repeatedly, with the snap of a finger. When I was a kid I wanted to be Danny Kaye – in fact, my love of physical theater was largely inspired by the flexibility of character and comic talent he embodied, as did Sid Caesar and Jonathan Winters and the great impressionists.

(Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, wrote songs for the film, including the one in which the character traces his career path: “A jester, a jester, a funny idea, a jester!” For a loving tribute to the movie, check out the profile in What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen – ?, our family guide to classic movies: Normandy Press books.)

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Funny as it is, The Court Jester doesn’t shy away from the dangers inherent in the job. A jester served at the pleasure of the ruler, and could easily lose his head if his antics were displeasing. That could be the origin of the miniature likeness they often carried: a jester (complete with cap and bells) on a stick, who was given the more controversial lines to say. (The origins of ventriloquism can be seen here.) Because in addition to entertaining the king, it was the jester’s job to call the king out for any folly. No one else could safely do so, but the jester (or fool) was granted a kind of license to speak truth to power.

The world fool is related to the French word fol (or “madman”). A court fool was often a misfit, and could hide behind the mask of madness or folly in making fun of the king and his court. And yet, the “mask” of the harmless fool allowed him to be intelligent, creative, wise – and sharply satirical. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, we see a deep dependence and love between the King and the Fool: the highest and the lowest in society. Shakespeare put much wisdom in the mouths of his fools: Touchstone, Feste, Puck, Gobbo, the Dromios, the Gravedigger, the Porter and Costard.

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Today the edgy role of the fool or jester is taken by our standup comics and late night talk show hosts. Most of them come out of the nightclub circuit, where a brave comic always risks “dying” in front of an unsympathetic audience. But when they achieve a national platform (like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and others) they serve a vital role in pointing out the follies of those in power.

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