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Simon Parke: Entertaining fools gladly

18 February 2009

ALL fools are entertainers; but not all entertainers are fools.

Entertainers are under the spotlight again. First, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand found themselves pilloried for crude jokes made on air. More recently, Jeremy Clarkson called Gordon Brown “a one-eyed Scottish idiot”. All three have since apologised, but we should not equate this with remorse.

An entertainer is first and fore­most an attention-seeker. It takes great energy to keep presenting your­self to people, an energy rooted in a deep craving for attention. So the bottom line for them is not “Did I offend?” but “Did people notice me?”

One of the glaring truths to emerge from the film Frost/Nixon is that David Frost did not mind what he did in front of a camera, as long as he got a good audience. The appeal of an interview with the disgraced President, journalistic coup though it was, lay not in any desire for political or personal revelation, but in the potential viewing figures of such an event.

Similarly, for entertainers such as Mr Brand, Mr Ross, and Mr Clark­son, the material is not important, and they struggle to identify with those who feel offended. “It was just a joke,” they will say. They do not take their material seriously; so why should anyone else? They may apolo­gise, but how can they be sad when they are even more famous now?

The fool, on the other hand, takes his material very seriously. The court jester has traditionally thrived where freedom of speech is not recognised; and so the truth must masquerade as jest.

The vagrant Basil, who famously walked the streets of Moscow naked, was one of the few to make Ivan the Terrible feel uncomfortable, and live to tell the tale. Basil must have been entertaining to watch, but entertain­ment was not his vocation.

The entertainer wants a reaction; the fool wants a response. The enter­tainer surfs the contemporary waves; the fool is a wave-breaker. They reflect on the low-grade sanity around them, and adopt their own brand of madness in revolt.

The execution of Charles I bought an end to the tradition of the court jester in England, but the jesters had made their mark. James VI of Scot­land finally sacked his jester, Archibald Arm­strong, for insulting too many influential people.

The fool’s mantle is not comfort­able. They are those who are open to the contradictions both around them and within them; those who dare to create the space and leisure to make true connections. And so it was that in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as one “wise enough to be a fool”.

The bloody and insane French Revolution ended the tradition of the court jester in France. They were all much too sensible for that.


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