Carninval takes place every year in Trinidad. It is a three day festival right before the start of Lent, the 40 days before Easter in the Catholic Church. Thousands of people practice for months to present a series of shows culminating in a day long march. There is much merrymaking and calypso singing and steelband playing. Carnival is also observed throughout much of the Caribbean and Brazil and in New Orleans and even in New York. It goes back to the days of bondage when enslaved Africans would poke fun at themselves and also at their masters.
During the European Middle Ages the king had his own personal clown, the Court Jester, whose job it was to entertain the monarch and his friends. He would often “play the fool,” making fun of the common people, but also occasionally saying the most startling things about the king and his court and all would simply laugh and take it in stride.
The Jester was a commoner, a representative of that vast body of serfs and servants under the nobles, all those in bondage to the king and the aristocracy. The Jester, though sometimes treated rudely, was well taken care of, and he alone could get away with saying things to the king that no one else would dare to utter.
Today’s comedians continue this tradition. They make fun of themselves and also jab at the people who pay to see them. Blacks make good comedians. African Americans are at the bottom of the society’s totem pole. Black comedians, like the Court Jesters perform them, relentlessly ridicule themselves and by extension those they are seen to represent, but they also skewer their white patrons.
Between the Court Jester and today’s comedian came the Black minstrel tradition. In a society with masters and enslaved, who better to play the fool than one of those in chains? At first the “Black” minstrels were actually white men in blackface. Later African Americans, also wearing blackface, toured the country before and after the Civil War. Sometimes their jokes fell flat, especially those aimed at the plantocracy and its supporters (and later the upholders of Jim Crow) who felt the barbs undermined their absolute authority. Likewise, the Court Jester would occasionally cross the line and suffer for it, sometimes severely, same with the Black minstrels.
In time the musical aspects of their performances came to include not just satirical ditties, but also the real music of the Black South, gospel songs and eventually even the Blues. It is from the minstrel shows that the American theater and music industry were spawned. Over time Black performers would step beyond minstrelsy and further develop these art forms. Bert Williams is the iconic standup comic who paved the way for all the others. Paul Robeson the towering figure in American song. But many of Robeson’s portrayals, particularly early on, were derogatory caricatures of Black life and times.
Minstrelsy would mutate into Vaudeville and Burlesque which developed into the Television Variety Show which morphed into today’s singing talent shows and Late Night comedians.
The jokesters hosting late night variety/talk formats are, to a large degree, official Court Jesters. Note that when Johnny Carson began making fun of Watergate, it signaled Nixon’s resignation would not be long to come. Carson, the establishment Court Jester, would not have commented on Watergate, unless he thought the monarch, rather the president, was effectively powerless and practically headed out the door.
Today, above and beyond the late night comedic pretenders to the throne, Chris Rock would seem to be Court Jester par excellent. The ascerbic, quick-witted funnyman is at the frontier of the art of standup, dancing at the very limits of comedic license and occasionally pushing things, as is the Jester’s role as representative, and barometer, of the feelings of the masses. Richard Pryor once held the title until, that is, he crossed the line. Lenny Bruce, his predecessor, also went over the edge when he was reigning King of Comedy. ( Arthur Lewin, www.AfricaUnlimited.com )
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