Like a Jester, Like a Joker: Comedians as The Fourth Estate in a Low-Trust Society

By Sergei Samoilenko

A Jester and a Joker are both funny entertainers. Many royal courts throughout history employed professional jesters, sometimes called licensed fools, who entertained the court through music, storytelling, and comedy.

In literature, the jester is symbolic of common sense and honesty. In King Lear, the court jester provides insight and advice to the monarch and dispenses frank observations. Jesters could also give bad news to the monarch that no one else would dare deliver. When the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Sluys in 1340 by the English, Phillippe VI’s jester told him the English sailors “don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French”.

Some argue that contemporary comedians can be seen as licensed fools who serve the entertainment industry and cater to commercial imperatives and low tastes of consumers.

Like a jester, a joker is a funny character mostly found in circus. Also, the Joker is considered one of the iconic fictional characters in popular culture. Cards labelled “Joker” began appearing around the late 1860s during the civil war with some depicting clowns and jesters. As a card, the joker is primarily used as a trump card, which is elevated above its usual rank in trick-taking games.

As an archetypal character, jokers are tricksters. These are characters in folklore and mythology who exhibit cunning intelligence and use it to play tricks or otherwise disobey conventional behavior. The primary function of the trickster is to employ amorality to destabilize the status quo and reveal hypocrisies that society attempts to ignore.

The Joker is also a fictional supervillain in comic books, appearing as the archenemy of the superhero Batman. Batman is an agent of order. The Joker is an agent of chaos. “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn,” says Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

Interestingly, the identities of the jester and the joker sometimes overlap with the actions of “blessed fools.”  The term “fool” connotes what is commonly perceived as some mental deficiency or absentmindedness. Yurodivy (юродивый) is the Russian version of Christ’s fool, who acts foolish, irritating, even provocatively in the public. In both Eastern and Western Christianity fools for Christ are often seen as prophets who awake the public to imminent threats and call them to repent of their sins.

The concept of yurodivy has been exploited by many contemporary artists and musicians as a protective shield that allows them to openly criticize and ridicule a ruling power or a political regime. Other artists, like the Russian popular ska-band Leningrad, exploit the popular concept out of commercial logic. They play it safe by trying to criticize primarily socially acceptable topics like corruption, greed or alcoholism.

In communication studies, this is known as mutual enhancement effect when the audience displays self-congratulatory agreement with the messenger if he/she repeats publicly shared and accepted information. This way the messenger appears credible to the public and enjoys praise and admiration as a public herald.

One primary characteristic of today’s global society is growing public distrust in democratic institutions. In Habermasian terms, this protracted legitimacy crisis means that the “verification” system is not successful at maintaining the requisite level of mass loyalty. In a legitimacy crises, public trust in traditional authorities, like political institutions, their leaders, and the media, can hit rock bottom.

This trend is alarming because it leads to increasing political cynicism and decreasing political participation. It delegitimizes politicians and the political process in the eyes of citizens and to weaken their willingness to accept policies. Under the conditions of such a trust deficit, there is a great demand for new voices to trust.

Pew Research Center’s 2014 report on Americans’ media habits found that a portion of online adults get their news from two Comedy Central staples, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. About six-in-ten (62%) of online adults have heard of The Colbert Report, and 10% get news there. Today, in the age of social media and exacerbating legitimacy crisis, political comedy is “booming like never before” in the United States.

There is a common belief that comedians are sometimes better at breaking news than traditional journalists for several reasons. Comedians make us laugh. They are more likable, and thus generally more trusted. Indeed, comedians are held to entirely different, non-journalistic standards and not expected to fact-check or locate multiple sources. It is also true that they are simply less legally vulnerable. Recent events show that comedians can launch a series of reputational avalanches causing a “domino effect” that rapidly magnifies a number of casualties and spread beyond the reach of available treatments.

For example, it was a comedian who “broke” the Bill Cosby story, even though women have been speaking out for years. Obviously, comedians can be very powerful in their role as whistle-blowers or truth-tellers. For example, at the 2013 Oscars, Seth Macfarlane introduced the Supporting Actress category with a joke: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.”

At the same time, scholars argue that tabloid journalism and television entertainment have normalized personal ridicule and serve as a breeding ground for unjustified personal attacks leading to character assassination. Negative portrayals and caricatures also play a significant role in helping people form opinions. For example, studies demonstrate that exposure to Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin’s performance in the 2008 vice-presidential debate on Saturday Night Live negatively affected public attitudes towards her candidacy and therefore swayed voters.

As we were taught by Voltaire Hollywood, “with great power comes great responsibility.” It remains to be seen if modern comedians will choose the path of a jester or a joker.

2 thoughts on “Like a Jester, Like a Joker: Comedians as The Fourth Estate in a Low-Trust Society

  1. Pingback: CARP Digest [November 2017] – Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab

  2. Pingback: Head in the Clouds: The Ridicule of Socrates in Classical Athens – Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab

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