One less Fool, and why we’re all impoverished as a result

News of the death of Robin Williams prompted a number of reactions : the tragedy of a life cut prematurely short; thanksgiving for somebody who brought so much joy to so many people during a remarkable career as a stand-up comedian and actor; reflection that we still understand so little about depression and the invisible despair that it generates in so many people. For me, there is also a sense of profound sadness that one of the world’s true, modern jesters has been silenced

Whilst the historical portrayal of the jester as somebody who had license to criticise with impunity Kings and Queens, Lords and Nobles, may not survive close scrutiny, there is no doubt that there are examples throughout literature of the Court Jester or Fool taking on this role. One of the most widely read examples is that of the Fool in King Lear. The theory is that the lowly status of the Jester, coupled with his use of music and comedy, allowed him to speak truth to power in a way that other advisers and confidants would not have dared to attempt

Robin Williams was one of a number of (mostly American) comics who performed this Jester role throughout the 1970s and 1980s, pointing out the absurdities of some of the inequalities and prejudices that plagued western society then (and still do today). Take the example of Williams’ biting criticism of the systemic, racial prejudice amongst the golfing establishment at the time when Tiger Woods was breaking onto the world scene at the end of this stand-up sequence  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcnFbCCgTo4 . Williams sets the scene with a ridiculously funny re-enactment of a drunk Scot inventing the idea for golf, before leading the audience by the nose through the absurdities of modern golfing clothing and etiquette, before delivering the coup de grace with his description of the horrified reaction of golf’s establishment to the emergence of Woods

It’s a style that built on the foundations laid by people like Richard Pryor and Jacky Mason – comedians who were able to highlight discrimination and injustice through their comedy, providing a voice for those at the margins who had traditionally been little heard, and causing those in the wider audience to stop and think even while they laughed

Given the malaise that appears to be afflicting democracies in Europe and North America, with public confidence in politicians at an all-time low and more and more people turning their backs on the democratic process, we need Fools more than ever to help point out the absurd and to prick the pomposity of a political class that seems so remote from the electorate it is meant to serve. The loss of Williams – the greatest Fool of his generation – leaves us all the poorer

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