This April Fool’s Day, let’s celebrate the archetype of laughs.
They’re not laughing at you; they’re laughing with you.
Never has a platitude been so wrong as when we’re talking about one of storytelling’s great archetypes—the fool. The whole purpose of this type of character is to bring levity to a heavy plot, a serious main character or a tense situation. Some of the best “fool” characters decorate kids’ bedrooms around the world: Dory, Timon and Poomba, Tow Mater and that loveable, melty ditz Olaf.
Disney, along with other great kid-storytelling machines, knows full well that The Fool employed to max capabilities makes audiences laugh with them and at them. In a story, The Fool serves as a clown, a jester; someone who cracks a joke in one scene and may be the butt of the joke in another. Clownish characters remind us not to take things so seriously. They point out the fact that, in life, if we wait for it … wait for it … a punch line will come along eventually.
Despite their buffoonery, good clown characters carry an important message (i.e., just keep swimming, hakuna matata, etc. etc.)
Shakespeare had a firm grasp of this concept. The Bard loved a great fool as much as he liked cross-dressing his characters, and that’s saying something. Take Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. This guy is specifically named bottom—an obvious nod to both the low comedy of fools and the fact that he turns into a donkey (so, an ass) in the play. By the end, our fool Bottom gets to perform a dramatic death scene in his over-the-top absurd interpretation of what passionate acting looks like. It’s hysterical. Here we are, the audience, laughing at death. Guess the joke’s on us—Bottom and William Shakespeare “get” us in the end with the big lesson: let’s not be so scared about all this, shall we?
Another super cool aspect of The Fool involves other characters. Because the fool is typically beneath other characters in looks, intelligence, social/economic status and so forth, how the main characters treat the fool reveals their true nature. Good characters are kind to the fool; bad characters mistreat or mock the fool. If a seemingly good character torments the fool when no one is watching, then we know that character is bad.
Let’s revisit an old favorite here: Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series. (What is it with British writers and “bottom”?) No matter if you only watched the films, you know Neville is the comic relief—his spells backfire, nothing he does seems to work properly, he’s gawky and his unruly toad Trevor constantly highlights Neville’s incompetence. The fact that Hermione, Ron (another fool, but you can talk about that amongst yourselves in the comments) and Harry take up for Neville shows us the first glimpses of their true heroism. When we witness the Death Eaters and Draco Malfoy’s mockery of Neville regarding the torture of his parents, we also witness the depth of their cruelty. When you take the whole story into account, how any one particular character treated Neville revealed that character’s true personality.
Far from a throwaway character meant to give us a quick reprieve, The Fool provides perspective, deeper truths and reflects who we really are—a serious job for someone making us laugh. With The Fool, we get the reprieve plus the comfort of knowing that we’ll make it through this crazy world as long we face the seriousness of life without taking it so seriously.