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Critically evaluating the construction of the comic fool

Module: Studying Comedy
Module Coordinator: Dr Van Norris
Academic Year 3 (2022/2023)

Out of the choices of topic for the Studying Comedy essay, I chose to write about the comic fool for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was closely related to my dissertation, but covered a topic I wasn’t writing about, so I saw it as a chance to produce a piece of work as an extension to my dissertation, but also because I saw it as a good challenge. In my opinion, Orinn Klapp‘s model of the comic fool is the quintissential definition, so finding alternative definitions which perhaps didn’t fall in line with how Klapp outlined the fool was interesting. Dr Norris specifically wanted Klapp’s model excluded to prevent essays from being too similar, and I think this was a great decision, as it really required me to think critically about alternative definitions, but without comparing them to Klapp’s. I was pleased with the feedback I received for this essay, and was received a high mark.

Excluding Orinn Klapp’s model and using other secondary texts on comedy and foolishness, critically evaluate the construction of a comic fool, or idiot, within a text of your choice.

Orinn Klapp (1949) defines the comic fool by categorizing it within several different titles, but it is important to evaluate how the fool is defined by other scholars, which this essay will do before contextualizing the British situational comedy Blackadder (The Blackadder, Lloyd, 1982-1983; Blackadder II, Lloyd, 1986; Blackadder the Third, Lloyd, 1987; Blackadder Goes Forth, Lloyd, 1989) and applying the definitions to characters within the series, specifically the character of Baldrick.

Peter L. Berger (1997) explores the “interesting distinction” between “natural” and “artificial” fools, with “the former [destined] to play the fool by some congenital defect; the latter [choosing] to play the fool as a result of what today would be called a career decision.” (p. 73, their emphasis). Berger outlines how being a fool became a profession in the 1500’s, in the form of the court jester, which was replaced in the late 1700’s by the circus clown (pp. 75-76) and cites a description of a clown from John Towsen (1976): “rustic appearance, vacant or gazing eyes, arms dangling, yet the shoulders raised, the toes turned inwards, a shambling gait with a heavy step, great slowness of conception, and apparent stupidity of mind and manner.” (as cited in Berger, 1997, p. 76).

It is interesting that Berger doesn’t specifically speak of the “natural” fool, other than in the citation above, and instead focuses on detailing the origins and evolution of the “artificial” fool, noting how “It seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society.” (p. 78), because this role appeared within history in remarkably similar forms without strong evidence of influence between cultures. This would suggest that “ceremonial fools, who are supposed to engage in what is nicely called contrary behavior.” (p. 77) are the same as “artificial” fools and are a natural part of human social behaviour, which is important when considering the role in modern media.

Maurice Charney (2005) discusses an ironic fool, which is the same as Berger’s “artificial” fool, noting how “The most triumphantly ironic act is to pretend to be stupid.” (p. 10), using Socrates as an example, Charney writes “He plays the fool, feigns ignorance, asks seemingly innocent and childlike questions that are meant to trap you.” (p. 11), before giving Socrates the title of a “sacred fool, dedicated to the truth at the risk of his own life.” (p. 11) because of the underlying reasoning of Socrates “artificial” folly, which was to ask philosophical questions intended to make people ponder their answer. Later, on the fool in Shakespeare, Charney notes that “They are the most humble of creatures, the lowest on the social scale, completely anonymous and insignificant.” (p. 173), which is interesting as it describes Berger’s “natural” fool in a more detail.

Stephen Wagg discusses the structures of a “successful sitcom in Britain”, noting how they contain “one central character [who] may be pompous/ aspiring/ convinced s/he is better than all this, only to be trumped, time and again, by a doggedly unreconstructed companion.” (1998, p. 2). A division between the intelligent and the unintelligent, or, foolish, is constructed, which is something Murray S. Davis discusses in detail in their 1993 book What’s So Funny? Davis suggests that “Most people present themselves to others (and to themselves) as more competent than they really are.” and “since ordinary competence is expected of everyone, the social status of those who fail to exhibit it drops drastically. The scent of failure spreads from one of their behaviors to all of them.” (p. 219, their emphasis). With these in consideration, an “artificial” fool may not exhibit these behaviours as they carefully navigate the line between believable and unbelievable, whereas a “natural” fool would be unaware of such standards. This examination of a “natural” fool can be applied to the character of Baldrick within Blackadder.

Blackadder was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was first aired in 1982. It was created by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, who plays the titular character. John Lloyd produced the entire series. Lloyd, Curtis, and Atkinson met at the Cambridge Footlights and had success in Not the Nine O’Clock News (Lloyd, 1979-1982). When thinking of ideas for a new sitcom they wanted to avoid putting the less-funny Atkinson in the shoes of John Cleese by copying Fawlty Towers (Davies & Argent, 1975-1979), so decided to capitalise on the “excitement of that time, of the fifteenth century”. (Roberts, 2013, p. 82). The Blackadder featured vast sets and locations, and “look[ed] a million dollars, but cost a million pounds” (Lloyd, 2008), resulting in massive cutbacks heading into production of Blackadder II, which is when Ben Elton replaced Atkinson in writing duties. Elton was coming from the success of The Young Ones (Jackson, 1982-1984) and was able to transform Blackadder into the studio-filmed show it became. Blackadder was critically received; however, it is often featured amongst “top of all time” lists (Stolworthy, 2020, para 17; Tilakaratne, 2022, para 25; Gibson, 2023, para 65) and over the years has been recreated for theatre (Williams, 2018; Newsroom, 2022; People’s Theatre, 2023). In 2014, Blackadder was under debate by politicians for its use in schools as an educational tool in history lessons, with Michael Gove arguing it should not be used as historical context (Groves, 2014). These all indicate Blackadder’s lasting influence in popular culture.

The character of Baldrick is constructed in such a way that he fits the description of a natural fool very well. His depiction in The Blackadder is different than in subsequent series; whilst he is depicted to be dirty and simple, he is to a certain degree intelligent. It is not until Blackadder II when the character is transformed into one with “rustic appearance […] arms dangling […] and apparent stupidity of mind and manner”. He wears dirty clothes, is unwashed and has boils on his face. He makes other characters recoil in disgust with his grotesque appearance (Squadron Commander Lord Flasheart in “Private Plane”, Curtis, Elton & Boden, 1989a, 06:30), but appears aware of this trait, as he retorts “well if I’ve got it, you’ve got it too now sir” after Blackadder kisses him on the forehead in “Goodbyeee” (Curtis, Elton & Boden, 1989b, 15:52). At the end of “Bells” (Curtis, Elton & Fletcher, 1986, 25:00), Baldrick is dressed in a beautiful bridesmaid’s dress. Although the dress fooled Percy earlier (21:55), Baldrick is out of place with his hairy chest, beard, and dirty skin, completely contrary to what you would expect to see in a throne room. There are usually only a few guests in the throne room throughout Blackadder II, so Baldrick’s position as the fool is reminded in the fact that he appears so out of place in this scene and mimics the historical court jester.

Examples of Baldrick having a “great slowness of conception, and apparent stupidity of mind and manner” are perhaps best found within Blackadder the Third. In “Dish and Dishonesty” (Curtis, Elton & Fletcher, 1987a) he buys a turnip for £400,000; in “Ink and Incapability” (Curtis, Elton & Fletcher, 1987b) he mindlessly starts a fire with what we are led to believe is the only copy of the first Dictionary, only to burn the actual copy in the same way as before for the episode’s punchline; and in “Nob and Nobility” (Curtis, Elton & Fletcher, 1987c) his “cunning plan” to escape a French jail cell is to:

Baldrick: We do nothing until our heads have actually been cut off […] You know how when you cut a chickens head off it runs round and round the farm. Well we wait until our heads have been cut off, then run round and round the farm yard and escape. (18:16)

In their article The Image of the Clown, Wolgang M. Zucker makes an interesting statement about the clown: “He is not only allowed but even expected to act and to speak in a way which his audience, while being amused, considers entirely improper, inadequate, and out of order.” (1954, p. 310). This is interesting, because when applying this to the character of Baldrick, we must consider from whose point of view this should be read from. In Blackadder, it is not that the characters “allow” or “expect” Baldrick to be a fool – they can expect him to be due to knowledge of his character, but not because he actively plays an “artificial” fool. He is not allowed to be a fool because he is a natural fool. From an audience’s point of view, or even the creators’, he is allowed to be a fool to serve the purpose of his character which is to have a comedic effect on the situation and perhaps to portray his companions as less foolish. Zucker continues with:

Whether he is a court jester or the harlequin of the popular comedy, the Fool of the Elizabethan stage, or merely a pathetic hunch-back and cripple in the town tavern or at the village fair, he always is separated from the audience that laughs at him by his queer and contrary behavior, attire, and speech. (p. 310).

This description aligns with the other descriptions of a fool we have already explored but could also be applied to the character of Blackadder, particularly within the first series, The Blackadder. The series begins with Blackadder sleeping in and missing the start of the battle at Bosworth Field, only to arrive late and kill Richard III, not realising who it was (“The Foretelling”, Curtis, Atkinson & Shardlow, 1983a), and in “The Archbishop” (Curtis, Atkinson & Shardlow, 1983b) he wears his “Black Russian” codpiece to a ceremony, but after being named the Archbishop of Canterbury, he hangs a clergy’s Mitre from it as to conceal its length. He even dresses as a nun as to escape from some knights who have returned from their crusades and are trying to kill him. Throughout this episode in particular, Blackadder acts in foolish ways until the eventual resolution, but other than him acting in foolish ways, he does not fit the definition of a fool we have previously explored. He is not an “artificial” fool, as he is not intentionally behaving as such, and whilst some of his behaviour is foolish, he does not exhibit any other traits for the “natural” fool. This would be continued throughout the following series, with the truly foolish of the group being Baldrick.

As we have already seen, Baldrick is slow, stupid and has a rustic appearance, however, he also matches Maurice Charney’s notes on Shakespeare’s fool, that “They are the most humble of creatures, the lowest on the social scale, completely anonymous and insignificant” (2005 p. 173, my emphasis.). Social class is a critical aspect of Blackadder, with the character of Blackadder always in a fight to gain higher class than his superiors and to keep his class and power over his peers. As Stephen Badsey wrote, “The gradual slide of the scheming and ambitious Blackadder character down the social scale through history, from prince to harassed Army captain, was part of the humour.” (2001, p. 114). Taking this into consideration, the character of Baldrick remains at the very bottom of the metaphorical ladder throughout the series, even in The Blackadder where his character was smarter and less formed. His peers may move up or down, but Baldrick remains at the bottom and is therefore often the butt of the joke. This, and his other character traits, enables him to retain the title of “natural fool”.

It is interesting that Towsen, Berger, Wagg, and Charney’s descriptions of the fool are so similar. Whilst they don’t redefine the concept of the comic fool, or the comic idiot, they provide a detailed description which can be applied to characters historically (i.e., Charney on the fool in Shakespeare) or to more recent characters, such as Baldrick in Blackadder. This would suggest that these attributes are generally accepted and universal when describing the comic fool and that there are clear distinctions between a “natural” and “artificial” fool. Furthermore, I would argue that Baldrick’s persistent incompetence plays a part in Blackadder’s decline through the social scale throughout the series, as Davis discussed earlier.

References - Click to expand
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