The Comic Fool

Last time out, I opined that a comic fool is a person who is afflicted with a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about himself, about the world, and about comic fortune – or any combination of those. Today, I was warming up to expatiate on all this when I realized that fools and their different styles of foolishness needed more sun-shining.

Please forgive the use of the masculine generic pronoun. Wrestling with “he/she” or “he or she” is irritatingly clumsy, and limiting sentence structure to genderless plurals reduces precision of expression.

Incidentally, notice that in the history of comedy, male fools seem to outnumber females (peace to Lucy, Mrs. Malaprop, and the Learned Young Ladies). Is it because a male-ridden society has relegated them to mainly passive roles in stories, or because the largely male authors secretly acknowledge what few enough men will explicitly admit: that they are fools more often than women? (Jane Austen’s marvelous fools such as Mrs. Bennett are the creations of a decidedly female intelligence.) On the other hand, the by now endless legions of sitcoms swarm with female fools. Is this, in turn, a measure of growing female parity or just underhanded male resentment? Only a small minority of sitcom writers are women.

If you look at the foolish subjects (usually the protagonists, but not always) of comic novels, plays, movies, animated cartoons, sitcoms, jokes, gags, and you name it, they seem to divide into three classes: the total fool, the limited fool, and the occasional fool.

Total fools like our beloved Stan and Ollie, behave foolishly continuously and in any and all circumstances. In this, I think, they are clowns without white greasepaint, bulb noses and orange fright wigs. Clowns are always fools and have no existence outside their foolishness. It is simply their nature. Daffy Duck is a perfect fool: in any situation, he can be relied on absolutely to make a fool of himself. So can Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden.

In crueler times, the “village idiot” was often such a fool – or treated as such – and my understanding is that actual court fools in motley, cap, and bells, were often developmentally challenged people, analogous to the dwarves who were equally favored as court playthings. (We have made at least a little progress, haven’t we?)

Limited fools differ from total fools in that they are addled about just one thing. Wile E. Coyote is a star example. His mania is the Roadrunner and how to catch him. For all we know, Wile is an otherwise sober citizen, as coyotes go, perhaps providing for a wife and little coyotes, paying taxes, and wondering what happened to his 401K retirement. But on the one consuming subject of the Roadrunner, Wile is the very model of an absolute failure of good sense, understanding, and  foresight.

Classically, the limited fool is the most common subject, from Late Greek comedy through the English Restoration and the 18th century. The greatest of Moliere’s protagonists are limited fools. The miser, the hypocrite, the hypochondriac, the middle-aged wooer – these men are all more or less reasonable people, except in the single areas of their obsessions. They grow out of the Classical and Renaissance Commedia types: the dotard, the braggart bully, the bumpkin, and so-on. Obsessed within his narrow preoccupation, the limited fool is the fanatic who, as Santayana said, redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.

In checking that quote I found this attributed to Winston Churchill: “A zealot can’t change his mind. A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Another perfect collaboration between comedy and wit.

The occasional fool is, I think, by far the most common character, especially in comedy from the 19th century to the present. The occasional fool is not a klutz or a clown in all things, nor is he foolishly obsessed with one thing. He’s a generally reasonable person whose good sense sometimes fails him. But unlike the total and limited fools, the occasional fool is not condemned to continue or repeat his folly indefinitely. Typically, he realizes his foolishness and amends his behavior – at least until his next lapse in judgement.

Historically, the most common – and most amiable – occasional fool is the young lover, goaded into folly by passion. Blinded by love – or just lust – he says and does things he would not otherwise be guilty of. He overestimates (or underestimates) his personal attractions. He launches unlikely schemes to impress his beloved. He goes to extravagant lengths to court her. It’s no coincidence that the title “A Fool for Love,” has been used for a play, a movie, a book, and a song, not to mention episodes on three different TV series. The ground rules of comedy (about which more anon) generally allow the young lover to win the girl; but win or lose, he eventually comes to his senses. (It is more often the old, or at least older, lover who eventually loses – unless his inamorata is his own age – and is left sadder but wiser.)

There was a young girl named Anheuser
Who said that no man could surprise her.
But Old Overholt
Gave her virtue a jolt,
And left the girl sadder Budweiser.old-overholt

In Tom Jones, the hero is comical because he’s young and naive – that is, simply ignorant about himself, his world, and his fortune. But unlike stupidity, ignorance can be cured by learning, in Tom’s case through the very scrapes and disasters occasioned by his ignorance. In other words, often the young are only occasional comic fools because in due course they grow up.

The most common situation in situation comedy is the event that precipitates a normally reasonable person into abnormal behavior: an abandoned suitcase with a fortune in small, unmarked bills, a championship game for which no tickets are left, the sudden appearance of a former boy or girl friend. With the occasional fool, the unusual events run their course and equilibrium is restored. One way or another, cooler heads prevail.

Getting back to the main line, whether the foolishness is occasional, limited, or total, it is caused by a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the self, about the world, and/or about comic fortune. Next time out, I’ll try to deploy some examples of comic foolishness due to a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the fool’s own self.


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