Fool for thought?

April fools’ day is here again. The tradition of pranks, hoaxes, little japes and cruel tricks supposedly give us (perhaps only some of us) an opportunity to bring a little fun into our “serious business”. Perhaps it lets out our cruel side too. And all in the name of ‘April fools’. Yet that licensing little phrase, along with the familiar ‘relax, I was only joking!?’ reminds us of something rather serious about the kind of ‘humour’ we often encounter at April fools’. It is the all too delicate threshold between laughable fun and the seriously painful.

A little searching on the internet will tell you that April fools’ traditions have a long history perhaps originating in festivals of foolery that existed all throughout medieval Christian culture. However, the day gives us the opportunity to think about some of the larger questions that constantly arise when humour becomes serious, or rather when humour’s seriousness comes to the fore.

Many websites offer us guides on how to play the ultimate ‘harmless prank’. But what makes a prank harmless for some and harmful for others? We’re all familiar with the joke that goes too far and the disorienting effect it leaves. When you’re left down-right offended, not to mention annoyed, by the fact that someone has had the gall to sticky-tape up your entire computer, cover your car with decorative post-it notes, or set your stapler in a jelly-cake, what does it mean when the irritating prankster is ‘only joking’ because it’s April fools’? Are you just being a party pooper?

A recent online article bears the disclaiming title: “10 April Fool’s Day Pranks For The Office That (Probably) Won’t Cost You Your Job”. The “Probably” says it all. And in our increasingly micro-managed and micro-regulated social environments, not to mention digital work environments, we might wonder how anyone can really get away with a good old truly disruptive prank anymore anyway. In our world of ever-increasing order and regulation, it can be hard to imagine how the desire to inflict real disruption could possibly be funny to anyone, unless they possess some kind of psychotic will to enact cruelty or a downright contempt for the safety of others. Some might say our culture doesn’t really tolerate cruelty anymore let alone find it amusing – at least not the same kinds of cruelty as cultures of the past have tolerated. If that is so, it is a good thing. Even so, it affects the way we laugh.

Even the ordinary flavour of that word ‘prank’ conceals the seriousness lurking in its history. The word is at least 600 years old and not even the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary has a narrative for where it comes from. Though we often use it to mean a relatively lighthearted trick nowadays, for most of its history it has also meant something dishonourable, truly malicious, something with intended harm.

So let’s consider some examples of April fool’s pranks. Your partner attaches a picture of a ghoulish monster to the underside of the toilet seat rim to jolt you into required delectation when you stumble sleepily into the bathroom and lift the lid. He or she puts a cup of water on the top of your partially opened wardrobe door so you get a second shower as you contemplate what to wear. Your roommate leaves a bunch of tasty looking donuts out for breakfast covered with nasty baking power instead of icing sugar. Perhaps one must be North American to appreciate that one!

All of them sound to me though like a recipe for lost friendship. I might be able to lend myself to the idea that these amusing constructions of disorder are something to be laughed together with my so-called friend. However, I am not amused. I am late for work. No doubt that says more about me than the pranks but indeed this is why studying humour can be so very interesting and illuminating personally and socially. So then, what on earth is a harmless prank? What makes it harmless?

It doesn’t really help us just to say that the answer depends on what we personally think is funny. All of us have what we might call a ‘funniness threshold’, and we know this intuitively. There’s a threshold between the sudden apprehension of enjoyable and laughable silliness or disorder, on the one side, and on the other, a sudden sense of offense when what is made out to be ‘silliness’ for us to laugh at has become actually painful instead or when we don’t even see as silly at all that which someone is asking to see as such. Religious satire skirts this edge all the time. So does standup comedy.

The line is difficult to draw, and to predict, and not just because a personal ‘sense of humour’ is so subjective. It also has something to do with our ideas about how things in the world ought to be. Some of these ideas are shared with other people in so far as they come from the culture that shapes our sense of self. Some beliefs about how things ought to be are indeed not shared with others. This can be visible not just in outright political disagreement but also when cultures clash over humour. Another way of putting the idea is that our funniness threshold can make our moral standpoint on the world – or better yet, our evaluative standpoint – all the clearer.

Jokes conceal impulses that Freud called ‘tendentious’. Aggressive instincts, however, are not the only ones that are relevant. Our view of how things ought to be plays a role as well. Philosophers from Plato to our own time have consistently identified the fact that what we often find amusing are deviations from the very things we value, as if our laughter expresses a critical (albeit pleasurable) attitude to the breakdown of important things, which simply reinforces that importance and the social bonds involved. You can even explain the cup-on-wardrobe joke with this idea. The unexpected drenching is a stylized violation of the very act of dressing appropriately, an ordinary social norm, not to mention basic human dignity. Same goes for pie in the face gags and home videos of people in wheelchairs rolling backwards down ramps. Laughing at such things does not necessarily imply our delight in human suffering if it is the violation of human dignity we are laughing at critically. But, as we all know, a certain emotional distance from such suffering, either through poetic license or lack of empathy, is necessary for amusement to be possible in these cases. Buried within critical laughter is perhaps also, as Freud taught, a desire for the disorder that is not allowed.

Rather than surveying the full richness of humour studies theory here, I am going to suggest one line of thinking that may be helpful when reflecting on those awkward April fools’ pranks that cut too close to the bone. If our moral standpoints on the world are revealed in the threshold I’ve been talking about then one standpoint our society asks us everywhere to feel is the value and pleasure of order in the social system. The order that exists is not valued by everyone of course. At least, not everyone shares the same sense of what makes for the right ‘order’. But I don’t just mean some abstract idea that it is good for the social system to be stable. I mean what is revealed in a prank when our sense of order and our delight in it is broken for a while. Those of us who find great privileges in the prevailing order often can’t stand its true violation, sometimes even a stylized one such as a joke or a prank where the intention is to laugh away the disorder together. There is safety in order, and power in its predictability. April Fools’ Day pranks can reveal just how much this is so.

The long history of fooling and foolery, as well as the figure of the fool in cultural history, gives us further ways into this idea. Medieval authorities gave license the to“feast of fools” and other carnivalesque festivities, as more recent scholars have shown us, because they reinforced the value of the ordinary social order. People could laugh at (critically) the silliness of boys in cardinal hats and monkeys in the pulpit. Such inversions allow for the desire to explore what ordinary life throws off in such a way that ordinary life and its contours of order become desireable once more.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries dramatized two different kinds of fools. One is a simple ‘natural’ fool, whose oblivious idiocy may be laughed at from an evaluative standpoint shaped by the value of intelligence. This is the kind of laughter that isn’t on the threshold, unless you have some sympathy for the scorned and confused natural fool. Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps an example. On the other hand there was the artificial fool – the fool of artifice. Such a one, while a whipping boy of sorts for the kings and courtiers who employed them, was always using his wit both to entertain and to expose contradictions and problems with the way things are. In doing so, he often came close to the bone, representing disorder in such a way that it tipped from being laughable to being offensive. Shakespeare’s fool in King Lear is a masterful example. The ‘fool’ as he is simply known tries to bring to the old king’s attention to another way of looking at himself, one with more emotional distance perhaps, a fresh evaluative perspective, from which life could be less painful. It didn’t work. Still, that seemed to be what the fool was aiming at.

The later kind of artificial fooling draws, in part, on Erasmus’s justly famous Praise of Folly. Folly, personified there, announces the silliness of worldly pursuits from an alternative evaluative standpoint, the Christian hope of heaven and its rewards. But looking back the other way, such hopes of heaven and rewards look like stupidity too. Erasmus’s lesson is that what looks like ‘folly’ from one standpoint is wisdom from another. Both standpoints conceive of the way we ought to operate in the world differently, and with a totally different vision of order.

So fools are beings who embody the common sense of disorder so that they can be laughed at. In doing so, however, they are often encouraging in us, at the same time, an alternate stance on the world and what is important. Such ‘fools’ come all the way down to us in much standup comedy where the fool on stage must embody ordinary disorder first before showing its wisdom from another angle. Feminist comedians often have a have a hard time in getting across their wisdom and insight into the disorders of patriarchy because it is much easier for an audience shaped by the forces of patriarchy to laugh at women themselves as ‘deviations’ of the norm. Feminist ‘fools’ often have to toy with the need to embody disorder (from a patriarchal perspective) themselves before they can reveal the contradictions and inequality in patriarchy (disordered, from a feminist perspective) that we see all through our social system.

Fools do two things then. On the one hand, they construct a bit of disorder for us and ask us to see it with enough emotional distance that it is laughable. That kind of laughter is socially bonding and can be deeply pleasurable. It is, in effect, an expression of our values, our order. In this way, fools expose to us just how important order, control, predictability, and dare I say it, profitability are within our dominant culture. They make the obvious visible to us again. This kind of fooling, perhaps the spirit in which most April fools’ pranks are conducted, acts as a mirror reflecting ourselves back to us, exposing our standpoints afresh.

 Subway Car Surfaces    (April Fool's Day - 2001). Retrieved from:
Subway Car Surfaces (April Fool’s Day – 2001). Retrieved from:

One of the most arresting public April Fools’ Day pranks of relatively recent years, pictured above, was the Copenhagen metro hoax in 2001. An old train had been sheered at an angle and placed in the town square with bricks all around to make it look like chaos bursting up out of its channels and rupturing the city’s otherwise composed and orderly place of business. This is an arresting spectacle not immediately funny until the comic frame of reference brings with it sufficient emotional distance from the terrifying prospect to render it laughable. The spectacular prank no doubt kept its first live viewers at the border of horror and humour for a while. At those borders, our everyday reliance on order, stability, and efficiency becomes palpably, indeed viscerally clear, afresh. In the recognition of its safety as comedy such a spectacle then becomes a powerful social enactment of shared value.

But on the other hand, fools can also help us to see our  sense of order afresh. When they push us to the edge of what we can tolerate, they ask us to find a different kind of distance, not just the one from which we all laugh together at a safe stylized violation of what we really value, but a dangerous kind of distance, one that begins to alienate us from our very values. Does the Copenhagen metro example even move in this direction? Perhaps the implied ‘order’ behind the spectacle of disorder here is itself made out to be problematic from other angles. Perhaps, that is to say, spectacles like this suggest that we are too reliant on our systems, too complacently inured to their security, unconcerned with what will happen to our world when they break down.

The history of the fool helps us to see those two sides of order in disorder and disorder in order because we can watch the play of historical values in past comic cultures from a distance. Historical investigations into past emotions are not dusty old questions. History is never dusty. It’s exciting because it’s something we make, or better, something we make. It tries to illuminate our own world/s. Next time you find your sense of order threatened, or dashed to pieces, by an annoying fool who tells you to lighten up because they’re only joking, it may be time to get out the boxing gloves or the rule-book, but it may also be worth considering whether the fool has anything worth listening to.

By CHE Associate Investigator Daniel Derrin.

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