April Fools Day is comedy’s religious holiday (and the Ukrainian city of Odessa’s actual holiday). It goes back 1500 years to the Feast of Fools. The Feast had plenty of pranks and tricks but also a lot more than that; it was a kind of medieval rave meant you could do anything (and, often, anyone) you ever wanted which meant drinking, dancing, rowdy revelry and, evidently, bowling (see below).
“The Feast of Fools” – Pieter Brueghel
But why was this even allowed? Good question, glad I asked.
Creating a cheat day
Celebrations like the Feast and Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve and Lent are society’s acknowledgement that everyone needs a cheat day. (Well, maybe not Lent.) For medieval peasants, it was a chance to let off steam before returning to the living hell of everyday life. (Remember, this was before streaming.) Ordinary serfs were encouraged to swim in a church-sanctioned sea of delightful depravity… as long as they repented in church the next day. “Forgive me, Father. It was a mistake to ride that serf.”
Sometimes the Feast turned into a frenzy. In 1278, some German peasants danced so wildly on a bridge that it collapsed and hundreds of people drowned. In 1511 an Italian carnival led to the sacking of 200 palaces and the murder of 50 noblemen. (But that means at least 150 of the sacked palaces contained no dead noblemen.) Two years later partygoers destroyed an entire city in Switzerland. The lesson being never invite medieval Swiss peasants to your parties.
The Swollen chicken bladder
Historians also report that a French priest was hit with “a swollen hen’s bladder.” This is why 32 countries now require waiting periods before the purchase of any engorged poultry organ.
Also hanging around Europe were the Goliards, a rebellious group of clerical students who mocked the Church in satirical verse. Goliard poems bragged about their fighting ability, excessive drinking, excessive gambling and acrobatic sexual exploits, indicating that the roots of rap go further back than is usually thought.
Enter the Goliards
The Goliards’ festival pranks, denounced as “scurrilous” from the pulpit, included “wanton songs,” dressing up donkeys, eating pudding on the altar and pulling herring along the ground. Just look at those godless herring-draggers (below), playing their jungle lute music. And you can totally see their stockings. Disgusting.
Goliards flaunting God’s will.
Boy, blasphemy has really changed, hasn’t it?
Other students put animal dung on their faces and gathered in the streets to mock the clergy and government officials. Though to me, frankly, the fun of yelling “Nyah nyah nyah, Mr. Mayor!” is lessened if your face is covered with pig shit.
Before the Feast came the Roman festival of Saturnalia, during which a lucky peasant was chosen as the Lord of Misrule. The Lord could turn any law on its head, like forcing masters to serve their own slaves.
Today’s pagan festivals
Today, festivals like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras feature hundreds of parades with mock monarchs. But in some of the ancient celebrations the fakers had real authority, though only for a short time. Still, whenever society gives you the power to turn things upside-down, a price must be paid. At the end of Saturnalia, the false king was killed; after Mardi Gras, 300,000 people have hangovers.
If killing the local drunk-in-a-crown didn’t get a laugh, you could consult a “jest-book,” which included snipes and japes (incidentally, the name of my law firm) about stupid peasants, petty and amorous priests, and stupid, petty, amorous, talkative and debauched women. “Take my chattel, please!”
But what would a festival be without dirty pictures? Again, due to lack of streaming, the Middle Ages saw the rise of humorous art. In Holland, Jan Steen’s portraits of domestic pandemonium and salacious couplings would have scandalised the Burgermeisters (or, as we know them today, Burger Kings) except that they always had a moralising tone. Which reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where a new professor’s told he’s welcome to teach any of great socialist thinkers as long as he makes it clear they were wrong.
“Beware of Luxury” – Jan Steen
April Fools Day
As for April Fools Day now, it’s sobering to think that a holiday once dedicated to the most outrageous behaviour imaginable has come to mean sending a fart GIF to Cheryl in the next cubicle. Arise, people, and reclaim your comedic heritage! Grab a herring and let’s get crazy!
***Comedy writer David Misch explores the Art and Craft of Comedy in a special Raindance screenwriting class Saturday/Sunday April 24/25..