When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, I took as one of my general education courses (in arts & letters, if I remember correctly) a course where we had to watch Sullivan’s Travels, a classic of Depression-era movies. Without trying to spoil the movie too much, the main character in the movie is a director who has made light escapist fare but really wants to record a serious drama about poverty in the South by adapting O Brother, Where Art Thou (which would later be made by George Clooney as a much more comical film, as it happens). When the character finds himself being unjustly jailed, his own experience of the hard life leads him to recognize the need of the ordinary person to find some sort of escape from the bleak and grim nature of life, and sees the value of his role as an entertainer creating escapist movies that help others cope with the difficulties of life.
It is not a bad thing to make people laugh and to entertain them. One of the most unfortunate aspects of our age is that humor itself is being threatened because those who are in power or who aspire to be in positions of power often do not have a sense of humor and cannot tolerate being critiqued or ridiculed. Given how moronic most of these people are and how their worldviews and perspectives and political ideologies are, critique and ridicule is going to be automatic, even among those who have a high degree of desire to respect those in authority for the sake of the office itself. This creates an obvious problem, in that the seriousness of the times is something that cries out for humor, but a great deal of people simply lack the capacity to laugh at themselves and so humor itself is threatened by people who can’t take a joke. We have seen that this is even true of entertainers who (like Will Smith) have even starred in comedies themselves. If you can’t take a joke in a world where so much is worthy of ridicule and needs to be poked fun of, and there are a great many people (some of whom are very powerful) in this situation, it is going to be a very unpleasant period of time.
In order to understand the role of the jester–and let us understand it is a worthwhile and important role–we need to look back in history to the Middle Ages. During the classic medieval court, the jester was someone who could provide singing and dancing–your basic entertainment–and who also had as his remit entertaining the ruler and distracting them from troubles. This role was valued and treasured, mostly because jesters lacked the political power to intervene in court politics but were valued because they could tell uncomfortable and dangerous truths in a way that entertained rather than offended. To be sure, contemporary jesters no longer seek the patronage of church or state in the same way as was the case before, but the use of humor and entertainment skills to make difficult realities easier to cope with is still part of the ordinary job description of the contemporary entertainer.
What we are increasingly finding, though, is that a lot of entertainers are behaving like the fictional director Sullivan, and are dissatisfied with being popular and beloved jesters for the common people, but want to hold power to influence culture and to be seen as more than entertainers but as experts in various subjects. That such people live lives that are not worthy of emulation or respect, by and large, and are even less well-educated about substantial issues than the run-of-the-mill ordinary person who might at least have the education that comes from reading a few good books or engaging in conversation with other people that is superior to almost all entertainers, seems never to have crossed their minds. Given the widespread and increasing societal obsession with matters of politics, the move on the part of many entertainers to be seen as mouthpieces of various fashionably idiotic worldviews and positions has had the effect to reduce the popularity of such figures among people.
This is, obviously, a negative trend. Contemporary jesters forget that entertainment has a great deal of power precisely because it does not lecture, and makes its points in an amusing fashion. There are certainly many of us (myself included) who are more inclined to write thinkpieces about one subject or another than we are to merely entertain, but even here that which people can laugh about and enjoy often makes the point far better than to hammer people over the head with some sort of intellectual vanity. Many entertainers would be far better at doing their jobs than someone like myself if their goal is to amuse and entertain, but they are playing to their weak suit when they are seeking to be taken seriously as theologians and philosophers and thinkers in general. But it appears that they are not content even to be taken seriously as thinkers, which is a much more serious problem still.