The Medieval Origins of April Fools' Day, Explained
Hollywood writer David Misch wanted to investigate the true nature of humor -- or, as he puts it, the "history, mythology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, biology, neuroscience and theology of humor" -- so he went about crafting the new tome Funny: The Book -- Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Comedy. In a nutshell, it's an exploration of humor's long history from its ancient roots to present-day popular media.
Misch has written for shows such as Mork & Mindy and Saturday Night Live and created seminars for universities like UCLA and Columbia. He will speak at Pepperdine University tonight at 7:30 p.m. in a talk entitled "Comedy and Morality."
Misch says that usually, "Everyone assumes drama is serious and therefore important and comedy is not serious and therefore trivial." The talk tackles this viewpoint by pointing out that humor actually affects people.
"One time that comedy comes into people's consciousness in a more serious way is when they get angry at it," he adds. "So things like Life of Brian, Daniel Tosh, South Park -- when those things happen we start fuming with rage about the disastrous decline in morality in our time, which has been [matched] by the disastrous decline of morality in every historical era ever recorded," says Misch. "In ancient Rome, they were talking about the depths of corruption never reached that were in this generation, and they were wrong. Every generation thinks they're the most corrupt and they're not. They're all roughly the same amount of corrupt."
If any single day embodies comedic corruption it's April Fools' Day, which gives you special permission to pull pranks not acceptable on other days. Misch notices that the same idea existed in olden days.
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"It goes back to medieval times. There was a feast of fools where all of society was turned on its head," says Misch. "Masters were forced to wait on their slaves...Young guys were made head of the church that day and their orders had to be obeyed and it was basically public license to do whatever you wanted, which involved drinking, dancing and revelry or as we would call it today, sex, drugs and rock n roll."
Misch sees April Fools' and similar days like Mardi Gras as society acknowledging a need for a "day for letting off steam" before returning to reality. "Let 'em have their day or days and let them to do what they want but tomorrow you better be back in church and begging for mercy for doing what you did yesterday," says Misch.
Misch also found that many cultures told stories about some sort of trickster figure. The tales entertained but also voiced people's hidden desires to get away with bad behavior.
Acting on that attitude only stays acceptable for so long, says Misch, since, "sadly," as we get older, we learn to act more seriously. It's the reason Misch won't be playing any pranks this April Fools' Day.
"I think those days are over for me," he says. "I got my jollies off in my childhood and there's a certain point when you get to a certain age and people are like 'What are you, fucking nuts? Please grow up'"