Who needs comedy clubs when you can have your own personal jester(s) on call 24/7? If the jester is a member of your household, you don't ever have to worry about the show being sold out before you've had a chance to score tickets.
The jester could have many talents - singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, magic tricks - but primarily, his job was to make people laugh, with his jokes or with his physical comedy or both. Not only royals, but also wealthy aristocrats, kept jesters as household members. Recruitment was apparently a pretty casual process, as shown in this 1662 account of the recruitment of a man named Tarlton to be a jester for Queen Elizabeth I:
Here he was in the field, keeping his father's swine, when a servant of
Robert Earl of Leicester... was so highly pleased with his happy/
unhappy answers, that he brought him to Court, where he became
the most famous jester to Queen Elizabeth.
To quote from Beatrice K. Otto's FOOLS ARE EVERYWHERE: THE COURT JESTER AROUND THE WORLD (University of Chicago Press, 2001), an online excerpt of which has provided me with much of the information I share in this post:
An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a
wide range of backgrounds; an erudite but nonconformist
university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for
nun frolics, a jongleur [juggler] with exceptional verbal
or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village
blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman.
Just as a modern-day television stand-up comedian might
begin his career on the pub and club circuit, so a would-be
jester could make it big time in court if he was lucky
enough to be spotted.
Some jesters were witty and well-educated. Some were just naturally funny people, the smartasses of their era. Unfortunately, others were chosen from among the ranks of the physically or mentally handicapped. Dwarves abounded in the profession..
There were also a fair share of "naturals," people with intellectual limitations who were, on the one hand, mocked and infantilized, but on the other hand, were treated with a measure of awe because they were thought to be divinely inspired.
Otto contends that "the court jester is a universal phenomenon," and cites to historical records from China, India, Japan, Russia and Africa. But fortunately for 16th-century European jesters, the long tradition of their profession was given a boost by the 1511 publication of a short book by the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus called IN PRAISE OF FOLLY:
We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke
can sometimes influence even grim tyrants... The most
violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though
these often made them the butt of open insults.
According to Otto, "the fortunes of the European court jesters rose and fell with the tsunami-scale wave of medieval and Renaissance fool mania that engulfed the continent." Thanks to Erasmus, folly became a hot topic in Europe, and professional "fools" became hugely popular for their illustration of the concept as well as for their entertainment value.
|traditional jester's hat sporting three points, each ending in a jingle bell|
|older-style jester's costume, featuring hat with ass's ears|
In short, a jester's master might have had the jester at his beck and call, but in exchange, he would have to put up with whatever verbal abuse the jester felt like dishing out. So it really was like stand-up comedy in a way; the Fool would get heckled, but he would heckle the audience right back.