By Chris Wallace
What is the role of the fool? Management theorist Manfred Kets de Vries has written about the fool – or jester, buffoon, comic, trickster, Harlequin or Pierrot, depending on the culture and context – as crucial to organisational health.
In her new book Bossypants, American comedian Tina Fey tells the story of her portrayal of Sarah Palin in the 2008 US presidential election. It’s a great contemporary example of what Kets de Vries is on about when he talks about the fool’s historic role as “transformational truthsayer”.
Historically, he says, the role was institutionalised in the form of the “court jester”, privileged in that “under the guise of madness or stupidity (which suggests harmlessness), he can iterate the otherwise unspeakable”. Various strategies are employed to get the message across – clumsiness, exaggeration, pantomime and the like. “He becomes the guardian of reality,” write Kets de Vries, “and, in a paradoxical way, prevents the pursuit of foolish action.” He cites Shakespeare’s “Fool” in King Lear is the most famous literary example, the only one with the courage and wisdom to recognise and speak the truth.
The “How to Succeed by Sort of Looking Like Someone” chapter in Tina Fey’s new book provides the inside story on a real life episode of playing the fool that had a significant and immediate impact on the atmospherics of US politics at a crucial moment.
For those who don’t know Fey, she’s a Chicago-trained improv comic who became a member of the Saturday Night Live writing team, and later an SNL comedian as well, going on to create, produce and star in the multi-Emmy Award-winning sitcom 30 Rock as hapless producer “Liz Lemon”.
For those who don’t remember Sarah Palin’s entry into US presidential politics, here’s a refresher. Unknown Governor of Alaska is plucked from obscurity to be Republic Party presidential candidate John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, up against the Democrat Obama-Biden ticket. Palin was the surprise card – including, it turned out, to the McCain camp who hadn’t done their dustbusting properly.
Youngish, photogenic and instantly famous as someone who could hunt and field-dress (a polite term for butcher) moose in the wilderness of her home state, Palin almost immediately then had Republican Party operatives agape and the media agog at her inability to, well, string a coherent sentence together on anything much beyond moosehunting. In her early press conferences and interviews, observers were hanging off the edge of their chairs almost willing Palin to pull off a half coherent performance. It was compelling – appalling but compelling – television.
Fey writes that from the moment Palin’s appointment to the McCain ticket was announced on August 29, 2008, the phone calls started about how uncannily alike she and Palin looked. The first was from her husband but that was just the start. The media joined in: “They were in blind frenzy. ‘Brown hair! Glasses!’” Self-fulfilling speculation built: Would Fey impersonate Palin on SNL? Fey didn’t want to do it. Inevitably her boss, Lorne Michaels, told her: You’re doing it.
Fey really didn’t want impersonate Palin, partly because of a skit gone wrong earlier that year which she characterises in Bossypants as “My Mouth Goes into Politics (and) The Rest of Me is Forced to Follow”. It came across, unintentionally, as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, then still running against Obama for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Fey didn’t like the resulting heat. Under pressure from her boss, his eye on the potential ratings, Fey nevertheless finally saddled up to do a two-hander with pal and SNL colleague Amy Poehler, Fey as Palin and Poehler as Hillary Clinton.
Ten million Americans watched the skit (the script of which is included in Bossypants). Palin went from struggling Republican vice-presidential candidate to national joke in the couple of minutes it took them to watch Fey and Poehler at work. Fey did another Palin impersonation later in the campaign, replicating Palin’s floundering television interview with Katie Couric, deliberately using Palin’s own transcript as her end of the skit script. Also hilarious. The coup de grace was Palin herself coming onto SNL and springing Fey impersonating Palin – scripted, of course, and Palin’s only way of trying to neutralise SNL’s comic carnage of her career.
Fey downplays the impact of her “Sarah Palin” on the 2008 presidential campaign. She’s being way too modest. As Manfred Kets de Vries would put it, she played the fool and was the classic “transformative truthsayer” as a result.
Let’s hope Fey is ready to do it again in the 2012 campaign. An even bigger, better fool is needed now that Palin has regrouped and is out hunting and field-dressing innocent voters once again.
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times, 25 June 2011