-- 1 Corinthians 1:27
The Fool is the opening card in every tarot deck. Often represented by the spring god Dionysus, the Fool demands a joyful willingness to take creative risks without concern for approval. In nearly every spiritual tradition -- from the Zen Buddhists of Japan to the Kiowa of North America to Nordic and Celtic pagans -- the Fool is considered an elevated being: at its best, able to sublimate the mundane through wit and candor, and at its worst, chaos personified. Throughout the ages, in courts around the world, Fools have spoken truth where no one else would dare, while God-fearing emperors and kings sat impotently nearby.
We should know. Our own city was named for a Holy Fool: St. Francis of Assisi, a wealthy merchant's son who stripped off his clothes in public squares, begged for food, kissed lepers, gave sermons to birds and farm animals, and sang and danced at highly inappropriate moments. In keeping with the Fool's tradition, San Francisco is the birthplace of the First Church of the Last Laugh, whose one and only religious holy day is April Fools' Day, and whose one and only patron saint is a little pointy-headed dude named St. Stupid.
According to church lore, the FCLL is the world's oldest religion "because all other religions are based on fear and guilt; and before fear and guilt can work you must have stupidity." It is also the world's largest religion because every human being with an aptitude for idiocy is already a member. For 23 years, Bishop Joey -- supreme pontiff, seminal and secular head of the FCLL, and prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of the Saint -- has led his congregation through the streets of our fair city lauding foolishness in all its various forms.
As happens on every sixth and seventh year of our dupe (barring Leap Year), we gather at the "tranamircle pyramid" to begin our pilgrimage. I am greeted by the secret handshake, a "high-four," similar to the better-known high-five, that ends with the exclamation "Ouch! We gotta change that." Hundreds of buffoons wearing colorful pants, incompatible patterns, and oddly shaped hats swarm up Montgomery Street playing kazoos and toy accordions, followed by three great Doggie Diner Heads and a giant effigy of St. Stupid seated on a royal throne. Uniformed police with quiet smiles direct traffic around the spectacle as stilt walkers harangue onlookers and winged cherubs with mismatched socks offer giant Gummi Worms to passers-by. In the middle of Columbus Street, some fool with a bullhorn demands the whole congregation be seated. We sit down on the sun-sticky asphalt just as he shouts for the procession to begin again, "last people first." The shoving starts. A star-spangled sprite with welder's goggles tumbles by, laughing. A man with a bright red zoot suit and overlarge blue sunglasses sets to interviewing people's feet on camera, for podiatry's sake. Bubbles, confetti, and unwrapped snack foods hurl through the air. Folks wave signs reading "Keep It Stupid, Simple" and "Social Unity Through Melon" and "Burn Your Poop."
Reaching Washington Square Park, the stupid worshippers flock around a stage and cover the eastern end of the park in a crazy quilt of color that overwhelms the looming edifice of a nearby Catholic church.
"I know, I know, but ya know, ya never know," shouts Bishop Joey from a makeshift pulpit, intoning one of the more prodigious Sayings of Stupid. "So far so what."
For the unconverted, Bishop Joey explains that the First Church of the Last Laugh is the only snack religion in the world that delivers what it promises: unlimited mileage, one holy day a year, and a two-dimensional spiritual scapegoat. A few parishioners touch their heads to the robe of St. Stupid, then squirt him in the face with water pistols. On the sod, two men wearing cardboard car costumes drive through the crowd while talking on their cell phones and sipping lattes; mock fisticuffs ensue. The Reverend David Apocalypse, armed only with secondhand smoke, battles a small sword-toting child who beats the Reverend to the ground and leaves him bruised and bloody, cigarette hanging limply in hand.
The Bishop demands that everyone sit down before the service begins, then asks everyone to stand up for the National Anthem, performed in six notes by the Society to Undertake the Preservation of Indangered [sic] Dumb Songs (STUPIDS) Band. We are asked to take the Pledge of Stupid. Raising our left hands and crossing our fingers, we repeat, "I pledge allegiance to the illusion and to the pyramid scheme for which it stands. One species, in denial, with error and excess, by all."
A couple dressed like derelict Wonder bread on PCP smack their foreheads, saying, "That's the way he would have wanted it, had he thought of it."
The Reverend G.P. Skratz takes the stage in flowing red vestments, but his stream of pidgin Latin is hindered by a barrage of marshmallows. ("They may look soft, but an hour in the sun turns them into fluffy, sweet pillows of death," says a man dressed in hubcaps and mirrors.) Skratz grimaces through his oratory, finishing with, "Those who are stupid unto the Lord and more stupid unto their fellow man shall reap stupid rewards."
Eight-year-old Aurelia Toscano, on a walk through the park with her grandmother and father, stops by the stage and asks parental permission to chuck marshmallows at the departing Reverend. Satisfied with her aim, the family sits down to enjoy the bedlam: A giant fuzzy purple yeti lopes through the crowd in hot pursuit of a guy wearing deep-sea diving apparatus made of bullhorns and ventilation ducts; a bright orange safety-cone-man pays homage to a fellow cone, which sits atop the stone head of a statue of Benjamin Franklin stationed in the middle of the park; the STUPIDS perform a medley of dire '70s tunes, while an enormous demon skeleton boogies on a garbage can.
Bishop Joey and the Reverend Hal Robins of the Church of the SubGenius announce the commencement of the faith-based talent show. Anything goes, except no stupid talent may exceed 2 1/2 minutes, and no obscenity will be tolerated.
"Don't fuck with me," warns Bishop Joey.
Someone shouts, "Bishop Joey is a control freak," which Bishop Joey acknowledges. Another man waves a sign that proclaims "Bishop Joey Is a Known Thespian," unearthing Bishop Joey's long involvement with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
A camera-toting tourist wanders by the souvenir table asking for what cause the rally is raising money. "Stupidity," is the answer she receives as someone onstage blows belly farts on her companion to the tune of "Blowing in the Wind." A toy accordion band, made up of well-known local musicians, plays "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with a man whose left eye is nothing but a baseball embedded in a bloody mess. A giant sperm passes out sex kits; Mr. Blinky performs "Putting on the Ritz" by striking his cheek with a No. 2 pencil; two Jesus impostors wrestle two disciples of Buddha for the crown of thorns; 2-year-old Ben Burrill performs farmyard blues with his father; and Mr. Fantastico (almost) dives into a Dixie cup filled with water from the golden teapot atop the purple-clad Emperor's head.
The role of the Fool, says Bishop Joey, "is to overturn the dominant paradigm. To reverse and inverse the order of reality. Turn it on its head and shake it up so everyone can get a better perspective."
Looking around at the sheer number of "Fools" in attendance, I think this might be a little too easy, not wholly in keeping with the independent spirit of the archetype, but I am willing to take the Leap of Faith.
"There's one in every religion," says Bishop Joey. "The virgin birth, the caste system ...."
We stand up and close our eyes. On the count of three we jump into the air as high as we can and have faith that when we come down, the Earth will still be there.
As the saying goes in the First Church of the Last Laugh, if it's the truth, it's funny.