You’re making a sitcom about what now?

When it comes to comedy, I always feel that “You can’t make jokes about X.” is a non-starter. As long as X is a part of our shared experience as human beings it’s something that humour can and should be drawn from.
Even if X is something awful?
No, not even.
Especially.
Our ability to mock and make light of life’s many horrors is often all we have to keep us from going insane. Now, that’s not to say that some jokes can’t be cruel, tasteless, despicable or flat out evil. Of course they can. But if you look at the reasons why those jokes are offensive it’s never the subject matter in and of itself. It’s a question of presentation, delivery, target (are we laughing at the Nazis or the people they killed?) and most importantly of all, whether or not the joke is funny. A comedian who makes a joke about shocking subject matter because it’s genuinely funny is doing his job. A comedian who makes a joke about shocking subject matter because it’s shocking is a hack.
I firmly believe this, that it’s not what you’re writing about but how you write about it that matters most in comedy.
You can make good comedy about anything…is a principle that I have never had reason to doubt until now.
Ohhhhhhhh Lord.

Ohhhhhhhh Lord.

So there’s been a storm brewing here since the Irish Times interviewed Dublin writer Hugh Travers who casually let slip that he is working on a new sitcom called Hungry with British broadcaster Channel 4 set during the Irish Famine of 1845. My Facebook feed right now is half people calling for petitions and boycotts and the forcible retaking of the six counties and the other half calling for everyone to lighten up or at least wait until the damn thing has aired before getting in a lather. Now normally, I would absolutely be in the lather/latter camp. Don’t judge the work until you’ve actually had a chance to see it, and I suppose I still am in that camp. But on the other hand, I absolutely get why people are angry or at least, very, very worried about this.
Okay, so a little background.
By the middle of the nineteenth century around two thirds of Irish people were farmers, most of them tending tiny plots of land that were barely large enough to feed them and their families (whole host of political and historical reasons for this, no time to go into here). As a result, the vast majority of the peasantry lived almost exclusively on potatoes because you get more calories per acre from them than just about any other crop that was available at the time. So everything was fine (barring the crippling poverty, awful living standards, cultural erasure, and brutally incompetent foreign rule) as long as the potato crop didn’t fail.
Who, apart from 175 ignored governmental inquiries, could have foreseen this!?

Who, apart from 175 ignored governmental inquiries, could have foreseen this!?

The failure of the potato crop resulted in the direct death of around one million (about one eighth of the population), with a further two million fleeing the country (and I do mean “fleeing”). But that simple assessment really doesn’t do justice to the sheer, peculiar horror of that period. The stories from that time read like dispatches from Hell. Half-insane women going door to door with dead infants in their arms desperately begging for money to buy a coffin. Bodies being buried in shallow graves and promptly disinterred by starving dogs. Whole forests felled to fill the need for caskets. An entire people trying desperately to hold on to some semblance of human dignity and decency and being systematically stripped of both.
This is one of the reasons why I’m really worried about this sitcom, because frankly the only way you could look at the Great Famine as a good setting for a comedy is if you didn’t know much about it.
The famine looms very large in the memory of the Irish people and the Irish diaspora that it is largely responsible for creating. There’s also a rich seam of anti-British resentment connected to the famine, with some even going so far as to call the British government’s disastrously inept response to the crisis an act of intentional genocide. For the record, I don’t believe that. The famine was an awful tragedy but it was a natural disaster made worse by human ineptitude, not active malice. The British government did not commit genocide against the Irish people.
Ahem. During the period currently under discussion.
Part of me thinks I’m being overly sensitive. After all, Blackadder Goes Forth is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time and it was set during a horrendous war that killed sixteen times more people than the famine. But there are a couple of key differences. Blackadder was at least partially a parody of the all the serious films, literature and poetry that had grown up around “The Great War” and that punctured their pomposity and myth-making to expose the true madness of that conflict. But the Famine has never really had a major serious treatment in fiction, at least onscreen. This is not surprising of course, the victims were desperately poor and largely did not speak English and such people do not tend to have their stories told. But more than that, the Famine was an event that fiercely resists narrative. There is no arc, no odds overcome, no story.
The crop failed. Everyone died. Awfully. The end.
And now we’re getting the parody before we’ve even gotten the serious drama.
I’m not all that familiar with Travers’ work but he seems to have a pretty impressive track record so I suppose, when all is said and done, I am still in the “wait and see it before you judge it” camp. But I am very, very wary. Travers could certainly create one of the all-time great situation comedies that’s genuinely funny while accurately depicting the awfulness of the Great Hunger but I really, really hope he knows what he’s doing. The margin for error will be about as thin as his main characters (see? I can make jokes too.)
I do still believe that it’s not the subject matter but the way a joke is told that defines whether it is offensive or not.
Time will tell if Hungry turns out to be The Producers or Heil Honey, I’m Home!

32 comments

  1. It’s easy to make fun of war because war in itself is always riddiculous if you take a step back and look past the propaganda. But I really don’t see a successful comedy on stuff like the Spanish Flue, the big famine, the black death…we might be able to make fun of the Nazis, but I don’t see anyone creating a comedy in death camp anytime soon. We might be able to joke about war, but Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Dresden are no joking matter.
    You can certainly make a joke about what actually lead to the big famine, but joking about all those people dying…I don’t see it either. Because there is nothing riddiculous about a couple of people who simply tried to survive.

    1. Well, there was the Italian film Life is Beautiful. Half of it is set in a concentration camp, it mixes drama with humor, and it was very well-received. Also, I personally liked it, though I don’t have any connection to the groups of people depicted in that movie.

    2. Kurt Vonnegut did actually manage to mine some humor out of Dresden. Slaughterhouse Five isn’t an outright comedy, but it certainly has some comedic moments

      1. I agree with swanpride. There’s a difference between the characters/audience being able to find things humorous despite their overall situation, and the characters/audience being asked to find the situation humorous.

  2. I do still believe that it’s not the subject matter but the way a joke is told that defines whether it is offensive or not.

    I think I understand what you mean, and I mostly agree with what you said at the beginning of the post, but I disagree with this specific quote for two different reasons. First, there’s a third parameter that you ignored: the person who’s telling the joke. An antisemitic joke told by an outspoken neo-nazi is offensive, regardless of whether it is funny or not. Second, and more importantly, I believe that only those who are offended by a joke get to decide whether it is offensive or not. If my Italian friend doesn’t like some joke about Italians, telling him that he shouldn’t be offended because it was a very clever and funny joke seems like a shitty move to me. It’s easy not to be offended when you’re not concerned!

    To be clear, I’m not saying every joke should strive to offend nobody at all. I just disagree with this kind of quote, because I feel it reinforces the idea that offensive jokes about lesser-privileged people are subversive.

    Just realized this comment kinda reads like an rant, and OT to boot; sorry about that!

    1. “I believe that only those who are offended by a joke get to decide whether it is offensive or not. If my Italian friend doesn’t like some joke about Italians, telling him that he shouldn’t be offended because it was a very clever and funny joke seems like a shitty move to me.”

      Basically this. Everyone has a different style of humor they prefer, and people use humor in different ways. If your audience is composed of a bunch of people who get amused by absurd, outlandish things, then a Dead Baby joke is apt. If your audience is someone who underwent a traumatic miscarriage, maybe not so much.

      I disagree with Mouse; I think it’s not so much how the joke is delivered, but how it *lands* is the key to whether it’s funny or not. We treat the argument as if Objectively Universally Funny and Objectively Universally Offensive are categories that exist, making the “is it funny or offensive?” debate into just a question of people being right or wrong about which category the joke falls into. As if humor was a matter of math or reading comprehension. I think we’d be better served if we just understood that people approach jokes in different ways from different standpoints, and try to be empathetic accordingly.

  3. You can make humor from all sorts of horrible events, but a sitcom about a famine were everyone died? I can’t even see it being a political comedy or social commentary.
    But like you said, thinking something is funny because it’s shocking isn’t humor. You can’t just say ‘…and everyone died’ and expect laughter, especially when real people were affected. You can make fun of the events leading up to such a tragedy, but the tragedy itself? It’s like making a comedy about the 2004 Indian tsunamis. There wasn’t a narrative or anything, something terrible happened and people died, end of story.
    But if this can be made into something great, then more power to them.

    1. Can’t expect laughter after saying nothing but “everyone died”? Tell that to Patrick Star, or the writers of that episode. Actually, yes, do give them a reprimand, they’re getting to a pretty bad place in terms of attempted black comedy.

    1. Yeah, you can’t study the Industrial Revolution without mentioning it, since that time period was powered by immigrants…basically everybody was fleeing poverty in Europe, but the Irish were particularly noteworthy because of the disaster.

      1. It’s actually a pretty major event in American history too when you consider the massive impact Irish Americans have had over the years. Also, we’re really, really sorry about bringing Typhoid to New York and killing like five thousand people. Our bad.

      2. “Also, we’re really, really sorry about bringing Typhoid to New York and killing like five thousand people.”

        God, my great-great-great-great ancestors were such jerks.

  4. I’ve been scratching my head over this ever since I heard about it, because I just can’t figure out how it could be made to work in a sitcom format. Which may be a sign that I lack imagination as a writer, who knows, but it seems like the worst possible format, if you were going to treat the subject with even a semblance of realism. It’s noteworthy that most of the really great black comedies are films – there aren’t many long-running pieces that can carry that kind of darkness. In fact, Blackadder is the only one I can think of, and even then they kept the visceral horror of the subject contained to the last thirty seconds (how you could even try to do that with mass starvation, I don’t know).

    I’m also…concerned that the chosen model is Shameless, which…well children don’t starve to death in Shameless, so I’m not sure it’s a helpful “How to Comedy About Poverty.” But most of the responses seem to fall into “This is offensive and should be BANNED” or “You cannot impose ANY limits on comedy – taste and morality are AS NOTHING to the TRUE comedian”… both of which I find frustrating to read about, to say the least.

  5. For my money, the only time I’ve seen the Great Irish Famine in fiction was in a Batman comic. It was in exactly one page (the first) and there mostly to lend a bit of backstory to the main plot, but it was haunting as all hell.

    Wanna see it?

      1. (I was thinking about paying you to review this whole comic – and maybe some others from Peter Milligan’s offbeat-but-awesome Batman run – but I’m a bit strapped for cash right now.)

  6. Would British TV making a sitcom about the Irish Potato Famine be kind of like an American network making a sitcom about that one time an entire native village was wiped out by smallpox and alcoholism? In a “lol, we set up the conditions for an entire ethnic group to struggle and fail to cling desperately to their way of life, and indeed life itself; watch the intellectually-maladroit [insert respective racial slur] flail!” kind of way?

    Maybe if this turns out to be a dark comedy with a lot of incisive wit and social commentary, it could work. The musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” uses absurdism in this way when it tackles the Jackson administration’s handling of the Native Americans. I think dark humor can be a great way to provoke serious thought/discussion/questions in a way that people are emotionally capable of handling. It’s all in the delivery, basically.

    1. It’s seen that way by a lot of people. Now, personally, if the joke is fair it’s fair and if it’s over the line it’s over the line and whether the teller is Irish or British or Bengali makes no difference to me.

  7. I personally am willing to watch a couple episodes of it (unless the first episode is horrendous.) But I’ll also be the first to admit that I don’t find many British comedies funny. Case in point, not even The Freeman could save The Office for me.

    I’m with HoneySempai — a dark comedy with social commentary would probably be the best way to go.

  8. The only way I really see this working out is if the famine is just a backdrop, and the comedy comes purely from other things. Humor is certainly something that gets people through dark times, and if the characters use humor as a coping mechanism, then it COULD work. But with the somewhat hacky title, it doesn’t make a good first impression.

    The famine was largely the reason that my ancestors on my mother’s side of the family left Ireland and came to the United States, I’ve heard secondhand (well, more like third or fourth hand) stories about some of the horrors that have been passed from one generation to the next, and it’s part of the school curriculum here in several years (first in elementary school where they taught us the basics, and then again in high school when we were ready for more of the serious stuff). It’s not something that jumps out as funny when you think about it. But I suppose the high risk of alienating people could have a high yield of critical acclaim if it is successful.

    I’ll probably never see it, anyhow. Very few shows from Europe wind up on TV over here. So I’ll be interested to hear how they handle it, maybe from this blog after an episode or two has aired.

  9. And here I thought SNL was tasteless and cruel. I read about the Irish Potato Famine, and I agree with you that it was probably one of the bigger human disasters the Irish have had to deal with. It’s seared into their memories just like the holocaust is in the Jewish culture.

    I think it’s wrong to make an entire comedy series about human tragedies like this. It was one thing when they made M*A*S*H. The Korean War was short and many have forgotten it, or the those who fought in it are dying out. You notice they never made a spin-off series about the Vietnam War, or the Jewish Holocaust of WWII. You just can’t make light of something that made such a terrible cost to human life.

    Short comedy sketches, on the other hand, always manage to get under the radar because they focus on one tiny part of some tragedy (like the “Bring Out Your Dead” scene in Monty Python). Or when the 3 Stooges made idiots out of symbolic versions of Hitler and his minions. But they were short, to the point, and did not make a tasteless joke out of the real horror of the situation.

    Perhaps you’re taking the wiser route, Mouse, and seeing for yourself if the sitcom will get anywhere; though if you ask me, it’s doomed before they get past the pilot. It might not even make it onto the air.

    1. And, to be fair, M*A*S*H wasn’t strictly a comedy. It had plenty of dark moments. “Dramedy” might be a more accurate genre.

  10. When I first heard about this, I was horrified. I saw it as a network trying to make profit off the suffering and tragedy caused by the Irish Famine. I thought about how its apparently funny to laugh at Irish people dying, yet if the same idea was had about the Holocaust or the suffering of Native Americans or similar, they probably wouldn’t even think about putting on the air.
    But then I thought about it and realised, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t judge it fairly yet. It could be good, but honestly, I don’t have much faith.

  11. I’m on the fence, also. Firstly it should be the Irish making the show, if it should be made at all. Seen Moone Boy? Fantastic comedy. Plus we need all the money over here that we can get.
    I’ve been, many times, to Doolough lake in Mayo: where people forced to march for handouts from the British walked into the water and drowned themselves because they couldn’t keep eating grass. I’ve cried on the shore for them. I can’t see anything funny about it.

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