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.
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.
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.
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!