Crossing a line: proposed “black humor” needs to take care or risk trivializing oppression


There’s something peculiar to the British sense of humor. In my experience, Americans in particular have a certain love/hate relationship with what makes a Brit laugh, ranging from fascination over our obsession with botched etiquette to bewilderment at some of our more eccentric moments.

There’s a red line, however, that shouldn’t be crossed, regardless of how brave or avant garde a comedian believes themselves to be. In this case such a boundary has been drawn at the heart of British politics, with members of Parliament denouncing as “insensitive and potentially highly offensive” a proposed sitcom about a darker episode in our history: the Irish Famine.

It’s unsurprising that this has hit a nerve inside and outside the corridors of power.  The Great Famine, taking place between 1845 and 1852, took the lives of over a million people, triggering the depopulation of much of Ireland as a million others fled, particularly to the United States and Australia. The blundering and often callous response of the British authorities set the stage for a historical episode deserving of national shame rather than mirth. So what could convince anyone to believe such a setting might prove ideal for a sitcom?

“Ireland has always been good at black humor,” claimed Hugh Travers, himself an Irishman and the lead writer behind the potential series, now titled Hungry . Travers argued in an interview with the Irish Times that “comedy equals tragedy plus time” and that whilst he doesn’t deny “the suffering that people went through” presumably enough time has elapsed since the mid-nineteenth century for Hungry to be worth a laugh.

Others have not been shy about disagreeing. Tim Pat Coogan, a historian known for invoking the word “genocide” in his account of the Great Famine via his book “The Famine Plot”, doesn’t see much potential. “We could be all pleasantly surprised, but my initial reaction is one of dismay,” he told the Irish Times. “Would they make a comedy series about the holocaust? It really does defeat your powers of comprehension.

“Murder, genocide, people dying, retching with their faces green from eating weeds, their bowels hanging out of them- no passage of time will make that funny,” he added.

Irish politicians are hardly laughing either. When speaking to the London-based newspaper, The Independent, Dublin councillor David McGuinness claimed Hunger was intended to “embarrass and denigrate” rather than amuse.

“Jewish people would never endorse making a comedy of the mass extermination of their ancestors at the hands of the Nazis, Cambodians would never support people laughing at what happened to their people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the people of Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan would never accept the plight of their people, through generational famine, being the source of humor in Britain,” he went on to add. He has since called on Irish broadcasters to boycott the production.

Across the water in Westminster, the oppositional Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament attracted some cross-party interest, with the firebrand George Galloway, perhaps best known for his show-down with the US Senate in 2005, granting support. Originating from the Manchester-based Liberal Democrat, John Leech, the motion used some fairly fiery language in calling upon Parliament to force producers to reconsider the sitcom. In a strange turn of events, however, the actual motion denouncing the proposed production accrued the support of just six MPs.

Yet outside of the hallowed halls of the House of Commons it was markedly different. An online petition against the show attracted over forty thousand supporters, highlighting the fact that the general public are a tad more concerned with good taste than a notably right-wing Westminster. In fact, no Conservative MPs supported the EDM at all.

The original petition author, one Fairlie Gordon, from Glasgow, claimed that “any programme on this issue would have to be of serious historical context, not a comedy. Famine or genocide is no laughing matter”.

We may have been here before, however. When the fourth series of the comedy-hit, Blackadder, set itself in the midst of World War One, bad taste could have been the order of the day. Yet the series was successful, in part because of it’s willingness to mock the political and military ineptitude of the British brass whilst retaining sympathy for those caught up in a conflict outside of their own comprehension.

The fact that the writers finished the series with the death of the main characters, with the last few moments of footage being the poppy fields at Flanders, highlighted a willingness to take a more respectful approach towards a sensitive subject. Indeed, Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the unforgettably incompetent General Melchett was as much an attack on the delusional nature of the British establishment as it was an attempt at humor. Perhaps Hungry will take a similar turn, although we shouldn’t expect too much of what, at this stage, seems to be an attempt to find comedy in all the wrong places.

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