When I first heard that Channel Four had commissioned a ‘sit-com’ about the Famine I winced. My reaction was one of revulsion. The famine remains a special kind of horror that we may still be coming to terms with as a nation. The National Famine Monument in Co Mayo was only unveiled in 1997 and it was not until 2008 that we, as a country inaugurated a National Famine Commemoration Day. Why did we take so long to begin to deal with this catastrophe? Do we carry the horror of starving to death in our DNA as a kind of race memory? Do we Irish people of today carry some residue of guilt that our families survived and remained in Ireland? I think all of these questions may have an affirmative answer.
I know I was not alone is experiencing revulsion at the idea of a comedy being set around those awful years between 1845 and 1850. There is currently an online petition with over 20,000 signatures against this proposed project.
But once I got over my initial reaction I was almost equally disturbed by the notion that I might consider certain topics to be off limits to comedy or satire. All my life I have found humour even in the darkest moments. And I believe that it is this ability to see the absurd even in the tragic that has regularly saved my sanity. I am a huge believer in the power of humour to make life bearable and at times joyful beyond explanation. There is nothing as exhilarating as to be taken to that place where you are literally crying with laughter.
We lost American comedian Joan Rivers last year. At times Ms River’s comedy made me wince too. Particularly when she attacked someone for being fat or ugly – or God forbid, both. I still think that personal attacks are the lowest form of wit. Ricky Gervais is another purveyor of this brand of humour. I like my comedy to be a bit clever.
When Ms Rivers died, I tweeted that I sometimes found her humour to be cruel rather than funny. That tweet didn’t earn me any new followers and I was taken to task by a number of her fans online.
Over Christmas, ITV screened ‘An Audience with Joan Rivers’ which was originally aired in 2005. Towards the end of the programme she was asked if there was anything she wouldn’t joke about. Her answer completely won me over.
It’s a well known fact that her husband committed suicide (as she says, ‘in the 80s when it was still chic’). She explained that when she went back on stage the first time after his death, she could feel the audience wondering how she would be. She tackled their curiosity head on. Her first joke was about suicide.
However, she then went on to talk about how her beloved daughter, Melissa reacted after the sudden death of her father. Melissa has spoken him on the phone the night before he died. Melissa was also the only person home when the phone call came to say he passed away. Joan got somewhat emotional when she explained how, for over a week after the funeral, she couldn’t reach her poor 15 year old daughter. Finally she took her out to dinner to a very expensive restaurant in Hollywood. As they looked at the menus Joan said “you know Melissa, if you father were here looking at these prices, he’d kill himself all over again”. And Melissa laughed. Connection was re-established.
I think there is a reason that we are the only species on earth that have a sense of humour. I am sure that our ability to laugh is designed as a release valve – a way of making life more bearable, especially at times of disaster – personal, national or indeed global.
Joan Rivers can joke about suicide because she has experienced it at close quarters (and she did a lot of charity work around the issue). There was a truth in her comedy.
The young man commissioned by Channel Four to write this sit com about the Famine is Hugh Travers. He is Irish. So too is the production company, Deadpan Pictures. That also makes a difference. So although the project may air on a British TV station, it will be an Irish creation.
We Irish should be the first to make comedy around the Famine, because we know the truth of it. It won’t lessen the horror of what happened. It won’t insult the memory of those that died. It won’t change anything. No more than the movie ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ lessened the horror of the Vietnam War.
But it had better be funny. To be unfunny would be unforgiveable. I wish Mr Travers the best of luck.