A sitcom to be called Hungry, based on the Irish great famine (in which 1 million people died and another million were forced to emigrate in what some regard as an example of genocide), has been commissioned by Channel 4 from Dublin-based writer Hugh Travers. He told the Irish Times that “we’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless [a comedy about a dysfunctional Manchester family led by a drunken patriarch – Ed] in famine Ireland.”
In response, Dublin Fianna Fáil councillor, David McGuinness, described the proposal as a “total disgrace” and “nothing short of insulting” to the 2 million people affected. Niall O’Dowd, of the Irish-American site Irish Central blog, described it as an abomination and equivalent to comedies involving Holocaust victims and Ebola victims. Change.org have organised a petition NOT to make a comedy series, about the Irish famine which has 13,000 signatures and rising. It argues:
Famine or genocide is no laughing matter , approximately 1 million Irish people died, and another 2 million were forced to emigrate, because they were starving, any programme on this issue would have to be of serious historical context not repeat not a comedy.”
Cllr McGuinness says “Jewish people would never endorse making a comedy of the mass extermination of their ancestors at the hands of the Nazis“. But, in fact, many Jewish people have endorsed Holocaust-based comedy. In my opinion, one example of a Holocaust comedy – La Vita è bella or Life is Beautiful, starring comedian Roberto Benigni – is a remarkable success. It is the most moving and,in spite of the film’s comedy, its increasing lack of realism (the half of the movie which takes place in a concentration camp becomes ever more ‘stagey’, the set progressively acquiring an almost cartoonish simplicity) and its almost happy ending, the least distorted representation of the Holocaust I have seen in any fictional treatment.
And I am not alone in my enthusiasm. At the Jerusalem film festival following its release, it received a standing ovation from the audience that had watched in silence. Benigni received a ‘Jewish Experience Award’ for “using the comedy in a very sensitive and humane way” to recreate “the most traumatic event in Jewish history“.
Most Holocaust-related movies focus on a-typical aspects – survival, escape, acts of remarkable heroism, acts of resistance. Straight dramatic reconstruction simply cannot deal with the unimaginable horror of the reality for most Jews under Nazi rule. Life is Beautiful succeeds through the use of humour in dealing with a more common experience of Holocaust victims, the attempt to keep alive the human spirit in spite of the brutal efforts of the Nazis to extinguish it. In the case of the character played by Benigni, this involves the protection of his young son by devising an elaborate “game” to shield him from the realities of what is happening whilst persuading him to do what is necessary for his survival – you’ll find a full review here and a short, hilarious and gut-wrenching video explaining the “game” here:
Whilst Life is Beautiful and some other examples of using comedy to depict the Holocaust (like Jakob the Liar starring Robin Williams), doing so is certainly dangerous and risky. Jerry Lewis in 1972 made a concentration camp comedy The Day the Clown Cried in which German clown Helmut Doork played by Lewis entertains the children in a concentration camp eventually leading them into the gas chambers, Pied Piper style at which point the film ends with them all laughing as gas fills the room. It was never released. One of the very few people to have seen it, comedian Harry Shearer, commented:
This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”
I don’t know how well Hugh Travers will succeed with the Irish famine in emulating the efforts of Roberto Benigni. But if comedy can achieve what Benigni achieved with the Holocaust, it is ceratainly possible that comedy could treat the Irish famine with similar sensitivity and humanity. And I am certainly not going to sign a petition that seeks to prevent him even trying. It is up to Chanel 4 to ensure that he does the job well before they broadcast it.