From the Holocaust to the Irish famine: can you make comedy out of genocide?

Life is Beautiful2Can it ever be legitimate – possible even – to make comedy out of the world’s most appalling tragedies?

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.

  1. Well it wasn’t genocide and it’s preposterous to say otherwise.

    Can you extract humour from tragedy? You bet.

    This is why I despise the feminist war on rape jokes.

  2. Comedy is tragedy plus time so they say. I think the Holocaust has far more comic potential than the Irish Famine due to the nature of the politics that led up to it. Whilst the famine was a criminal assault on a defenceless nation the Holocaust was the product of some truly ludicrous and farcical politics. Even the situation in the camps has a certain sit com quality in retrospect as some Jewish comedians have discovered. Not sure if the famine fits the bill in the same way though but as with you I would not be signing any petitions to prevent it being made though I might protest the finished product if it turns out to be just a load of old racist bollox. As Marx said: first time tragedy, second time farce.

      • I don’t think it will be. There should be plenty of material for satire. The political machinations of the rich and powerful mixed with the gallows humour of the starving. A sort of extreme comedy Irish version of Upstairs Downstairs.

        • Then you have to look at France today and state comedy is a dangerous game so is political cartoons. 12 dead.

  3. You can, and should. After all Backadder made some poignant points about WWI.
    The fact is these disaters of War and Famine are caused the the Ruling elites, who have absolutely no concepotion of ordinary people.
    WWI has a family dispute between 2 of Victorias decendents; WWII basically a continuation of WWI. The Famine was caused by the greedy Landed Gentry. And both still exist today in the Monarchy and Country Seats and the Establishment. Somebody needs to point out the idiocy of all three, and thats best dome through comedy.

  4. Stalin committed a holacaust and Sky TV made a joke of him drinking a glass of milk and having a milk moustache, MAo committed genecide and there were jokes of him, eating dogs for Boxing Day dinner.but the Maoist view was such a dedication to the little red book, people wouldn’t want escapism like humour,

  5. Speaking of irish Hunger, thre was a movie about acid house parties one of the stars went on Mastermind and was asked “who said ‘please sir,can I have some more’ and he replied “Bobby sands”

    I’ve heard other bad taste jokes, in 1999 John F Kennedy Jnr,crashed a light air plane with his wife,and sister in law in the sea, the cockpit filled up with water,and they drowned in the plane,
    And some one said At least in the 60’s the Kennedy’s use to froEn their women one at a time,
    But where there’s been rape jokes lately, making it on to T.v, I’ll be protesting too David,

  6. What is it about racial and sexual abuse which makes you draw the line there, rather than at say; starvation or cancer, both of which involve looking directly into the eyes of the grim reaper?

    It’s inconsistent, subjective, and a poor excuse for demanding censorship when you could instead just not watch the show.

    Nothing is sacred in comedy. If people want to laugh at my misfortune then I argue they should be free to do that. In my view, it’s a huge disappointment that UKIP champion freedom of speech more so than us. Civil liberties should be an irrefutable bastion of the left.

  7. Dear John,
    I will respond to your article as a fellow comrade of the Labour Party.
    I have to say that using examples of comedies on the Jewish Holocaust is, definitely, not a strong defence for your reasons not to sign the petition. For instance, you have not mentioned the banning from main stream TV of comedies such as “Love thy neighbour” and the outrageous episode by the “Goodies” on “Black and White Minstrels.” In fact, there is no comedy to the expense of Black History. Instead, we had serious in depth dramas such as “Roots” and the same should apply to the Irish Famine. It is interesting that the Jewish comedy had a happy ending but there was hardly any happy ending for the Irish people who endured the Famine.
    It is not only Fianna Fail that has publicly condemned this comedy. It is, also, Sinn Fein. The next politicians who must add their public condemnation should be the British Labour Party with the Left leading the challenge!
    Critics say that the comedy is written by an Irish man and therefore, it is not racist. But that criticism can be turned on its head as Irish people in Britain have had enough of living the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” mentality after generations of racial discrimination and economic hardship. This Irish writer is in danger of letting racists in Britain off the hook and to discriminate against Irish people all over again! I will be organising a History Month, this year, for Irish immigrants to Britain of previous centuries. I can send you the report of last year’s events and perhaps you can provide support for our plans in 2015.
    However, as we look at the Irish Famine, itself, Channel 4 is in danger of institutionalised anti – Irish racism. This event in history was a man made famine and potential genocide that killed at least one million people, practically wiped out an entire Gaelic speaking population and forced millions of Irish people to leave Ireland against their will to this day. I won’t find it funny to watch a comedy associated with two people looking like skeletons in a humble abode with a couple of days to live. I won’t be laughing when a tenant chops up his horses to feed his children. I won’t be amused when an ordinary Irish woman is cooking potatoes for her sons and daughters, and then the food turns rotten that the family have nothing to eat. There will be no laughter from myself when people are eating grass. Finally, who will find it funny when a farm labourer is begging for food in a work house, is told to leave, and then has to open his jacket in order to dump a dead child on the counter? If incidents of this nature do not occur in this comedy, then it will be an utter distortion of the truth and the Irish Famine will be trivialised all over again in Britain. The people who are defending this programme could be snookered!
    I ask you to reconsider your views on behalf of the Labour Left.
    Yours fraternally and in solidarity
    Austin Harney.

    • Austin: I don’t in any way disagree with you about the seriousness of the Irish famine, nor about the level of responsibility of British overlords for the tragedy, nor about the racism experienced by Irish people. Nor do I disagree that there is a long history of racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-working class and otherwise politically unacceptable comedy (and indeed other programming) on British television. Nor do I disagree that there is a need for factual documentary or serious dramatisation (or both) to raise awareness and understanding of the Irish famine.

      The question I was addressing, however, was whether it was impossible to use comedy in an appropriate way in dealing with massive human tragedy, and therefore whether it might be right to ban a proposed TV programme before it is even written. I used Life is Beautiful as a counter-example to illustrate it was possible to use comedy in an appropriate way in relation to a different human tragedy but one whose enormity is, by general consent amongst historians, at least as great as that of any other genocide or other man-made event.

      I never suggested there was anything funny about the Holocaust. There most certainly isn’t. The laughs in Life is Beautiful are not “about the Holocaust”. They are sometimes about the sheer absurdity of the perpetrators or what they were doing. They are sometimes about the actions taken by the victims to keep alive human spirits. If it is possible to make one worthwhile comedy situated in the Holocaust, it is possible to make another – or, I think, one situated in other human tragedies. That’s why I’m against a ban, but that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of showing a comedy that is offensive to Irish people, for example by projecting offensive stereotypes.

      If what you want is serious programming about the Irish famine, I’d suggest you campaign for that – I’d support you – rather than for banning something that is not yet even written and which surely therefore cannot be described as a “tasteless comedy” as you do in your second comment.

      By the way, I described Life is Beautiful as having an “almost happy ending” because the mother and child survive. Like most serious dramatisations, Life is Beautiful focuses on survival. The mother wasn’t Jewish but voluntarily accompanied the Jewish father and child to the concentration camp. The child was not Jewish by Jewish law, though he would have been counted as such by Nazi “law”. Pretty much all the Jews you see in the film die (including the character played by director Roberto Benigni) though not on screen, just like they did in reality in most countries under Nazi occupation. Most of the survivors spent yet more years in camps before most of them went to Israel. I’m not sure that made for an especially happy ending either.

      There were rather more survivors of the Irish famine and most of the survivors ended up in America which is where most Holocaust survivors would probably rather have gone. I say that not because I’m making some point about a hierarchy of tragedy but because I think it would be at least as easy for any well made fictionalised treatment of the Irish famine to have an “almost happy ending” as one of the Holocaust.

      “Jewish people don’t make comedies about their persecution but dramas on family and romantic love during tragic times such as “Fiddler on the roof.” (from your second comment) I don’t accept that you can generalise in this way but in any case Life is Beautiful was not Jewish made. Though the character played by director Roberto Benigni was Jewish, he himself is not.

  8. I have, now, received this quote from another source: “Life is beautiful is a love story, a man’s love for his family. He has the ability to make the horror and tragedy of what is happening seem like a great game, to protect his son’s childish innocence. He is doing what any parent would want to be brave enough to do.
    He is a funny man, but the film is not a comedy.” It equates with what I thought, recently. Jewish people don’t make comedies about their persecution but dramas on family and romantic love during tragic times such as “Fiddler on the roof.” Therefore, this example is a weak argument for not signing the petition against Channel 4’s decision to televise this tasteless comedy on the Irish Famine!

  9. It is very noticeable that the majority of names on that almost 40,000 strong petition are obviously Irish and many more names like my own are of Irish people though not obviously so.
    The outrage is because historically great acts of repression were committed against Ireland and the most pathetic of excuses sufficed to justify this to British liberals and representatives of the working class, including many who call themselves socialist and even revolutionary socialist.

    Ken Livingstone rightly withdrew GLC advertising from the Evening Standard for the appallingly Jac anti Irish racist cartoon, in the long racist Punch tradition.

    40,000 should be enough to tell you we feel this to be an appalling racist proposal and we think that those British ‘Socialists’ who refuse to sign this petition on the spurious excuse of ‘freedom of expression’ are objectively supporting a cornerstone of the defence of the British Empire that is its anti Irish racism which assisted so much in sending those millions to their graves to enhance the profits of Lordl John Russell and his liberal Millocracy.

    Gerry Downing

    • I understand the outrage and entirely accept that the experience of Irish people through the ages justifies a great deal of outrage. However, 40,000 people can be wrong and on this occasion I think they – and you – are indeed wrong. You and they seek to ban something which is not yet written. That in itself worries me. It may be right to argue that something you have seen or read should not be shown, but the test for banning something as yet unwritten should be very much harder.

      It depends on the impossibility of using comedy to deal appropriately with a massive human tragedy deliberately perpetrated. I have suggested a counter-example of a comedy which does just that.

  10. No doubt, this debate will continue. First of all, I don’t believe in censorship but we need to strike a balance between freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination. So far, nobody has made any criticism of the banning of “Love thy neighbour” and the outrageous episode by the “Goodies” on “Black and White Minstrels.” I have raised this example, time and time again, when people have accused me of censorship but I have received no response on the matter. Yet it is strange when I say that a comedy of which could be detrimental to Irish people should not go ahead, then, I am accused of censorship. Would these same people make the same accusations to Black activists over the banned programmes of the seventies that I have, just, mentioned? The Irish were one of the first ethnic immigrants to Britain and the last to be included in the Race Relations Act in the nineties. Sadly, the legislation is still a piece of paper, especially when Channel 4 can make derogatory programmes against Irish Travellers and the British Roma Community such as “Fat Gypsy Wedding.” Secondly, harassment is based on the perception of the recipients. So, if a racial remark offends one Black person at a Trade Union Conference, it is offensive to all Black people in terms of breaching the Equality Act. Any comedy as opposed to drama that is associated with the Famine is enough to offend many Irish people and is, too, in danger of breaching the Equality Act, regardless of whether it is written. Lastly, I have been under attack for organising a demonstration against Channel 4 because the programme has not been seen by us. However, the reaction in Ireland is not good as people are asking how Britain would react to comedies such as those associated with the bombs during the troubles in this country and so on. There would be large scale reaction, as a result, and if there were protests outside the Irish Embassy, I would not blame these demonstrators for reacting angrily regardless of whether they have seen such a comedy. I fear that if the sit com on the “Famine” goes ahead, it could have a damaging impact on Anglo – Irish relations at grassroots level. Currently, I am working very hard to build grassroots links between British and Irish workers within the Trade Unions. We could do without this sit com and Channel 4 does not need to televise it!

  11. There is a fundamental difference between the above examples and the Great Famine; those political people that committed that act of genocide are still in power and still deny their responsibility for that deliberate act, still portraying it as a ‘natural disaster’. British socialists have a heavy responsibly to acknowledge this crime, repudiate it and cease coming to the ideological assistance of their own ruling class in glossing over the genocide. Because if you excuse past crimes you will inevitably do the same for the British Empire today.

    John Lansman fails these tests in refusing to sign the petition he refuses Irish nation his support in righting this appalling historical crime. How very English!