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Hot potato - can you find funny in the Famine?

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Memorial: The Famine memorial sculpture stands covered in snow outside The International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, Ireland.  Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Memorial: The Famine memorial sculpture stands covered in snow outside The International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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A group of worshippers praying in a chapel in the town of Thurles, North Tipperary, Ireland, during the Great Famine, 1848. Original publication: Illustrated London News - pub 26th August 1848. Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

A group of worshippers praying in a chapel in the town of Thurles, North Tipperary, Ireland, during the Great Famine, 1848. Original publication: Illustrated London News - pub 26th August 1848. Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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Memorial: The Famine memorial sculpture stands covered in snow outside The International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Great Famine. It's no laughing matter. Unless you are Channel 4 or Alan Partridge.

In one classic 1997 episode of the BBC comedy I'm Alan Partridge, the hapless TV presenter sat down with two Irish TV executives, played by Fr Ted writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan.

Alan blundered into the subject of the Famine, asking a clearly uncomfortable Linehan (playing TV exec Aidan Walsh): "So, how many people were killed in the Irish famine?"

The Irishman replies: "Two million. And another two million had to leave the country."

Patridge observes: "Right. It was just the potatoes that were affected? Well, at the end of the day, you will pay the price if you are a fussy eater. If they could afford to emigrate, then they could afford to eat in a modest restaurant."

If you thought that joke was in desperately poor taste, you may be one of many thousands who signed an online petition this week to demand that Channel 4 drops tentative plans for a sitcom set during the Famine.

Irish comedy writer Hugh Travers has been commissioned by the British broadcaster to write a pilot script for a "black comedy", working title Hunger, set during the period around Black '47.

It is to be produced by Deadpan Pictures, a spin-off of the Wicklow-based production company Grand Pictures, the people behind hit comedy Moone Boy.

"This is in the development process and is not currently planned to air," said a C4 spokeswoman. "It's not unusual for sitcoms to exist against backdrops that are full of adversity and hardship."

Hugh Travers, best known for the RTÉ radio comedy-drama Lambo (a fictionalised account of the moment the late Gerry Ryan confessed to killing a lamb on The Late Late Show) told one newspaper about his thought process.

"Why the Famine? Well, they say 'comedy equals tragedy plus time'. I don't want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humour."

Travers may be shocked by the furore generated by his development script.

But another Irish comedian and comedy writer, Mario Rosenstock, believes one factor in the outrage generated is social media in general and Twitter in particular.

"Quite clearly, people are only too ready to jump on the outrage bandwagon," says Mario.

"They can use this 140-character outlet to make a name for themselves, to get noticed. Twitter is like going into a bar and shouting at the top of your voice until everybody shuts up. And the best way to do this is to be rude or outraged about somebody, some TV show or whatever."

The radio and TV comic says he wants to wait and see how the script turns out, but he does not believe that the Famine should be off-limits for comedy. "With a subject like the famine, the tone is going to be very important. It's the overriding factor in any comedy like this," says Mario.

"You look at shows like Blackadder, set in the horror of World War One, and they got it right, even up to that ending, where they went over the top, and suddenly, it's very powerful, it's not about comedy anymore."

"And just who is doing the jokes is also a very important factor. It kind of comes back to the debate about how black comedians can use the 'N' word, but white comedians cannot.

"It's largely because they are saying it about themselves.

"The fact that it's an Irish writer, an Irish production company, and not English writers and producers doing this, I think that allows them, if that's the right word, to at least look at the subject.

"In this case, the receivers of the injustice, some people would argue the genocide, are the ones who are writing something funny about it, or attempting to see the funny side of it."

DCU Professor of Politics, Gary Murphy, believes that, on a basic level, no area of Irish (or wider) history should be off-limits for satire or comedy.

"It's part of the human condition. We have been through all sorts of trauma, from famine times, a bitter, terrible civil war, right up through the Troubles.

"And if we can't occasionally make fun of our history, this human condition, well what's the point of it all, really?"

"It's also a dangerous road to go down. Once you start putting events off-limits, where do you stop? Do you not lampoon the Troubles, or the War of Independence?"

"It's our story. And if comedy should do anything, it should enlighten that story. These terrible events should be up for discussion in all forms. And comedy is as much a form of political expression as any other."

Prof Murphy believes some of the negative reaction to the Channel 4 project comes from professional historians and commentators.

"We can get too po-faced about our history, saying we can only talk about these events in dry history books or serious commentary. It inhibits free speech and imagination."

The academic believes that we may also be doing a disservice to the people who actually lived and suffered through the famine.

"We can only assume that people then had a sense of humour, not withstanding the unbelievably grim conditions, that's just part of the human condition. And this idea that only historians can feel their pain, or because it was so terrible - and you can make the strong argument that the British government just let the Irish to rot - that we can only talk about it in the most serious tones. Well, I find that very limiting."

But should any subjects be off-limits for comedians? Mario Rosenstock says it's an issue that he wrestles with and gives the example of Scottish stand-up Frankie Boyle's notorious routine about the disabled son of glamour model, Jordan.

"I don't understand how Frankie Boyle, a man of his intelligence, needs to make jokes about Jordan's disabled son. Yes, what he is doing there is showing us that he can do it, that it's freedom of speech.

"But you can't honestly say it's funny. Nobody with a heart can say it's funny. As a sentient human being, you can't go and laugh at that."

Indo Review