Tuesday 18 June 2019

Ian O'Doherty: We sell a myth to the Americans then cry when they buy it

Go away outta that: Cecily Strong and Saoirse Ronan in the SNL sketch
Go away outta that: Cecily Strong and Saoirse Ronan in the SNL sketch
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It was 'outrageous'. It was 'disgusting'. It was 'racism'.

More importantly, it wasn't very funny.

When Saoirse Ronan took to the stage in 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York last Saturday night, she reminded us just how quickly public perception can change.

Punters have always been fickle, but the rise of social media and the apparent amputation of our national funny bone has created an environment where one bad skit can change a nation's view of you in the space of a few minutes.

For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid this transatlantic racism row, the Carlow actress was the guest star on Saturday Night Live and one of the sketches saw her play an Aer Lingus air hostess.

Sure, the accents were as dodgy as we have come to expect whenever the Yanks do an Irish voice, but perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by that. After all, even the great Robin Williams admitted that he found the Irish accent almost impossible to accurately take off. The material was paper-thin weak, with jokes about cunnilingus, Aran jumpers, potatoes and dogs running loose and... that was the joke, basically. Again, we shouldn't be surprised at the absence of good gags on Saturday Night Live.

Rather like its counter-culture equivalent in the world of publishing, Rolling Stone, it has been sliding into irrelevance for years.

Its few remaining supporters like to claim SNL is an American comedy institution, presumably the institution in question is an old jokes home.

The days of a sharp-tongued Dennis Miller excoriating newsmakers in the Weekend Update slot has long been replaced by a cosy bubble of lazy jokes and predictable punchlines punctuated by the occasional zeitgeist-catching impersonation (Alec Baldwin's Trump, Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, Melissa McCarthy's quite brilliant take on Sean Spicer).

Humour is, of course, an entirely subjective matter. But if there was one thing that united everyone about that sketch, it was the fact that it was just... rubbish.

It was a waste of Ronan's undoubted talents and if it looked like it was written on the hoof there's a good reason for that - it more than likely was.

Celebrity sketches are usually not written until the Wednesday of broadcast, and are subject to both constant editorial changes and the shifting nature of the rest of the show's material.

It's unlikely that the kind of people who wound themselves into a gleeful frenzy of righteous national indignation care about SNL one way or the other. But they certainly seem to react badly when they think Paddy is the butt of a joke.

My personal favourite was one commentator who even managed to invoke the famine, plaintively wailing that: "It's hilarious to poke fun at the reminder that a million of our ancestors died because the potato crop failed during the famine, isn't it Saoirse? Gas that another million were forced to leave the country too."

Jesus Christ, it was just a joke.

In fairness, it takes a particularly virulent, weirdly impressive, strain of crankiness to look at that sketch and think the actress was mocking the famine. But when you're dealing with outraged people, they don't need common sense or rational thought - they have their feelings instead.

There was a time when we had a decent sense of humour about ourselves and the only people who took offence about such issues were those who did so on our behalf.

For example, when Father Ted was first aired, there were complaints from English people of Irish ancestry who moaned that it was offensive to the Irish.

The actual Irish? We loved it.

In the classic Simpsons episode 'Homer Versus The 18th Amendment', a riotous St Patrick's Day parade ushers in a new era of prohibition, prompting Kent Brockman to fulminate: "All this drinking, violence, destruction of property. Are these the things we think of when we think of the Irish?"

When that episode aired over here, complete with its own float of 'drunken Irish writers', did we have a panic attack?

No. Because sensible people know a joke when they see one.

Well, they used to. Now I'm not so sure.

Similarly, when Family Guy sent Peter Griffin to Ireland, they hurled as many stereotypes as they could think of. And most of it was funny.

The only people to howl at the moon with fury were those professional Irish-Americans who peddle offence on behalf of a country they're not even from.

We laughed at Family Guy and then we laughed some more at the irrational strop thrown by these eejits.

But where do these silly Americans get their racist ideas about Ireland from?

Well, they get it from us, of course.

We've been selling the myth of Oireland-be-the-hokey to Yanks for decades, so it's a bit rich to start complaining when they buy that myth. From Riverdance to Tourism Ireland ads on American TV, we have carefully created our image.

We have presented ourselves to the world as a great bunch of people. We play up to the stereotype of green fields, a love of beer and song, and, crucially, a sense of humour.

Now we're in danger of being just as thin-skinned, sour and dour as everyone else.

And that's a damn shame.

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