Laughing at Ourselves

Are jokes about the Troubles offensive or funny?

Comedian Danny McCrossan explores our innate ability to laugh at life, the universe and terrorism…

Regardless of political stance or religious beliefs, one thing has always united people from every corner of Northern Ireland – the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Since the Troubles began, every Northern Irish comedian has at one time or another made reference to the political climate here. From terrorist jokes to poking fun at our elected representatives, people from all sides of the community come together and are united through laughter.

So let’s now examine this trend. Is it strictly a case of locals laughing at local references? Or is it a case of overcoming our own prejudices by facing our history, and our own eccentricities, in a public arena where they’re made to appear petty and small?

Remember that joke our very own Patrick Keilty won over the Northern Irish viewers with?

‘Oh so now it’s the Real IRA. What’s next? Diet IRA, The Really Real IRA, Caffeine Free IRA, I Can’t Believe It’s Not The IRA.’

A simple joke, but in its simplicity there is an underlying current, something that makes most Northern Irish people want to slap their thighs and laugh riotously. But what is it?

After recently finishing a gig at the notorious Empire Comedy Club in Belfast, I decided to interview a few of the audience members about the effect such gags have on people here. The foremost question in my mind at the time was, ‘Why is this so funny?’

Garvan O’Doherty, a third year student studying electronics at the University of Ulster, had this to say: ‘You’re talking to locals about local things, and it’s just, funny.’

A valid point, but hey, we already knew that! Politely refusing O’Doherty’s proposition to join him for ‘a couple of shots of antifreeze’, I moved on with my quest.

Lara Horner, a trainee chef from Derry, was a little more insightful:

‘I just think people have been suffering because of the Troubles for too long and they’ve got fed up with it. Maybe we’re just all too sick of what was going on and we deserve a laugh after everything that’s happened here.’

An apt response, but would anyone else agree with this somewhat poetic opinion?

Gavin Boyle, a history student at Queen’s University, didn’t agree:  ‘Personally I don’t find jokes like that funny, and neither would you if someone you knew was injured or killed by terrorists.’

Boyle didn’t strike me as a comedy connoisseur, and although I didn’t really appreciate his harsh and cutting response, I have to admit he made me think.

All night, in various different guises, these three same responses were the only explanations forthcoming from audience members. Could they all be right? I decided to turn away from the audience for a while to seek answers from people who were perhaps more able to understand the subtleties of my question and all it entailed – my fellow comedians.

Gordon Bell has been performing comedy for a year now and is looking to break through the open mic stage and on to bigger performances. I asked him his views on political comedy here.

‘Topical humour always works best, especially if it’s a subject people can understand and relate to. I mean you could crack a joke about making an igloo to an Iraqi and they wouldn’t get it – the Eskimos would love you though.’

That struck a chord with me there. Was it simply a matter of taking an aspect of everyday Northern Irish life and putting a spin on it? Or was it merely a case of taking a farcical situation here, like our Assembly, and just talking about it? Basically just getting a chance to say what everyone is already thinking anyway? I felt I was getting closer to an answer.

Kevin O’Hagan has been on the comedy circuit in Ireland for three years now and loves using political and religious references in his act. He explained:

‘Everyone here associates certain stigmas and stereotypes to different political parties and different religions. Some of these stigmas can be hurtful and offensive, but when you address these to a mixed audience, when you put them out there in an over the top fashion, people see how silly they are. They see how stupid some of these are and they no longer become offensive – they become funny.’

Ultimately I felt Kevin was right. In fact everyone I talked to that night made a valid point. We have a lot of history here and do deserve to laugh once in a while. Some of us may still feel bitter and resentful, the rest of us realise that through laughter we break down walls. Possessing the ability to laugh at our political situation here, people from all communities can come together in peace and harmony, even if it is just for a couple of hours.

In 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was quoted as saying, ‘It’s the only show in town.’  He was wrong.