Crossing the line between dark comedy and racism 

Christine O’Mahony 

Dark humour or “Black Comedy” is a comedic style that makes fun of ordinarily taboo subjects such as murder, violence, racial or sexual stereotypes, war, famine and much more. Dark humour originated in 1935 when surrealist theorist André Breton started interpreting the works of Jonathan Swift. Swift, in his essay “A Modest Proposal”, published in 1729, satirically suggested that the Irish could “solve their economic problems by selling their children to the wealthy as food”. 

We might have seen dark humour in the 1989 film “Weekend at Bernie’s”, which makes fun of death. The two main characters, Larry and Richard, in the film try to convince everyone that the dead person, Bernie, is actually alive, while carrying around Bernie’s deceased body. While it is gruesome talking about death, the film is hilarious. 

However, too many comedians these days touch upon the racial and sexual stereotypes of dark comedy, which leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those who actually suffer racism and misogyny in their everyday life. 

Last week, well liked comedian, Tommy Tiernan, who played Da Gerry in Derry Girls and went to school in Navan, decided to tell a racist joke at his show. He told the audience that his daughter “warned” him not to tell this joke, but he decided to tell it anyway. 

RTÉ presenter, Emer O’Neill, who is also a person of colour was in the audience and listened carefully to what he said. She wrote an Instagram post to communicate her upset after hearing the racist joke. Tiernan said: “So I was at the zoo the other day and looking at the penguins, they are like little nuns walking around with rosary beads. Then the wolves so Irish fierce/strong, then we went to the African Savannah and it was full of taxi drivers! Ok now I’m looking at a room of white faces and everyone is laughing, so I think I’m ok, it wasn’t a racist joke”. 

O’Neill believed Tiernan should have listened to his daughter as it was a racist joke. Perhaps this didn’t cross the mind of Tommy, but for many Black youths and adults, they have constantly been compared to Zoo animals, in particular monkeys, due to the racist and xenophobic attitudes of many people. 

The only people who can tell whether a joke is racist or not, are the ones that actually experience racism. Living in a majority white world, Tiernan will not have to worry about anyone insulting his skin colour, nor will he have to worry about somebody stereotyping his job due to his race. 

Not every African living in Ireland is a taxi driver, some are the nurses and doctors that cared for Irish people, some are the teachers and lecturers that are educating our children, some are the solicitors and barristers that are providing us with justice, some are the chefs and kitchen assistants that are providing us with good food. The African community is contributing to Irish society, why is there a need to insult them with racist jokes? 

When listening to Tiernan’s “joke”, I am reminded of the debate around Archie Mountbatten-Windsor’s skin colour. The so-called jokes that were posted on social media, led to BBC 5 Live presenter, Danny Baker, being sacked. Why? Because he compared Archie to a Baby Chimpanzee. Not only was it racist, but it was also highly unprofessional of a journalist to do such a thing, and quite sad as Archie was barely a day old when this “joke” was made. I feel BBC made the right decision there, taking somebody with that mindset off their team. 

Comedy is supposed to punch up, not kick down. I agree with O’Neill, perhaps Tiernan should have listened to his daughter, as he has been in a mocking Down Syndrome controversy, an anti-Traveller controversy, an anti-Semitic controversy and now this controversy. When will it end? 

Racism has a profound effect on one’s mental health, and I expected somebody who is an expert on mental health and who has a show dedicated to talking about mental health, to know this and to do better. 

As Emma Dabiri said in her book “What White People Can Do Next”, “I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is Black, isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humour. 

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