Can you make a comedy out of sexual abuse?

Is this the last taboo in comedy? Tonight Channel 4 will stream a sitcom about sexual abuse. It is written by Mark O’Sullivan (pictured) who is best known for the more conventional blokey building trade laughfest, Lee And Dean. This new comedy will be about O'Sullivan's personal experience of abuse as a child.

Channel 4 is clearly aware that it is sailing into treacherous waters here and they are handling it carefully. In fact the broadcaster is only airing a documentary My Sexual Abuse: The Sitcom, about the making of the sitcom, in the old onscreen way . To watch the actual sitcom, entitled My Sexual Abuse: The Sitcom (The Actual Sitcom), you will have to click onto their website, so there is no chance of stumbling on it while channel surfing and being triggered.

The sitcom certainly has an impressive cast, featuring familiar faces including Cariad Lloyd, Rufus Jones, Ellie Taylor and Sam Underwood. It certainly sounds like a gear change for O'Sullivan, who will play a 12-year-old version of himself and also the paedophile who abused him.

The documentary charts the writing, rehearsals and eventual filming of the 80s-style family sitcom in front of a studio audience. It explores why O'Sullivan (pictured below) has chosen to deal with his abuse in this way and asks whether comedy really can be used to confront some of the worst parts of the human experience.  

This is not, however, the first time light entertainment has tackled what some might consider a comedic no-go area. Mel Brooks famously mocked the Nazis in The Producers. In fact he enjoyed mocking them so much he did it again with a full-on Broadway musical version. Brooks has said that his plan was to defuse the explosive power of Hitler by making people laugh at him. 

Sometimes though this mockery ploy does not go down as well. Maybe the makers of the very shortlived TV comedy Heil Honey I'm Home had The Producers in mind when they made a sitcom about the domestic life of Adolf Hitler living next door to a Jewish family. the first episode aired on satellite Channel BSkyB in 1990. At some point however there were second thoughts and filming was halted. It was described by historian Marian Calabro as "perhaps the world's most tasteless situation comedy".

Other ideas for sitcoms did not even get as far as the cameras rolling. In 2015 it was revealed that Channel 4 was considering making a sitcom based around the Irish potato famine entitled Hungry and had commissioned a script. 40,000 protesters signed a petition demanding the series not go ahead and there were demonstrations outside C4's London office. And this was before the full force of social media had been unleashed. Imagine the furore if it was announced now. Despite the Great Famine being nearly 200 years ago it was still considered to be in very poor taste.

We now live in more febrile, sensitive times. On the one hand offence seems to be easily taken. On the other there is a new openness which means people are more prepared to talk about previously difficult subjects. In the last few years there has been a veritable plethora of comedies about mental health, from Aisling Bea's This Way Up to the more recent Dinosaur, starring Ashley Storrie and C4's Big Mood starring Derry Girls' Nicola Coughlan. 

Mental health is clearly no longer the taboo subject it once was. Comedy certainly seems to be a viable vehicle for getting discussion about ADHD, autism and even suicidal ideation out into the open.

But is sexual abuse another ball game altogether? My Sexual Abuse: The Sitcom and the actual sitcom is very much Mark O'Sullivan's story. It's a story he wants to tell and as he is a comedy writer it only seems correct that he uses humour to process his experience.

Being a survivor of abuse continue to shape his life and mental health. So can comedy have a kind of redemptive power? O'Sullivan certainly thinks so. He says: "Making something positive out of the trauma I went through as a child really feels like the best - the only - way for me to deal with it. I really hope it helps others, and allows more people to talk about something which, understandably, we often don’t want to confront."

Comedy can be about man drawers, garlic bread and going out out, but tackled well it can be about so much more too. It might not make the most comfortable viewing for a date night but long may it go into the darkest of places, whether that is the holocaust or sexual abuse. 

The documentary will transmit on Channel 4 at 10pm on May 28, with the full sitcom available to view on straight after the broadcast.


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