Making history funny: is any historical topic off-limits?

Making history funny is a great way to “smuggle in facts”, says public historian Greg Jenner. But are there any subjects about which you just can’t make a joke? Speaking to the History Extra podcast, the Horrible Histories lead historian offers his take…

Actor and comedian Lee Mack in 'Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans'. (Image by Nick Wall)

A hit children’s TV series – and now a summer film – Horrible Histories is beloved by many families for making history fun, all the while smuggling in true historical facts which delight and educate. Yet inevitably there’s a line, says the film’s lead historical advisor Greg Jenner, that cannot be crossed when telling children the stories of our past, such as particularly gory episodes or brutal battles.

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But is there a more general line that must be respected when turning the past into parody? Or is all history up for grabs?

“There are, in theory, no subjects that are off-limits, because history is transgressive,” says Jenner. “The point of comedy is to find humour in things that are quite dark and macabre.”

“But there are definitely things that we have looked at on Horrible Histories and said ‘Well, how would we even start to do that?’ The Holocaust is certainly one of them. We looked at it because it’s such an important piece of history and of course Holocaust denial is such an insidious scourge that we have to combat. But there’s just no funny way in, really.

“I lost family in the Holocaust, and I felt very passionate that we should be looking at it and trying. But in the end there’s just no joke on it.

Actors in Horrible Histories Rotten Romans film
New film ‘Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans’ is full of laughs for children, but there are certain topics such as brutal battles that aren’t appropriate for a younger audience, says Jenner. (Image by Nick Wall)

There are also elements, says Jenner – in the history of slavery and of empire, or Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, for instance – in which there’s a need to be very careful around any jokes.

“[When looking at] the legacy of institutional violence against entire civilisations or entire continents by the British empire, or various global empires – the legacy is still there right now and you can’t be making jokes about it. If you do, you have got to be really careful.

“So in theory, no subject is off-limits, provided you can find the right joke. But that’s always the challenge and sometimes the right joke just doesn’t quite arrive.”

Greg Jenner is a public historian and advisor to film and TV. You can find him on Twitter @greg_jenner, and you can listen to the full interview on the History Extra podcast, available hereHorrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans is out now in the UK and Ireland.

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