Channel 4’s head of comedy Phil Clarke has said his organization will continue to work on developing a situation comedy based on the Irish famine, saying they “must be allowed” to continue.

Clarke stated that said that much of the controversy surrounding the not-yet-written show from Irish writer Hugh Travers is largely based on misconceptions.

Said Clarke: “I don’t think it is [Dublin-based writer Hugh Travers’s] intention or Channel 4’s intention to mock the suffering. I think it is an original, unusual and difficult subject to do well. We may not pull it off and we may not develop it further, but I think we must be allowed.”

“It has been misreported. We’re not doing a series. We are not even doing a pilot. We have commissioned a script,” Clarke told the audience.

The controversial Channel 4 Irish Famine comedy Hungry quickly became the focus of a debate about comedy and censorship hosted by the London Irish Comedy Festival in Shoreditch, east London, the Irish Times reports.

40,000 people have signed a petition asking Channel 4 to drop the idea while only 100 signed up for a petition calling for it to go ahead.

Charlie Walsh, who left Urlingford, Co Kilkenny, for London in the early 1970s, said he recalls when making fun of the Irish was a common thing on British TV.

“We were abused in the so-called comedies of the 1970s: the stupid Irish, Paddy and Mick. Do you think that that doesn’t have a bearing on how we think about ourselves and that it doesn’t hurt us?” he asks.

An audience member from Co Offaly said that the Famine was the third chapter in “800 years of extermination.”

“Humour is an affront to the genocide that was perpetrated in Ireland,” he said. “Should we mock our genocide, laugh at it?”

“There should not be laws against this. There should be morals against it,” he added.

Austin Harney, an active member in Irish community groups in the UK, said: “I didn’t find Blackadder or Father Ted offensive, but we have to draw the line here. Why not make comedies about negro slavery? Why [not] make comedies about the Holocaust? I’m not going to be laughing about hundreds of thousands of people looking like skeletons in a comedy.”

Comedian Gráinne McGuire disagreed. “I have been offended by comedy. I have been offended by really badly written, lazy, cliché-ridden, tedious comedy. That offends me. If we laugh at something, it means we are not afraid of it.”

She said that sometimes humor can mark the passage of grief. “It is our way of coping with the scary unknowingness of life; it shows that we are human and not scared. You can find the humor in anything.”

Said Jodie Ginsberg from the Index on Censorship campaign: “I feel extraordinarily passionate about this. What protects people’s ability to say something also protects your right to be offended.”

The former Reuters Dublin bureau chief said that too often people confuse offense with harassment. “Of course, you may be offended, but there is no right not to be offended. There is a right not to face abuse or discrimination.”

Eddie Doyle, RTE’s head of comedy said satire undermines prejudice. “That’s the function of comedians, almost to be the advance party testing the frontiers of what is sayable in society.”