Comedy reflects the most personal of tastes, one show considered a classic by one individual and a hideous monster by another. Some achieve such mass appeal that anyone who sees themselves as being remotely counter cultural or a hipster has to set themselves up as haters of what they consider to be the very core values of the show and of the audience who love it.
When does a comedy programme come to be considered a classic, or even elevated to cult status? I watched Mrs Brown’s Boys for the first time this week. My previous experience of the programme being limited to the twin facts that it appears to be universally loathed by people who have the confidence to proffer their views freely on social networks, around the water cooler or in the pub, and that for two years running it has been the most watched programme on Christmas day, catching a mighty 9.1 million viewers last December, outshining the viewing figures of those regular stalwarts Coronation Street, Eastenders and of course Doctor Who.
A fair number of comedy classics started off with many of the audience not ‘getting’ their comedic set up, and early reactions of viewers to Only Fools and Horses, The Office and Fawlty Towers weren’t as rosy as we might have expected them to be with twenty twenty hindsight.
Mrs Brown’s Boy’s comedic set up appears to be that it is a traditional, ensemble, character-based comedy whereby the main character, Agnes Bee, is played by a man in drag, but it can’t really being described purely as a sitcom because the show plays with the conventions of this medium. Firstly in an anti-naturalistic showing of the outline of the set, including the cameras, cameramen and floor staff at the beginning and close of each episode. Similarly, the inclusion of the actors corpseing (laughing at their lines and diluting the theatrical tension that would have been extended by them keeping a deadpan straight face at the punchline delivery) and the retention of bloopers where the cameras come into shot.
The history of the show is that it started life as an Irish Radio show in 1992. Brendan O’ Carroll created the cast from members of his friends, neighbours and family.
Agnes Bee is the irreverent matriarch of the Brown brood, swears like a trooper and holds the slapstick plot lines together with a series of silly set ups and daft props. This week’s episode revolved around a robot baby lent to Agnes’s daughter-in-law by the midwife to teach her how to raise her soon-to-arrive wean. Within twenty minutes Mrs Brown had removed the batteries to stop it crying, Granddad had sat on the child and broken it, and it was then put in the oven and set on fire.
So why is Mrs Brown’s Boys so hated? Firstly, my assumption would be that the over-sophisticated critics amongst us intrinsically distrust anything that is anti-elitist and popular on the basis that if old folk, unfashionable people and those whose life experiences differ from ours like it, then it must be shit. Secondly, the show doesn’t rely on reaffirming stereotypes, which too many comedy vehicles of late have become reliant on doing. Think of Little Britain’s mocking of the disabled and the horrifically awful Gavin and Stacey’s lame use of Alison Steadman reprising her best role as Beverly from Abigail's party in Gwen, or Rob Brydon aping a character from the much funnier US show Arrested Development, Tobias Funke who is a latent homosexual. I don’t find blokes going on about London Football teams interesting or funny, and any one with any knowledge of Welsh culture knows that there’s more danger and tension pointing out the differences between people from North and South Wales than South Wales and Southern England. At least theres a single motorway that links London and the Valleys. The characters portrayed in Mrs Brown’s Boys are variously ugly, larger than life and daft, but still more unusual and unexpected than your Gavin and Staceys or, God help us, Mirandas.
Thirdly, critics attack the sentimentality of Mrs Brown’s Boys, and yes there is sentimentality there in spades: love of the family, love of the community and of truth-telling amongst the laughter, pain amidst the exploding stage sets and overblown characters. Can’t comedy have a heart? Steptoe did, so did Only Fools and Horses. Don’t forget that the show is Irish and Ireland has been through the worst economic boom and bust in history, is it any surprise that art should be produced which appeals to the warm hearth and heart.
Fourthly, 9 million people is a hell of a lot of people watching a show, so there must be a lot of people slagging it off who actually watched it and secretly enjoyed the Christmas show, but who don’t want to confess it to their social network mates who would rather listen to John Lennon McCulloch or Paul McCartney Seacombe or whoever else they’ve been told to worship this week.
One thing that surely creates a cult is that the work of art has to go through a period where it was derided by the most critically attuned who are eventually won over by the legacy that it leaves in its wake. The fact that the programme is so popular and stirs up so much fuss must tell us that something is going on here.
All comedy is subject to personal taste, and ultimately there is only one question that you have to ask your self which is: did it make you laugh? Well I watched Mrs Brown’s Boys this week and yes, it made me laugh. Get over it .