Updated: Sep 4, 2019
It can’t have failed to escape anyone’s attention that Mrs Brown’s Boys is repeated rather a lot. For the last few weeks it’s been on most Fridays. In fact, the Friday night (or sometimes Saturday night) Mrs Brown’s Boys repeat is almost becoming as sure fire as the BBC2 Saturday evening Dad’s Army one; and this is very odd because, unlike the latter, Mrs Brown’s Boys is almost overwhelmingly hated.
At least you’d think that it was if you’d ever spent any time whatsoever on the internet. Critically, and armchair critically, it’s loathed. In fact, it’s become shorthand for the worst comedy on TV.
You’ve probably seen quotes along the lines of, ‘Well, at least it’s better than Mrs Brown’s Boys', and ‘It makes Mrs Brown’s Boys look like Shakespeare’ was a tweet I read the other day (that was in regard to Hold the Sunset, just for the record).
In a way this was probably the key to the show’s success – we’ve all heard of the Marmite factor, and the old adage that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, and so it followed that Mrs Brown’s Boys took off in a big way. It became the show everyone either loved or hated, and just about everyone had to have an opinion on it, but the strange thing is that there’s nothing particularly polarising about it.
Brendan O'Carroll’s Mrs Brown leans into all the traditional tropes we’re familiar with: she’s Mrs Merton; she’s Mrs Doubtfire; she’s basically a panto dame; she’s Widow Twankey! She’s a drag queen! Entertainment doesn’t get much more traditional. And there are some pretty traditional comedic beats in there too.
It sounds as if I’m putting the show down by comparing it to a pantomime, but I’m actually not trying to. Panto is a staple of the theatre world - the rude and plainly daft innuendos; the deliberate mistakes; and of course its popularity at Christmas. Mrs Brown’s Boys too has become a staple of the Christmas schedule, complete with a big Christmas sing-along at the end as the cast come out for a bow; usually there’s confetti, you get the idea,
Mrs. Brown’s Boys really is a pantomime, and it’s a successful one at that. It topped 11 million viewers for its Christmas episodes at its peak back in 2012; its popularity was and still is undeniable.
Stripping all the hype away (the good and the bad), Mrs Brown’s Boys is actually a pretty decent family sitcom (with some 70s Carry On humour added for good measure). It doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, and if we’re honest there are worse sitcoms out there, ones that just fail to strike a tone or appeal to anybody, and you can’t accuse Mrs Brown of that.
Sure, it’s a bit crass. In my opinion the low points have probably been the spin-off show where it tried to be a chat show mixed with audience participation, and D’Movie, which included an eyebrow-raising parody of a Chinese Kung-Fu instructor. To be honest, the less said about that one the better.
But, whatever you think of Mrs Brown’s Boys, I do think that the BBC really are running it into the ground with these constant prime time repeats. It hasn’t reached the iconic Dad’s Army level of status to warrant such scheduling. Wouldn’t it be better if comedy repeats were rotated, old and new, to introduce the classics to a new generation?
It would certainly be nice to see repeats of such classics as Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, The Young Ones, the list goes on. A new classic sitcom episode every week would be my suggestion! What about Bottom's 'Gas' episode one week, then The Mighty Boosh 'The Legend Of Old Greg' the next (if BBC One audiences are ready for it)? For obvious reasons Blackadder Goes Forth can’t be repeated enough, but I’m getting off topic.
In my opinion, the strongest attribute of Mrs Browns Boy’s is that it celebrates the unbridled joy of the TV studio audience. As a huge fan of going to sitcom recordings myself, I think this is its greatest attribute. The pan-out shots, and the slightly wobbly production, complete with outtakes (real or otherwise) are probably the closest a sitcom has ever come to showing us, the whole studio recording experience and making you feel as if you’re really there at the recording and part of it all.
And when you’ve been to a sitcom recording you know how great that is. A sitcom recording is not quite the same as going to a stand up gig, or a stadium tour; it’s actually much more intimate. When I see people on Twitter bemoaning ‘canned laughter’ I cringe, because nothing could be further from the truth. It is honestly the case that audiences have to be told to tone down their reactions, and then these have to be adjusted in the edit. Because, when fans are excited to see their favourite show, they are of course going to react with laughter! That’s the point. I expect even the most ardent ‘canned laughter’ critics would be rolling in the aisles if they actually attended a real sitcom recording and got caught up in the magic of it all… who knows, maybe even at Mrs Brown’s Boys.
However, the most interesting thing about Mrs Brown’s Boys is that it may be the only TV show in history that managed to be parodied before it even existed…
Yes, I’m talking about Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras. A quick summary if you aren’t aware - the plot of Extras revolved around supporting artist Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais), who had dreams of his sitcom that he’d written about his old boss becoming a real TV show. However, as his dreams are realised he soon finds that producers are poking their noses in, and commissioners are changing the script. So, you get the idea, it’s ‘What if the Office had turned out bad? What if it had been in front of a studio audience? What if it had been essentially Mrs Brown’s Boys? '
And the sitcom that Andy Millman creates (When the Whistle Blows) is undeniably similar, most striking of all with the title sequence - have a look at a side-by-side comparison and you’ll be amazed. The dated aesthetic, the ‘camp’ characters, the music cues, the daft innuendos… the wig, the catchphrase, the glasses… brilliant (as a keen fan of Andy Millman was at pains to tell him)!
And at the time Extras aired, When the Whistle Blows, bizarrely enough, managed to find an audience. I remember reading at the time how people actually wished When the Whistle Blows was real. I’ll be honest, I sort of did too. There was a lot of attention to detail put into Gervais and Merchant’s parody show within a show. It worked in a peculiar way; it was heightened nonsense. The sort of overblown, exaggerated, dated, terrible, so-bad-it’s-good, thing that would never actually get commissioned in real life. Until, it sort of did…
Someone has even made a supercut of all the When the Whistle Blows scenes into an episode for you to ‘enjoy’. There’s even an almost 10-minutes-long video detailing all the similarities between When the Whistle Blows and Mrs Brown’s Boys.
But if this wasn’t mad enough, there’s even been talk that Mrs Brown’s Boys was created as a direct result of When the Whistle Blows. Fans of Mrs Brown’s Boys are quick to point out that the show’s roots go back to the early 90s. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that the show we know today as Mrs Brown’s Boys began production in the early pilot stages. The idea that this suggestion has even been debated on forums is fairly ludicrous.
Extras told the story of a man who sold out his dream, until it became an empty husk of what he had hoped, and then somehow found himself in the Big Brother house very well. But it did manage to do a number on the studio audience sitcom, essentially painting people who liked studio audience sitcoms and catchphrases as idiots.
Probably the most controversial moment came from a pan shot to the audience, where T-shirts lampooning the catchphrases of Little Britain, Catherine Tate, Peter Kay, and even an obscure and now completely dated pop culture reference to Victoria Wood’s Asda adverts from that time could be seen. Of course Extras as a show parodied real-life celebrities to the point of ridiculousness, but that was the point. I doubt you’d find that Ricky Gervais or Stephen Merchant would honestly say that they hated all studio audience and catchphrase comedy because that’s, well, most of it. Nowadays though, that does seem to be the consensus. People are rapidly dismissing studio audience sitcoms and catchphrases.
There was a Mitchell & Webb Sound sketch a few years ago that I think sums up the situation quite well - some people are discussing certain mass-produced foods, and in particular how Starbucks coffee is rubbish. Robert Webb’s character puts the cat amongst the pigeons by simply saying that ‘it’s fine’.
David Mitchell’s character then has to take him aside and say that, despite us all being aware that normal food is fine, conversationally he’s onto a real loser. ‘For every coffee you get, you can never look worse for saying it doesn’t taste of coffee. Looking like you’ve got the most refined palette in the world is just a case of turning your nose up at pretty much everything,’ he says. And I actually think this just might be the case where studio audiences and catchphrases are concerned in the comedy world.
It’s all a bit daft really, because audiences are so vital to comedy. Take it out of every classic sitcom and you’d find it very hollow; take it out of every panel show, and the jokes would be gone, because there would have been nobody for the performers to bounce off. Take it out of stand up, and it’s just somebody going on and on about something in a room!
So, isn’t it about time that we stopped sneering at all this? Studio audiences? Loud laughter? Catchphrases? And yes, even Mrs Brown’s Boys? Shouldn't we just accept that there’s room for it?
Comedy is a huge umbrella, and like drama it should have its own subgenres. It just seems to me that you’re either in the Extras camp or the Mrs Brown’s Boys camp when it comes to looking at comedy these days. And I just think, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and appreciation, why can’t we just enjoy both?
Written by Rhianna Evans