No Laughing Matter

As Mrs Brown’s Boys is voted the best sitcom of the 21st Century, I argue the case for the shows it beat- and what this says about the state of British comedy today.

Picture the scene. The camera opens on a mock-up of a traditional kitchen. Old worktops, shelves cluttered with pots and pans, and there, sat at the table, is quite clearly a man in drag. An Irishman at that, in a pink cardigan, with a granny wig on his head and glasses on the end of his nose. And he starts telling jokes directly to the camera. Not funny jokes either. One liners. Shaggy dog stories where the punchline lacks any kind of punch. And a cackle or two for good measure. The audience response puts canned laughter to shame. Question is, what decade would you put this scene in? The 1970’s? When shows like Are You Being Served? Or The Dick Emery Show drew in viewers in hoards for their camp humour and not so casual mocking and stereotyping, seeming dated long before they were repeated on UK TV Gold. No, this is pretty much how every episode of Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys begins, with “everyone’s favourite Irish matriarch” Agnes Brown cracking the kind of jokes that would put John Inman to shame (if you don’t know who John Inman was, don’t worry, you didn’t miss much. It’s sad enough I know who he is).

Unfunny? In my opinion, yes? Crass, again, I believe so. Popular? Well, according to the British public, it’s that too. Incredibly so, in fact. Last week, Mrs Brown’s Boys was voted the best sitcom of the 21st century so far in an online poll conducted by the Radio Times. Fourteen thousand people placed it above Ricky Gervais’s The Office in second, and beat the likes of Peep Show, The IT Crowd and Wales’ own Gavin and Stacey to claim top spot. David Brent, Mark and Jez, Roy and Moss and even Smithy and Nessa beaten by a bloke in a plaid skirt telling crap jokes down the lens. How? And what does this say about our perception of quality comedy as a nation? Looking further down the list, Black Books, Outnumbered, Twenty Twelve and The Thick of It couldn’t even trouble the top three. Writers such as Gervais, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, Ruth Jones and Armando Iannucci have created characters that we either all know or could relate to, and written dialogue that can be both hilarious and touching. Daemon spin doctor Malcom Tucker’s black humour, ranting at incompetent politicians and Westminster staffers, beats out O’Carroll’s dated blue humour any day, critically at least. But the masses don’t agree.

And that’s why Tucker and co. found themselves axed after a couple of series, while Mrs Brown continues to draw in nearly 5 million viewers an episode. 9.5 million Watched the 2013 Christmas special, while the spin-off film, Mrs Brown’s Boy’s D’Movie, topped the UK box office for two weeks, despite being widely panned. Maybe the only upside of Brexit is that it’s thrown into doubt the possibility of any sequels being made due to uncertainty over funding (and yes, that was a joke, a funnier one than anything old Mammy could offer anyway). The only sitcom that makes a legitimate claim for bridging the gap between pleasing both the critics and the public is Peter Kay’s brilliant Phoenix Night’s, set in a fictional working man’s club in Kay’s native Bolton. The humour harks back to the plotlines and shenanigans of the 70’s, without demeaning itself by falling into stereotype or resorting to the kind of “oo-er” stuff O’Carroll pipes out. Kay is a master of this, with his most recent offering, Car Share, also included in the list.  

But before this article becomes too much of a critique of popular British culture, the point I want to make is that there is a fine line between quality and crap in comedy. Some, Kay, walk it carefully, occasionally sticking his toe over (yes, I am talking about Britain’s Got the Pop Factor, and possibly a new Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice– how that didn’t work I’ll never know). Others, like O’Carroll, crossed that line years ago, and don’t look like coming back any time soon. Not as long as there are more hijinks and hoots for Mammy and her clan to have. Give me strength.


By Dan Heard