Course Director of Media Production at Dublin's Liberties College
Mrs. Brown’s Boys (2011-Present)
It’s a big, silly, thick show – part pantomime, part It’s-a-Knockout, part 1980’s sitcom Bread, part CBeebies. It’s the show that the BBC have been dying to commission for years, but couldn’t find anyone from their usual flock of writers who’d turn in anything as knowingly base (Dent 2012).
With its emphasis on profanity, drag, vulgar sexual humour, physical clowning and sentimental family values, Mrs Brown’s Boys is a show that unashamedly taps into an end-of-the-pier comedy tradition and the un-pc aesthetics of 1970s/80s sitcom. It’s also a sitcom that demonstrates a knowing awareness of the aesthetics of the sitcom form, relentlessly breaking the fourth wall for comic effect. A massive hit, this tale of a working class ‘blue’ comic in a dress, tending to her brood has secured audiences (and audience numbers, 11 million at Christmas 2013) that the BBC haven’t seen since the heyday of Only Fools and Horses (BBC 1 1981-2003). It’s a show that, as evidenced by TV critic Grace Dent’s comments, has been reviled by many UK and Irish critics, affronted (or baffled) by the appeal of its supposedly ‘low’ comedy of drag, incessant use of the F-word and throwback 1970s comic sensibilities. Indeed editorials in previous years of this review have repeatedly speculated as to the nature of the show’s extraordinary popularity. In this piece the attempt to identify the appeal of the show primarily considers how the show emotionally, culturally and aesthetically connects its audience to its comedy.
The ‘Forgotten’ Audience
One challenge to exploring Mrs Brown’s Boys audience is the remarkable absence of research on the specific make-up and character of its viewership (and, as Freidman et al, note on comedy audiences in general, ‘a woefully under-researched area’ (2011: 123)) so discussion here must be speculative. However, as Danny Cohen, BBC 1 controller in 2011 noted, Mrs Brown’s Boys’ audience is one that had gone ‘missing’ in recent years, it’s working class roots and sensibilities largely absent from mainstream BBC television comedy, ignored in favour of a preponderance of middle class sitcoms (My Family BBC 1 2000-11, Outnumbered BBC 1 2007 ongoing etc.) (Friedman et al 2011).
It was this ‘forgotten’ TV audience that Mrs Brown’s Boys soon-to-be producer, Stephen McCrum, rediscovered when he attended the stage version of O’Carroll’s show one rainy evening in Glasgow (The fancarpet 2011). Here was a working class viewership not catered for by television’s obsession with self-aware, mock documentary comedy (The Office BBC 2 2001-03) etc) or ‘smart’ working class comedy (The Royle Family BBC 2 1998-2012, 2014). O’Carroll himself was keenly aware of this, seeing Mrs Brown’s Boys as appealing to,
the audience that comedy forgot… somebody at the BBC read in a magazine that comedy is the new rock’n’roll. And they actually believed that and started pitching it only to the 18- to 25-year-old market, and left the rest behind (Langley 2014).
Yet the mere fact of a forgotten audience awaiting rediscovery could not guarantee the success that Mrs Brown’s Boys has enjoyed. After all, new sitcoms ‘die’ with astounding regularity (London Irish (CH4 2014) anyone?). The show’s engagement with its audience works effectively because of fascinating discourses at work in the roots of Mrs Brown’s Boy’s humour; on sexuality and how audiences engage with the sitcom machine as a popular comedy form.
The Merry Widow – Mining Female Sexuality in Mrs Brown’s Boys
Mrs Brown’s Boys is a show that places sex, bantering about it, remembering it, looking for it, at the centre of its comedy. So far, so sitcom – it’s a form that has often relied on getting its laughs from the double entendre and the slapstick of bosoms and bottoms. Porter (1998) notes how traditional sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s (to which MBB undoubtedly owes a debt) saw female desire as essentially voracious and unsettling; presenting as either the busty blonde male fantasy (Barbara Windsor in any Carry-On film) flaunting their overt sexuality or as unattractive post-sexual spinsters or frustrated married women (Al Bundy’s wife Peg in US sitcom Married with Children (Fox 1987-97). Mrs Brown’s Boys however reclaims female desire from this most un-PC of comic DNA, giving a joyous voice to middle-aged women (O’Carroll’s long time audience). In Mrs Brown’s world, the older woman, often seen as post-sexual, with desires no longer validated by society, becomes the subject of comic celebration.
Reflecting Freud’s (1976) relief theory, Mrs Brown’s Boys presents its audience with comedy which gives vent to normally unacknowledged desires (widows/aged mothers wanting sex). Centre-staging the sexual desire of the supposedly no longer desirable, delving deep into its emotional roots and playing its vulgarity for maximum enjoyment is fundamental to the show’s appeal. Mrs Brown (and her best friend/comic foil Winnie) speak of sex variously as a melancholic experience of lost passion, unclaimed ‘organisms’, repressed desires, and equally a lustful, joyous delight in remembering youthful sexual adventure,
Mrs Brown: I remember one night, me and Redser, walking along the beach at Portmarnock. He started chasing me into the sand dunes…so I was lying there, I said (flirtatious, sexy voice), ‘What do you want?’ (laughs remembering). He said I want your knickers around your ankles (flirtatious laugh). I had to get my feckin’ handbag and put them on (Mrs Brown’s Boys S2 Ep 1 Mammy Pulls It Off 2011).
Other exchanges though go deeper into unfulfilled desire, perhaps best illustrated by Winnie discussing her two solitary ‘organisms’ (orgasms), an experience that had so far eluded Mrs Brown,
Winnie: I had this feeling like a wave came over me.
Mrs Brown: A tsunami?
Winnie: It was like getting ten early numbers in the bingo and you just know something’s coming up.
Mrs Brown (in wonder): Ten early numbers?
(Mrs Brown’s Boys S2 Ep 2 Mammy’s Coming 2012)
Interestingly, the audience laughter builds and builds throughout this tale, becoming louder and more appreciative with each revelation. It’s a laughter that delights in Winnie’s description of her pleasure, a rolling wave of shrieking laughter, pushing itself onwards as Winnie heads toward the routines climax (pardon the obvious pun). Acknowledging that the female orgasm is no longer a socially unacceptable topic for discourse (and hence repressed), we can adapt Freud’s (1976) relief theory somewhat as this uninhibited, indeed, joyous exploration of the orgasm manifestly prompts laughter as a kind of ‘psychic expenditure’ (ibid.: 168), released by rendering comedic the emotional complications underlying ideas of female desire. In short, Mrs Brown and Winnie tell it like it is about being a post-sexual, desiring but no longer desirable, middle-aged woman. Finally, this mining of female desire for comic impact unleashes what we might call a community of feeling that does much to bind the audience to the show.
The F-word and the tradition of ‘Blue’ comedy
Of course, the show’s great delight for much of its audience is its vulgarity, especially in its repeated used of the F-word. The UK’s long tradition of ‘blue’ comedy has, and continues to have mass appeal as it celebrates notions of ‘togetherness through offensiveness’ (Medhurst 2007: 187), where the delights of profanity and vulgar sexuality afford its predominantly working class audiences a sense of belonging to their own vibrant culture. Of course, enjoying profanity (and availing of its use) is not the sole province of one class over another. This acceptance across the variable class mix of its audience is central to the wider appeal of the show.
And the F-bombing comes fast and thick because O’Carroll knows his key audience; those same middle- aged women that Mrs Brown ably impersonates. Again, in the absence of research on specific audience data about the show, speculation here must of necessity be anecdotal. However contact with my own mother (78, and an avid fan) and others in the 50+ age grouping, illustrated that Mrs Brown’s profanity produces a double ‘hit’ of comedy; delight in the joke itself as delivered, and an equal delight in the naughtiness experienced in enjoying what should be normally frowned upon, or, as per Freud’s (1976) relief theory, unspoken and repressed.
The joy taken (by audience and performer) in regularly using the F-word for comic effect also connects with Bakhtin’s (1984) notions of the lower body as a source of comedy. Saying F*** is the most basic expression of the sexual and in endlessly repeating it as part of ‘ordinary’ speech, Mrs Brown’s Boys produces a carnival sense of pleasure for its audience that revels in its connectedness to all living things (Bakhtin 1984). In this sense, the profanity of the show illustrates Medhurst’s essence of working class pleasure in ‘blue’ humour, with the show remaining at heart a ‘comedy (that) is about the comforts of mass togetherness’ (2007: 202), connecting the viewing (of all classes) to deep seated feelings of belonging – a powerful draw for any comedy audience.
‘It’s a man in a f****ing dress’ – breaking the 4th Wall
O’Carroll readily admits he struggled with how best to transfer the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys as a live theatrical event to the small screen until he hit upon his eureka moment,
we’re not going to try and convince them they’re in someone’s living room, we’re going to let them in on the joke, let them see we’re filming a show…we’re going to let them see the mistakes, the cameras, the lot. It will be brilliant (Beacom 2014: 274).
For O’Carroll and Mrs Brown’s Boys, letting the audience ‘in on the joke’ (ibid.) is not just an occasional gimmick but is factored deeply into the fabric of the show. In episode after episode, the show declares it’s artifice: from its behind-the-scenes opening sequence of the camera crew getting ready to film the waiting actors to fluffed lines or missed cues milked for their maximum comic effect (a late clearance of a camera during Dermot’s wedding episode prompts the line, ‘the man is here about the wedding video’ (S1 Ep 5, Mammy of the Groom 2011). O’Carroll even ‘outs’ his own drag persona after a particularly sentimental mother-son moment that draws an equally sentimental ‘aww’ from the audience, by dismissively reminding them that, ‘it’s a man in a fucking dress!’ (Mrs Brown’s Boys S1 Ep 1, The Mammy 2011).
Unlikely as Mrs Brown’s Boys may be as a source of postmodernist deconstruction, O’Carroll taps directly into a public highly aware of the world as a media environment. Wagg (1998) notes that feeding this awareness generates laughter by ingratiating oneself with the audience. O’Carroll may be letting them in on the gag, but it’s a gag they were already keenly aware of, and by acknowledging it, he also acknowledges their sophisticated understanding of how popular culture (in this case the TV sitcom) works. This then is sitcom that regularly flatters the intelligence of its audience – and they can’t get enough of it. Hence, in Supermammy, a highly contrived plot that sees Mrs Brown under the impression her kids are trying to be rid of her is knowingly sent-up by O’Carroll,
Mrs Brown: I thought you were going to put me in a home?
Dermot: Why would you think that?
Mrs Brown: It’s in the script.
(Mrs Brown’s Boys S2 Ep 5 2012)
The pay-off here gets a huge laugh, as both O’Carroll and the audience, not only poke fun at the contrived nature of an incredulous plot (her misunderstanding exists solely to drive a number of comic moments in the show), but also at the false nature of sitcom narrative itself.
Breaking the fourth wall in this manner also operates to bond the audience to the Browns during the fictional family’s celebratory moments. A typical example is evidenced by the bringing on of the now ‘married’ Dermot and Maria during the shows credits, to shower them with confetti and enable the audience to witness the off-screen wedding that they’d been excluded from during the episode (Mrs Brown’s Boys S1 Ep 6, Mammy of the Groom 2011). The Dermot and Maria’s ‘afters’ and scenes like the stand-alone sing-a-longs that end each series (with the cast performing dances routines and Karaoke-style numbers for studio audience), connect the viewers to a ‘meta’-Brown family that, for its dedicated fans at least, existed before its sitcom incarnation, and continues to exist outside the TV brand that is Mrs Brown’s Boys. This linkage is undoubtedly strengthened by the real life family connections within the cast itself, with O’Carroll’s wife, sister, son and daughter respectively playing his sitcom daughter, Cathy, best friend, Winnie, likeable wide-boy Buster Brady and daughter-in-law, Maria. This forges a vibrant emotional connection to the audience that actively contributes to its huge success. Medhurst’s (2007) claim that all comedy functions on ideas of exclusion and difference (being ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the joke) is clearly in operation here. For Mrs Brown’s Boys breaking the fourth wall shifts the audience across barriers, from outside viewers of a comedy machine in operation to inside, active participants in completing the gag with their laughter. In the end, the enormous fun that Mrs Brown’s Boys has with deconstructing that fourth wall, affords the audience another identity, one that values them as equals in mining the comedy of the show.
Mrs Brown’s Boys, a show dismissed as ‘a festival of wrongness’ (Dent 2012), derived from “lazy end-of-the-pier trash rooted in the 1970’s” (English 2011), engages in a complex interaction of discourses, of sexuality and the sitcom production process itself to capture and maintain it audiences affection and loyalty. Morreale insightfully notes that to laugh with someone is to live with them, to ‘share a form of life with him (sic)’ (1983 cited in Mills 2005: 9). In this short time spent with Mrs Brown and her brood, the show reveals itself as a ‘form of life’(ibid.) that connects to the deepest wants of its audience and their most trivial sense of tomfoolery, often simultaneously,
Winnie: Agnes, do you ever miss the humpty-humpty thing?
Mrs Brown: What’s to feckin’ miss? The smell of Guinness and chips being breathed all over you? His chin like feckin’ sandpaper, taking advantage of me whenever he liked. He’d come in and dive on me. And all I could do was lie there, and try to keep my place in the book. (Mrs Brown’s Boys S2)
Finally, its popularity perhaps derives from the comic power of speaking truths, about the raucous and joyous needs of post-sexual female desire, the comforts of authenticity in a media drenched world of ‘smart’ comedy, even about loveless sex and lives spoiled by drink and the imperfect world we all inhabit. At root, popular comedy always finds itself engaged in ‘a discourse of daily survival’ (Medhurst 2007: 202), lightening our collective load and offering the vibrant joys of community. In the end, the ‘man in a f***ing dress’ delivers communality and belonging in abundance to its appreciative audience, F-bombing us into exuberant laughter in the process.
Bakhtin, M. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Beacom, B. 2013. “Brendan O’Carroll’s comic creation is generating Diana-like levels of public affection. Why has the nation taken Mrs Brown to its bosom?” The Big Issue, Ireland (Online). 27 September. Available from: http://www.bigissue.com/features/3055/mrs-brown-peoples-princess (Accessed: 30 July 2014)
Dent, G. 2012. “Grace Dent on TV: Mrs Brown’s Boys, BBC 1”. The Independent, United Kingdom (Online), 29 December. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/grace-dent-on-tv-mrs-browns-boys-bbc1-8432020.html (Accessed: 30 July 2014)
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Friedman, S., Mills, B., Phillips, T. 2011. Editors Introduction: Foregrounding the Comedy Audience. Participations Journal of Audience and Receptions Studies. 8(2), pp.120-25.
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Langley, W. 2014. “Mrs Brown’s Boys: a show of two fingers to the critics”. The Telegraph (Online), 5 January. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10548985/mrs-browns-boys-brendan-ocarroll-bbc-comedy-christmas.html.
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Porter, L. 1998. “Tarts, Tampons and Tyrants: women and representation in British comedy.” Wagg, S (ed). Because I Tell A Joke Or Two; comedy, politics and social difference. London, New York: Routledge. pp. 65-93.
The fancarpet. 2011. Interview: Brendan O’Carroll, Mrs Brown’s Boys (Online). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL971nrE3f8. (Accessed: 20 July 2014).
Wagg, S. 1998. “‘At Ease Corporal: social class and the situation comedy in British television, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s”. IN: IN: Wagg, S (ed). Because I Tell A Joke Or Two; comedy, politics and social difference. London, New York: Routledge. pp. 1-31.
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