On the curious success of the Irish comedy in drag.
At the end of every episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, Mrs Brown sits at the kitchen table and speaks directly to the audience. At the end of Thursday night’s episode on TVNZ 1 — a New Year’s special in which Mrs Brown accidentally fed a lot of people medicinal marijuana — she spoke about bullying. “Every day is a new day, and you’re entitled to face that day with a big smile,” she summarised. “Make yourself a promise: from today, don’t let anybody take away your smile.”
In between these two sentences, Brendan O’Carroll, the man beneath the wig, the brains behind the show, managed to slip in a quick joke about incontinence. It was classic Mrs Brown’s Boys. The balance of heart-on-sleeve earnestness and relentlessly crude humour is key to the show’s enduring popularity. It’s also why so many others can’t stand it.
To its many haters, Mrs Brown’s Boys is one of the worst television shows ever made. The jokes are obvious, it’s badly acted and woefully outdated. It’s a comedy based on a character played by a man wearing a dress and a wig — in 2017!
It is, some might say, lowest common denominator crap.
Mrs Brown’s Boys is unashamedly designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but that doesn’t make it inherently crap. Plenty of other shows do so cynically, heartlessly, lazily. Mrs Brown’s Boys isn't any of those things. Someone has to appeal to the so-called "lowest common denominator", and Brendan O’Carroll does it better than most, with a kind heart and an unwavering determination to make people laugh.
To appreciate the show it helps to know a little about its history. Long before it was the TV phenomenon we know today it was a serialised radio play, written by O’Carroll and voiced by him, so the story goes, only after the actress he had lined up got sick the day before recording. Some time later it was turned into a stage show that toured Ireland and northern England for years, with O’Carroll roping in friends and family to play Mrs Brown’s friends and family.
Pretty much everyone on the TV show is related in some way; almost none are trained actors. One of the few professionals, Jennifer Gibney, who plays Mrs Brown’s daughter Cathy, ended up marrying O’Carroll. His manager Rory got roped into play one of Mrs Brown’s sons; "Grandad" used to be the roadie, and so on.
The latest member of the entourage to join the show is Aly Mahmoud, the chef who tours with the stage production. He has a cooking segment on the new variety chat show, All Round to Mrs Brown’s, which ended its first series on TVNZ 1 last week. Inexplicably, he spends as much time on the show dancing to “reggae” with Mrs Brown as he does cooking.
All Round to Mrs Brown’s is like a mutated Mrs Brown’s Boys. crossed with Noel’s House Party. Celebrity guests arrive to be on "The Cathy Brown Show" in the family’s living room, but beforehand they are subject to a barrage of risque double entendres at the kitchen table from Mrs Brown.
Like the original series, it is filmed live in front of a studio audience, bloopers and all. In the final episode the theatrical singer Michael Ball stumbled over his first answer and couldn’t stop laughing. “Can I give you a tip?” Mrs Brown offered kindly. “F***in' sing.” Later, the mum of the other guest, actress Sunetra Sarker, was welcomed on to the set. “Look at the glamour and grace of you,” Mrs Brown gushed. “You make your daughter look like a tramp.”
Mrs Brown took Mrs Sarker through to see what Chef Aly was cooking (prawn curry). Before long the Indian classical dance teacher was dancing around the kitchen with the chef and the man in a dress. For a second the action cut back to her daughter — she was crying with laughter.
In moments like these it’s easy to see why this show is so outrageously popular. It’s one of the most joyous, heartfelt and irreverent things on TV; with All Round to Mrs Brown’s it actively champions mothers and celebrates family. And yes, it makes a lot of people who watch it happy. What’s to hate about that?