Mrs Brown’s Boys has been voted the best British sitcom of the 21st Century. Look at that sentence for a bit. Now look at a wall, or idly into space, or at the ground. Now have another read. Really stare at all the letters. Consider how, within a split second, your brain can register the crude symbols ‘b’, ‘e’, ‘s’ and ‘t’ next to one another and simultaneously form a word and understand its meaning. And yet when your mind clocks this curious word ‘best’ near to ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, it suddenly feels disorientated, like spotting a celebrity on your bus or the place you grew up in a Hollywood blockbuster. “That shouldn’t be there…” And yet, it is.
The Radio Times polled 14,000 people online, and Mrs Brown’s Boys beat all comers.
“B-but-but… What about The Office?!” you and Ricky Gervais yelp incredulously. Nope. Sorry. That’s number two. The Office is now the Buzz Aldrin, the Al Gore, the Andrew Ridgeley of British sitcoms.
“The IT Crowd? The Thick of It?? Peep Show?!?” You continue, breathlessly, pleadingly. Fourth, sixth and 11th, buddy. Those cherished box-sets of yours aren’t looking so pretty on your shelf now, are they? You think anyone will pay money for the 11th best British sitcom of the 21st century on eBay? You’re out of your mind. Throw them out of a window and get someone to run over them with a steamroller until they become part of the road, because the binmen sure as hell won’t touch them now.
Mrs Brown’s Boys is categorically the best. In fact, it’s now a statutory requirement to suffix ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ with ‘…the best British sitcom of the 21st Century’ if it ever comes up in conversation. Here's a conversation you'll have now:
“What you doing for Christmas, then?"
"Not much this year to be honest. Heading back home, having dinner at my gran’s, then I’ll probably be forced to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys, the best British sitcom of the 21st Century.”
“You too, huh? My family loves Mrs Brown’s Boys, the best British sitcom of the 21st Century, I can’t stand it. Mrs Brown’s Boys, the best British sitcom of the 21st Century, is simply not funny at all.”
So here's the deal: you, the can’t-stander, are wrong. At this point I must make the admission that I am just like you. I don’t find Mrs Brown’s Boys funny, and I am wrong. Perhaps not objectively, but on some subjective level, there’s something we’re missing. Ratings for Mrs Brown’s Boys have soared as high as 12m. Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie took $29m at the box office. When the BBC broadcast a breaking newsflash announcing the sad passing of revolutionary anti-Apartheid politician and beloved philanthropist Nelson Mandela, over 1,000 viewers complained because it had interrupted an episode where Mrs Brown was pretending to be a cowboy by hitting herself on the backside with a tray, yelling “Yeehaw!” People genuinely love Mrs Brown’s Boys.
We might think it’s a show bereft of laughs and devoid of highbrow humour, but 14,000 Radio Times readers and at least sixth of the UK don’t. So we must ask ourselves: why?
If you’re going to accompany me on this spirit quest to understand the appeal of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the first obstacle you’re going to have to overcome is the fact that people love Mrs Brown, the character.
Brendan O’Carroll’s eponymous Agnes ‘Mrs’ Brown creation is just himself in unconvincing drag as a ‘foul-mouthed’, gurning grandmother. Mrs Brown’s look has seemingly been conceived after having O’Carroll stuff two balloons up his shirt, fall backwards through any given charity shop and then get fitted for a wig that most accentuates the fact he is obviously a bald man. Mrs Brown occasionally goes on roller-pin-brandishing ‘back-in-my-day’ rants that are practically lifted straight out of The Beano’s caricature of an old person. Her patter is basically just Christmas cracker jokes peppered with the words ‘feck’ and ‘bucking’ and innuendo. Every time Mrs Brown tells a joke, she contorts her face so that her eyes bulge, her bottom lip swallows the top and her eyebrows try to escape her head. This is Mrs Brown’s ‘I’ve just told a joke’ expression, and she holds it for a good 2-3 seconds without fail.
Sometimes Mrs Brown doesn’t even need to say anything to make this expression. If one of her ‘Boys’ says “I’m going to do it,” Mrs Brown will make her expression. If one of her Boys says “I’m going to row my boat,” Mrs Brown will make her expression. If one of her Boys speaks of an intent to do anything which you could even tenuously imply an innuendo from, Mrs Brown will make her expression. It’s worth noting here, the ‘Boys’ in Mrs Brown’s Boys mostly refers to her family. Mrs Brown’s charm is essentially just suggesting her entire family are fucking or breaking wind, or both. If Mrs Brown were real, she would be a truly tortured soul.
Despite all this, O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown gets consistent laughs. There’s something in this bizarre concoction of bad that causes the character to work. Perhaps people find charm in the centuries-old craic she indulges in, or else recognise something of a relative in her pantomime matriarch, or just enjoy the end-of-the-pier-entertainer way O’Carroll portrays the character as inherently amusing. It’s probably the whole package. A thousand cruise ship stand-ups couldn’t wrinkle a single laugh line with any of Mrs Brown’s material, and yet O’Carroll can.
Mrs Brown’s Boys mostly takes place in her kitchen or living room, where a procession of the seemingly-never-ending-yet-mostly-interchangeable Boys pop round, exchange a few lines of banter and then leave, until the end of the episode, where Brown and Boys come together for a curtain-closing finale.
Everybody in Mrs Brown’s Boys gets on, they’re always excited to see each other, always glad to be in each other’s company. It’s a strange, distinctly unreal universe. Real life isn’t really like this. Family gatherings are fraught with tension and bickering and misery and heartbreak.
At some point, British comedy clocked onto this and started pumping out a succession of mean-spirited sitcoms on the dysfunctional family, but they remained in the same familial house setting. Now the characters all despised one another, and revelled in one another’s failures or else went out of their way to cause them. But this inevitably meant that all of the characters become inherently dislikable. You hate them for the same reason they hate each other; they’re all awful. So the show itself becomes something to be endured not enjoyed.
Sitcoms are the escape from dreary, dismal domestic life for many, so is it any wonder a show like Mrs Brown’s Boys – with its borrowed nostalgia and throwback notions of a virtually non-existent past where families lived and laughed together, falling in and out of each other’s houses whooping and giggling, reassuringly happy in the present, completely untroubled by the future – appeals?
Another striking thing about Mrs Brown’s Boys is just how little money it seems to have been made for. We’ve already established it’s one of the most popular TV shows of the century (and categorically, the best) and yet it’s clung onto its look for grim life. The opening titles are a crude ten-second long animation that must have been made by someone after watching half a tutorial on Adobe Flash. The set has almost certainly been salvaged from the bottom of a janitor’s shed from a long-forgotten school play. Almost every prop will have been sourced from the lowest-price-and-P&P result on eBay, then covered in clip art for good measure. It’s got a lower-budget aesthetic than the fake TV shows-within-TV shows that are made to look deliberately low-budget. But it doesn’t matter.
Now to the ‘Boys’, or rather, the cast playing them. Not one of them can act. They can’t even deliver a line on time. Their timing is so poor that it’s often possible you could predict what they're about to say and come up with three new gags before they blunder it out. They deliver straight dialogue as if they’re reading their lines from a cue card stapled to the character opposite’s face, and they talk to Mrs Brown like she’s an endearingly naughty puppet on a children’s TV show (“Oh, Mrs Brown!”) But it doesn’t matter.
Mrs Brown’s Boys flies in the face of so many contemporary sitcom conventions, in so many ways. Mrs Brown regularly breaks the fourth wall to talk the audience - not to speak her inner monologue, just to crack another aside. There is barely any jeopardy in the storylines, which never escalate to the point of tragic humiliation. Everything‘s alright at the end of the episode, not just at the start of the next one. The whole cast are completely unable to keep a straight face in any given scene, regularly corpsing at their own jokes. It even commits the cardinal sin of having audience laughter throughout. But this isn’t a laugh track. The show is clearly performed in front of a huge studio audience, who all seem to be genuinely pissing themselves. At the end of the Christmas and live episodes, they bow to the audience as the credits go up.
The most endearing quality of Mrs Brown’s Boys seems to be how effortlessly it pulls off its unpolished am-dram pantomime vibe. It pointedly positions itself at the viewer’s level and not above them. The whole show could just as easily be performed in a village hall as it is in a primetime slot on BBC One. You could make the set, you could write the jokes, you and your friends could star in it and you would love to watch it.
The studio audience isn’t there to show the viewer at home when to laugh, they are the laughter. And when the actors corpse, it’s not merely a cheap trick, it seems to be because they honestly they find the material as funny as the viewer. They're wrapped up in a world of warmth and smiles. Mrs Brown’s Boys manages – far better than any other British sitcom of the 21st Century – to make you to feel as though you are sat in among the raucous studio audience, or else there, at Mrs Brown’s table, laughing. That’s what matters.