On Monday night Mrs Brown’s Boys won The Best Comedy Award at The NTAs, an award voted by the public. Twitter (not for the first time) exploded.
Ricky Gervais was 'robbed' by Mrs Brown's Boys at National Television Awards claim fuming viewers
… said The Daily Mirror. The Daily Mail felt people weren’t happy either:
Viewers are left fuming after Mrs Brown's Boys beats Fleabag to take home best comedy award
In 2017 we ran a research project seeking to answer the question ‘just what is the famous British sense of humour’ and as an aside, threw in a question asking people how they felt about Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Our nationwide survey showed a big split. 48% said they loved the show, and a significant minority of 28% said they hated it. As three-quarters of the survey had expressed an opinion this led us to believe that three-quarters of our survey must have watched the show. This seems pretty phenomenal for a comedy programme even if Mrs Brown’s Boys has Christmas Day viewing figures regularly topping 10 million.
Digging deeper, we found the demographic profile of those who loved the show was evenly spread with a slight bias to women and to those over 65 years, but nothing terribly significant. It was enjoyed by a broad spectrum of people in different parts of the country. There was only one area where we saw a significant difference and that was socio-economic grade. ABC1s (higher earners, higher education levels, higher status jobs) were somewhat less likely to love it and more likely to hate it than C2DEs.
To understand these feelings in more depth we ran some focus groups and in these sessions, asked the same question, but this time we found a more interesting answer. We discovered that nearly everyone who professed to hate Mrs Brown’s Boys, had never actually seen it at all.
They didn’t hate the actual show. They hated the IDEA of the show.
It felt old fashioned, stuck in the 70s, misogynistic, homophobic, crude, gross and just madly outdated. Surely, we should be more sophisticated than this, opined our participants. We should have moved on, found smarter, sharper comedy to love than this crude, stereotypical twaddle.
As an aside, this opinion was even more pronounced when we shared the findings of our research with a large proportion of London ad agencies. A typical response was :
‘I love Catastrophe, it’s cool and witty, they sit outside cafes in East London and I feel I know that world. I don’t understand Mrs Brown’s world’
At this point, there was only one thing to do. We showed people, who said they hated Mrs Brown’s Boys, a clip of the show.
And they definitely, definitely didn’t hate it. They mostly laughed (it was one of the funnier clips). But they began to loathe themselves for laughing because they still hated the idea of it.
We could explore all types of issues at this point, but it’s simpler to go back to the people who professed to love the show in the first place.
The main reason people said they loved the show was because it was clever. Sharp writing, smart acting and fun production techniques clever.
At the heart of its appeal was its unashamed use of slapstick at a time when slapstick has gone out of fashion. Good slapstick has to be practised and choreographed and needs great timing. But done well, it can elicit a belly laugh in the way that most humour does not (no matter how witty a pun is, it will never leave you clutching your sides).
And people appreciate those moments when they laugh aloud. There are many studies about all the positive things that happen at this point, but suffice to say, it’s a fantastic feeling that creates a lot of goodwill for the enabler.
So, while there is a valid argument that much of Mrs Brown’s Boys comedy is shamelessly derivative, it is undeniably well constructed and makes people laugh. It’s essentially an adult pantomime on the TV.
But this was not the only reason people loved Mrs Brown’s Boys. They also described it as warm-hearted and inclusive. There’s no sneering or cynicism, just easy, everyday, family togetherness, community and warmth. The cast is made up of friends and family who have long collaborated and this comes across. The inclusiveness extends to the audience and it’s fun to pretend that the mishaps and bloopers are not carefully orchestrated. The genuine nature of a show recorded with a studio audience also shines through.
And finally, Mrs Brown herself is a character people recognise and enjoy. If we can put aside the fact the actor is male for a moment (a small stretch!), we hardly see characters like Agnes Brown on TV anymore. She’s an exaggerated matriarch, at the centre of all the action with her filthy mouth and big warm hugs. These women exist everywhere in our real lives but we rarely see them represented on TV anymore.
Mrs Brown’s Boys may not be for everyone. But as with anything, it’s worthwhile understanding and appreciating the reasons people enjoy it. And for those who’ve never watched it, try this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqIEZCRjR_A
As a final point, it’s worth noting that Brendan O’Carroll who plays Agnes Brown in the show is credited with having had a significant impact on the marriage equality referendum in Ireland in 2015. The character of Agnes Brown made this plea to the mothers of Ireland; ‘Nothing beats the joy and contentment I feel knowing that my son Rory has just as much opportunity for happiness as everybody else’s son. And that’s all I ask for him, the opportunity’. And of course ended her plea with ‘What’s the fecking fuss?’