In Sophie Quirk’s 2018 excellent book on alternative comedy, she refers to our understanding of comedy as a “murky cocktail of historicising memory.” Our personal favourite comedies are always viewed through rose-tinted glasses. We picture ourselves as younger people watching The Young Ones on a 21-inch monolith in the corner. Thus our opinions on what we like are shaped by pre-existing tastes, even if we discovered a new jester to laugh at. We like to compare our comics — “Oh he’s more sarcastic than him, she’s not as funny as her.” This is the basic experience of consuming comedy.
So, for Christ’s sake, stop bloody wanging on about who’s a idiot/snob for liking/hating Mrs Brown’s Boys.
At this year’s National Television Awards, there was a torrent of outrage from fans of Fleabag and After Life, following the popular BBC sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys winning for Best Comedy. How could this happen? A programme with such low comedy value, such basic humour, winning for the fifth consecutive time!? Opinions were strong.
Personally, I don’t like Mrs Brown’s Boys either. I find the jokes simple, characters offensive, and plot so incredibly drab. You could have copied its basic premise from any episode of Terry and June, in my opinion.
And that’s the big detail here: ‘in my opinion’.
Reacting to this wave of opinion were columnists and critics, calling the bluster a feat of snobbery. Stewart Lee, who is less a comedian more of a egotistical anti-samurai, used the award to bash Fleabag in all its middle-class finery. His subtitle for this asks why we call Mrs Brown’s Boys naive and Fleabag genius. James Moran for The Independent echoes this, suggesting it’s all about class. Ugh, when is it never about bloody class.
The most objective response to the award is by Emily Baker from iNews, who very simply does what most good researchers should do: reads the viewing figures. It’s no secret that Mrs Brown’s Boys pulls in the punters on Christmas Day and has done for years. At the height of its popularity in 2013, the show was being watched on average by 11 million viewers per episode. And while it’s a dwindled audience now, there’s clearly still love for it. The spin-off show All Round to Mrs Brown’s will soon star Caitlyn Jenner in a cameo performance, the height of spectacular humour I expect it shall be.
So who’s right in this hand-slapping tussle of TV?
They’re both right.
Whoever designed human beings clearly didn’t draw the nuance organ very bold on the blueprints. Prometheus or God or whatever poor deity bastard probably got into an argument with some cocky little human and thought, “Wait…aren’t you supposed to be rational?”
Our sense of humour, as explained earlier, is based on what our personal tastes are and what our own understanding of good comedy is. This is usually linked to how jokes stimulate or move us, building on memories of times we have laughed before. I’m not a neurologist, in case you were wondering. Some people like Mrs Brown’s Boys because it’s simple, easy, harmless. Others hate it because it’s boring, crass, and old-fashioned. All valid criticisms existing in and of themselves.
This is the same with any art form. Some people like classical music, others don’t. I’m indifferent to modern art, some love it. There is such a strong opinionated effort with defending or attacking comedy due to the emotion and memory it evokes. Dad’s Army isn’t that great, in my opinion. I’ll be burned at the stake for saying that, but I feel that way. So there.
Critics of either side could take a step back from their rant and realise both positions have their weight. Obviously, some lines are irrefutable in the rule book of offence. But it’s just Mrs Brown’s Boys — not worthy of intense knuckle-splitting anger. We laugh as a mechanism of relief, reaction and disbelief. Show the same episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys to every person on the planet and I’d wager an individual, bespoke response from all of them. Because that’s what humans are: individual, bespoke, and as a result of a seemingly endless debate about Mrs Brown’s Boys, really annoying.