Jan 13

Old Mother Riley’s Boys

Do You See27 comments • 1,523 views

(Apologies to Alan from whom some of the ideas here were appropriated.)

Everyone hates Mrs Brown’s Boys – right? Everyone finds it bizarre that this sitcom with a dragged up old Irish Mammy is such a big hit, and such a big hit in a post-watershed BBC1 fashion, with a spin-off celebrity gameshow in the works.

But why does “everyone”, for which read quite clearly not everyone, hate it? When discussing it people often bring up Miranda as well, another seemingly old fashioned sitcom – down to its “You Have Been Watching” tag. Other instant reasons to hate both are their laugh track (or actually live studio audience) and a breaking of the fourth wall where in both sitcoms the lead often telegraphs the laughs straight to the (present) audience.

I have seen some pretty strong invective against both, which reminds me of much of the lower level of critical discussion around pop and rock music, where the opening gambit is to use the word HATE. When people drill down on their kneejerk hate, the reason is not always easy to pinpoint. We may fall back on phrases like something being derivative, lazy or unexciting. If we are really lucky we can try to construct a straw man of offensiveness: potentially it is implicitly racist, anti-working class and there must be something that covers our overall discomfort with drag. Of course we are allowed to say “it isn’t funny” but clearly plenty of people think it is. What should say is “I didn’t find it very funny”, but that isn’t very useful critically.

My gut feeling is I don’t like Mr Brown’s Boys, and I didn’t really interrogate that feeling during the ten minutes I saw it. My main reaction was disbelief that it existed, which in retrospect seems very naive and privileged of me. I am not a huge follower of comedy, but I do think that nearly everything I have seen in the last twenty years on TV has has a lineage I understand, via radio comedy, or Edinburgh stand-up. Of course I probably have a very similar background and education to comedy commissioners, so perhaps I should find everything they commission funny. Mrs Brown’s Boys sticks out from this, which perhaps is a good thing. If comedy was once the new rock’n’roll (and certainly wants to share plenty of attributes with it) it is almost certainly cyclical. Alan Carr may not just (even) be a openly gay Larry Grayson, but there is surely something a shared in their appeal. In which case why on early should I be surprised by Mrs Brown, who is the Oasis to Old Mother Riley’s Beatles?


  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 8 Jan 2013 #

    See also the current poll on hateful comedians on ILX which provides some interesting talking about class (sparked from whether Micky Flanagan is working class)… and then the ‘winner’ of the poll is John Bishop, who most agree is not hateful, just unfunny.

  2. 2

    One of the reasons I got so tangled up in my “if you’re still laughing after 30 years straight it wasn’t actually funny” theory of TRUE comedy NEVER lasting* the test of time is that we laugh at/with things/people we’re fondly familiar with and recognise as totems we share. And we do so even when they’re not being funny yet — or in the case of the comedy catchphrases that get repeated at school and in pubs and bars, aren’t in themselves funny, or only because of context or situational delivery exactly stripped from them at school and in pubs and bars. (I don’t mean you can’t drop someone else’s catchphrase into a context that makes it funny, I mean that pleasurable repetition** certainly isn’t automatically that context.)

    *where “lasting” implies continuity
    **Obviously repetition makes jokes funnier — right up until the the point it doesn’t

  3. 4
    tm on 8 Jan 2013 #

    On the subject of comedy we don’t find funny: Can someone explain Keith Lemon? I don’t get it, I just don’t get it. I don’t even understand why it’s meant to be funny. Is he meant to be brain-damged or mentally ill or something? That’s not very nice. I’m genuinely baffled whenever I see him.

  4. 5
    Mog on 8 Jan 2013 #

    He’s meant to be a sort of extreme caricature of, like, shitty club entertainers on cruise liners or something, isn’t he? He slightly reminds me of Vic & Bob, if that doesn’t send people apoplectic with rage.

    I find him quite funny. Celebrity Juice is pretty puerile a lot of the time but definitely no worse than eg: Mock The Week circa Frankie Boyle. Mind you I have never seen his film- still, at least he doesn’t pretend to be making ~deep political statements~ a la Baron Cohen.

  5. 6
    tm on 8 Jan 2013 #

    Oh, that kind of makes more sense now!

  6. 7
    Pete Baran on 8 Jan 2013 #

    Not a big watcher of Celebrity Juice but I get the sense that it does the deflating celebrity thing of Shooting Stars without the archness. There are often some very funny bits of silliness in it, though I find the character less endearing.

    Grace Dent makes a good point, I just still find it hard to work out how the BBC caught the lightning in a bottle (or more importantly how it escaped being focus grouped to death).

  7. 8
    Steve Mannion on 8 Jan 2013 #

    The organic ascent of MBB actually quite interesting but then I knew nothing of its origins: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-20512744

    I suppose you could maybe give some credit to Sleb Juice for having two women as team captains (tho I don’t know if he teases them the way R&M did with Ulrikka) but more than any of his contemporaries Leigh Francis’ entire career just seems built exclusively around a sociopathic lads mag lechery and his attempts at surrealism that I’ve seen have always been painfully shallow and one-dimensional compared to R&M. But then I don’t know how much stand-up/club stuff Francis did before he first turned up on TV.

  8. 9

    maybe they ran a focus group where people watched it with their parents*

    *this is a reference to grace dent’s article — i haven’t watch MBB and make no cultural assumptions abt what your parents find funny (my dad would watch every comedy ever EXCEPT BILKO)

  9. 10

    on which general theme: watch with mother sukrat-style

    inc yrs truly saying “i don’t even understand why some of these lines are meant to funny”

    ^^^the villain revealed

  10. 11
    Another Pete on 8 Jan 2013 #

    In regards to Celebrity Juice for having two female captains you do have to bear in mind it is on ITV2 and the other shows it is more famous for.

    If the current world of UK comedy can count Jack Whitehall as a star then I’m not surprised at the success of MBB. Jack Whitehall for me just feels like he’s doing this ‘comedy malarkey’ on his media studies gap year.

  11. 12
    thefatgit on 8 Jan 2013 #

    Never seen MBB, but of course when I heard about this Irish knockabout comedy, I thought about Father Ted and felt no need to check out MBB when Father Ted sits on my DVD shelf. I also heard about MBB’s crassness, but then I never felt the need to visit Rab C. Nesbitt’s episodes either. In fact, I can’t think of any comedy outside the panel format, which I’m also getting very tired of, other than Friends that I’d be willing to watch on a regular basis. Celebrity Juice? No. I’m allergic to Keith Lemon. Miranda was intriguing, because the revival of Perry/Croft “You have been watching” theatricality seemed ripe for a reboot. So I watched Miranda right up until the end of the 2nd season, when I began to find that it was simply a one-joke show and grew tired of it. Even the worst US sitcoms* hold more fascination than anything homegrown at the moment. After reading the Grace Dent piece, I’m pretty sure my MBB avoidance will continue.

    *Chuck Lorre, need I say more?

  12. 13
    Alan not logged in on 9 Jan 2013 #


    Pete – have you seen any of the Mother Riley films? Specifically intrigued by the Vampire/Lugosi one

  13. 15
    Alan not logged in on 9 Jan 2013 #

    odd shearing effect makes that a very peculiar transfer

  14. 16
    Brendan F on 9 Jan 2013 #

    #12 – The Big Bang Theory is my current favourite – though I take the point if you were referring to 2 and a Half Men.

  15. 17
    Pete on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I haven’t seen any Old Mother Riley for about thirty years, and somehow had her confused with Will Hay in my head (I though Arthur Lucan was Will Hay). I shall watch Old Mother Riley vs the vampire and report back…

  16. 18
    Alan on 10 Jan 2013 #

    i can see why. I was starting to see Harry Enfield saying “young man” too.

  17. 19
    Pete on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Hold on, I thought Harry Enfield was his generations Dick Emery.

  18. 20
    thefatgit on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #16 I have a minor beef with TBBT, that sometimes, Sheldon becomes more and more of a caricature, rather than a fully developed character. And Lorre doesn’t write female characters at all well IMO. Yes, “2 And a Half Men” is awful.

  19. 21
    Alan on 10 Jan 2013 #

    there seems to be a US/UK split on the view of the “nerd-blackface” of TBBT. it seems to rile more in the UK where the comedy is seen to be at the expense of the characters, where in the US it is viewed as more affectionate. (am i right?)

    *my* beef with TBBT is the usual indie ‘sell out’ thing that these jokes were being made years ago, just to a smaller audience. ‘gasp a LADY in a COMIC shop’. And the change in culture since those jokes were being coined is precisely why TBBT has a big audience and WHY those jokes are now out of date. (cf Mark’s ‘it has done its job’ view of jokes).

    As the rest of the internet (.uk edition) has likely already said, Community’s view of nerd-fandom is properly affectionate – not jokes at the expense of the outsider, but the opposite ‘everyone should be more like these guys, they are awesome’

  20. 22
    thefatgit on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I have yet to see an ep of “Community”, but I have seen stuff on Tumblr that backs up what you say. Rajesh Koothrapali’s cultural cringe, I believe is chiefly down to our exposure to stuff like Goodness Gracious Me or The Kumars at No. 42. We’ve crossed that threshhold already, whereas US audiences still think the Indian chap in Short Circuit is funny.

  21. 23
    Pete Baran on 10 Jan 2013 #

    The scientist = nerd problem is the biggest beef people have with TBBT I think (interestingly IT Crowd sort of did that the other way around, they were nerds who knew a little bit about computers but weren’t smart)> I think TBBT has softened hugely on the nerd aspect, and generally celebrates the science, to the extent that its partially a workplace sitcom where science is just another job.

    Lorre has always been bad at writing women, but again TBBT has improved since it got more women in it, two of whom are both scientists too, and one of whom is, in the scheme of the show, pretty normal.

  22. 24
    Pete Baran on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Raj is also saddled with the worst sitcom “sit” ever, he cannot talk to women unless drunk – which seriously reduces his usefulness in about 80% of the conversations.

  23. 25

    Yes, I agree with Pete: I started watching when Lemonfan Mog (who loves it) was my lodger, by which time it had already evolved towards the awkward sex-lives of nerds (from earlier lack of same) and has I think (with well researched hindsight haha) been all the better since the cast expanded. (It now has an unusually large ensemble cast of equal billing for a sit-com.)

    I’ve seen silly potshots taken that it’s down on Penny, which is literally nuts.

    Sheldon kind of IS Charlie Harper in photo-negative #controversial

  24. 26

    If not clear from the above I love TBBT.

  25. 27

    Also Mayim Bialik PHD (aka TV’s Blossom)’s IRL dissertation is about “hypothalamic activity in patients with Prader-Willi syndrome” = more science than you can shake a stick at

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