Is Mrs. Brown and Miranda the death of comedy?

Posted on: 23 February 2011 by Alexander Hay

Mrs Brown's Sons may be UK comedy's future - and death.

The death of comedy is no laughing matter

The response to the BBC's new comedy show, "Mrs. Brown", was inevitable. The Telegraph, somewhat primly, said the show "may startle viewers with its frequent use of the f-word". Elsewhere, the Leicester Mercury pondered whether "a glass of wine will make it funnier. Nope, sorry, can't do it." While The Guardian's TV critic lamented " I did find my self chuckling on a couple of occasions, I'm afraid, against my better judgement."

They miss the point. Whether the show is any good, and really it's no more amusing than listening to flatulent donkeys for half an hour, isn't relevant. It's what the show represents. Take away the swearing and the show is shockingly old fashioned, even down to the leading man in drag as Mrs Brown. Throw in some mawkish sentimentality and you'd almost be back in 1981, when you still had to assemble your computers by hand and LWT churned out mind-numbingly banal sitcoms by the bucketload.

What marks it out, however is its postmodernism. This is the argument that one element of something is as equally valid as any other, blurring the lines between what is or isn't real, and indeed what is 'real' in the first place. Anyone who's seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Monty Python would know what it is. On the one hand, it challenges our preconceptions, but at its worst, it ultimately leaves us with nothing to believe in, as everything and nothing is valid. It is in fact all about resigned apathy.

But how is Mrs Brown's Boys postmodern? Well, there was the scene in the first episode where the audience 'ahhs' the main character, only for 'her' to remind them that 'she' is really 'a man in a fecking dress', the panning shots at the end that reveal the story really is just being filmed in a studio and the zombie-like reanimation of old comedy tropes mixed with the vulgarity. This betrays the show's origins as a stage show, but also how it excuses its lack of anything new, challenging, or indeed funny. It doesn't try because it doesn't have to.

Is this a new trend? There is already another show on the TV that follows the same formula. "Miranda" is ultimately an equally old fashioned comedy about the misadventures of a woman who can't snare a man and whose interfering mother... You get the rest. It's like a slightly saucier middle class version of the Liver Birds or Brigette Jones' Diary but with a running joke where the main character turns to the screen and starts talking directly to the audience and then all the cast drop out of character at the end of the show for a dance number.

These are just two shows, but they are too similar to not make one wonder if this isn't a new trend. In any case, it is in effect Terry & June-style comedy with bricolage and knob gags. The roots lie in Little Britain, and its successor Come Fly with Me, where two well-paid, cynical comedians found they could black up and make jokes Bernard Manning would balk at as long as they were being, you guessed it, 'ironic' and 'postmodern'. Again, the comedy is backward looking and mean-spirited. At least they weren't so cynical in the 1970s.

After all, for all its flaws, old fashioned comedy was at least motivated by the goal of making people laugh, while alternative comedy was trying (not always successfully) to see how far you could push humour and in what direction.

What followed is a golden age of comedy, with everything from The Young Ones and Not The Nine O'Clock News to The OfficeFather Ted and The Mighty Boosh. Comedy has never been so creative, or so surprisingly deep, as shown by the subtle interplays of the characters in The IT Crowd, the studied darkness of Nighty Night and Ideal, and even the metaphysical musings and genre-skewering that Red Dwarf got up to whenever you weren't looking.

We will miss it when it goes, and this might happen very soon. For a show ghettoised onto a Monday 22.35 time slot, the first episode of Mrs. Brown's Boys still netted 2.6 million viewers. There is an audience, it seems, for recycled tat and creative nihilism.

But that's the thing with postmodernism. After a while, you realise it gives nothing back, values nothing and ultimately means nothing. If Mrs. Brown is the comedy of the future then the joke might finally be on us.

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Alexander Hay

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