‘It’s just a feckin’ laugh’ – The slow, strange rise of Mrs Brown’s Boys

Brendan O’Carroll, aka Mrs Brown, tells Calum Henderson how a five-minute radio play he created 25 years ago slowly turned into one of the most popular shows on television.

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Brendan O’Carroll: “We had a fabulous actress lined up to play Mrs Brown… and she got sick”

It was three days out from opening night in Liverpool when Brendan O’Carroll got a phone message at his hotel in New York: “John Urine’s gone.”

The actor who played Mrs Brown’s son Rory in the Mrs Brown’s Boys stage show – “we used to call him John Urine because he kept walking in his sleep and pissing in the wardrobe,” O’Carroll explains – had decided to leave the company.

He got off the phone and turned to his longtime publicist Rory Cowan. “I said, right, you’re playing Rory. You already know all the lines. You’ll be fine.”

Cowan had never acted in front of an audience before, nor had he ever particularly wanted to. “I nearly had to drag him onto the feckin’ stage that first night,” remembers O’Carroll. “After a week I asked him, how are you settling in? He said: ‘I love it.’”

This seems to be the way a surprising number of his friends and family – most with no prior acting experience – have come to find themselves performing to sold-out theatre audiences around the world and starring alongside him in one of the most popular shows on television.

“It’s been a queer ride,” he admits. It began almost 25 years ago, when O’Carroll was in his mid-thirties and a regular on the Dublin stand-up comedy circuit. He was having coffee with one of the hosts on national radio station RTÉ 2fm. “We need something quirky for the afternoons,” said the DJ. “I’m writing a soap,” lied O’Carroll.

He pitched Mrs Brown’s Boys as a series of five-minute episodes – “a little mini-soap” – to run daily for two weeks. “‘It’s a widow, mother, grown-up kids and she treats them all like they’re five years old…’ I was just waffling, trying to get a gig.”

By the end of the week he had written all ten episodes, and set about enlisting anyone he could find to voice them. “I got me roadie in, I got me window cleaner in…” Both of them – Pepsi Shields (best known as Mrs Brown’s son Mark) and Dermot O’Neil (Grandad) – have been in the show ever since.

He never imagined himself in the lead role. “We had a fabulous actress lined up to play Mrs Brown… and she got sick.” Since he had already paid for the studio, O’Carroll decided to do the lines himself, raising his pitch only slightly to affect Mrs Brown’s now-famous voice.

Brendan O'Carroll as Mrs Brown: "They can bury me in that wig if they want."

Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs Brown: “They can bury me in that wig if they want.”

The plan was to get the actress to re-record the lines once she was feeling better. “But the next day I went in to do the edit, the kid in the booth said to me: ‘hey, who’s the actress doing Mrs Brown?’ I said ‘feck off, that’s me.’ He went ‘no way… You’ve got to keep that voice, it’s great.’”

So he did. And after initially rejecting it because of all the swearing, the station ended up asking him for more. The only problem was they couldn’t pay for it. “We’re a pop station, we don’t have a drama budget,” O’Carroll recalls the head of programming telling him. “What we do have is a t-shirt budget.”

He says he spent the next two-and-a-half years – 450 episodes in total – being paid in t-shirts. The station would print 500 a week with the Mrs Brown’s Boys logo, and O’Carroll would sell them at his stand-up gigs for £3 or £4 apiece.

The t-shirts for sale on this year’s stage tour are more expensive, $30-$40, and emblazoned with a variety of catchphrases made popular by the TV series. ’THAT’S NICE’ and ‘FECK OFF’ are big sellers. ‘KEEP CALM YOU FECKIN’ EEJIT’ isn’t far behind.

Good Mourning Mrs Brown – one of five Mrs Brown plays O’Carroll has written since 1999 – began in Wollongong in late January and will end with four shows each in Christchurch and Auckland later this month. This will be the first time the company has visited New Zealand. “I’m looking forward to hearing an audience full of people in Christchurch laugh,” O’Carroll says almost as soon as we sit down. “Because Jesus Christ they’ve been through the mill.”

Everybody laughs at the Mrs Brown’s Boys live show – even the guys behind the mixing desk who’ve seen it performed a hundred times before. It mostly happens when O’Carroll goes off-script to try and catch out his fellow cast members, something he does frequently. His main victim, Rory, is liable to dissolve into gasping fits of laughter with so little as a sideways glance.

L-R: Jennifer Gibney (O'Carroll's wife) as Mrs Brown's daughter Cathy; O'Carroll as Mrs Brown; Rory Cowan (O'Carroll's publicist) as Rory (Mrs Brown's son)

L-R: Jennifer Gibney (O’Carroll’s wife) as Mrs Brown’s daughter Cathy; O’Carroll as Mrs Brown; Rory Cowan (O’Carroll’s publicist) as Rory (Mrs Brown’s son)

But the biggest laughs from the crowd tend to be induced by fondly-remembered moments from the TV episodes. Good Mourning Mrs Brown, for example, features the classic set piece in which Grandad accidentally gets a thermometer stuck up his bum.

The show’s critics – and there have been many, especially since the television series first went to air in 2011 – cite this kind of humour as a reason why Mrs Brown’s Boys is, in the words of the Independent, “the worst TV comedy ever made.” It’s crass, predictable, horribly outdated. O’Carroll sees it differently: “it’s just a feckin’ laugh.”

“Somewhere along the line comedy got stuck up its own arse,” he explains. He writes Mrs Brown’s Boys for what he describes as “the audience comedy forgot.” And ever since the BBC finally convinced him to turn it into a TV series, it has rated through the roof in the UK as well as finding a whole new audience overseas – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a local remake called Tanti Florica is incredibly popular in Romania.

O’Carroll sees this recent surge in popularity as just rewards for a cast and crew who have stuck with him through thick and thin. In 1998 he lost over £2 million he had borrowed to make a feature film, Sparrow’s Trap, which never ended up seeing the light of day. The main reason he started writing the Mrs Brown’s Boys stage plays in the first place was to try and pay off his debts.

Now the touring party numbers 38 and spans three generations – all of O’Carroll’s three children are involved in the show as either cast or crew, meaning his nine grandchildren come along too. His wife, Jennifer Gibney, plays Mrs Brown’s daughter Cathy. His sister plays her neighbour.

Then there’s things like this: his son’s best friend Paddy plays Mrs Brown’s son Dermot, and Dermot’s best friend Buster is O’Carroll’s son Danny. Danny is married to Amanda Woods, who plays Mrs Brown’s daughter-in-law Betty… “People say you’re so clever to get all that together,” he shrugs. “I didn’t have a feckin’ plan. It just happened.”

After three series of the TV show, the only new Mrs Brown’s Boys episodes O’Carroll writes these days are Christmas specials – one or two new episodes a year. But he sees no end for his foul-mouthed Dublin matriarch with a heart of gold. She seems set to live on at least as long as he does.

“I’d be quite happy if halfway down the stairs one night Mrs Brown topples over and everybody laughs and the curtain closes and that’s the end,” he declares, a morbidly romantic death fantasy.

“They can even bury me in that wig if they want. Feck it.”

Good Mourning Mrs Brown will be performed in Christchurch at Horncastle Arena from 17-19 March, and in Auckland at Vector Arena from 25-27 March. Details are available at www.mrsbrownsboys.co.nz

Click here to watch all three seasons of Mrs Brown’s Boys (and a large helping of the Christmas specials):


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