Ronnie Reagan once said that recession was when your neighbour lost his job and depression was when you lost yours. In Ireland, recession is when your neighbour loses his reason and turns to middle-of-the-road entertainment like foul-mouthed cross-dressers and musicals to cheer him up, and depression is when you do.
Our economic crash is having some terrifying consequences. Just when you thought you'd suffered enough, resurgent recession-era acts include Brendan O'Carroll, high-camp rock musicals, talent shows and Katherine Lynch.
Recently I got panicky texts from people who'd just seen the Mrs Brown's Boys pilot on RTE One. This sitcom was an RTE/BBC co-production about the hackneyed oul' one with six kids played by Brendan O'Carroll in drag. Once the BBC screens the pilot, RTE is to decide if a full series will be inflicted on us.
The guys I got texts from about Mrs Brown are the kinds who have practically taken vows to watch only channels with 4 in the title, such as Channel 4, More4 or 4Bore. But having watched Brendan O'Carroll's sitcom, the gist of their texts was: 'Is it really bad to watch Mrs Brown's Boys and find it sort of funny?' I had strange visions of guys who watch The View flagellating themselves like the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code when they find themselves sniggering at Mrs Brown's gags about vibrators that run on diesel.
The 'Mrs Brown is kind of funny!' shockwaves were felt everywhere. On bulletin boards, even moany bloggers were forced to reach within themselves and write reviews that didn't include the words "pathetic" and "typical RTE crap". It had to be hard for Mother of Sorrows types whose posts about Irish comedy shows usually consist of: "Is this what Irish comedy has become? Sigh!" Some even attempted comedy blasphemy by saying Mrs Brown's Boys was better than Tommy Tiernan.
Mrs Brown is an unlikely forces' sweetheart during our darkest economic hour -- not quite Vera Lynn singing We'll Meet Again, more like 'We'll fucking meet again, and I don't give a shite where'.
The one-liners on Mrs Brown's Boys are rammed down the viewer's throat with the same force as the rectal thermometer that Grandad sat on in one of its scenes. It's ironic that when you want to view Mrs Brown's Boys on the RTE Player you need to tick a box stating you're over 18 before you can watch it, as a pop-up says it's aimed at a mature audience. I really think an immature audience would be better suited to double entendres about bananas looking like willies, and Mrs Brown's husband coming late.
The fact that Eighties humour is back with a bang is a big change for RTE's commissioning editors. Edgier comedy formats such as The Panel have been scrapped, while Mrs Brown is being lined up for a series. Recession-era RTE is like the woman who walks in to the bar looking for a double entendre and the barman gives her one. RTE is looking for a comedy to suit current tastes, and Brendan O'Carroll is giving them one -- so to speak.
It was time to see if some old-fashioned effing and blinding middle-aged Irish bloke dressed as an oul' one could lift my recession blues and get me to crack a smile. Had my recession really turned into a depression? Brendan O'Carroll was staging a small run of How Now Brown Cow in Dublin's Olympia Theatre after the success of Mrs Brown's Boys on the telly, and I had to go.
The thing I notice about live Irish audiences during the recession is that they really, really want to be entertained, and the one person who won't be laughing if they're not entertained is the entertainer. After years of dangerously high doses of Eddie Hobbs, Liveline, and now unemployment and belt-tightening, the mood at most gigs before kick-off is like the cheap seats at the gladiatorial games in the Coliseum.
I managed to buy probably the last ticket for the final night of the run, wedged in the middle of a row high up in the circle. I got to the Olympia about 10 minutes before showtime and the curtain was still down. An excitable gang sat down behind me. Suddenly one of the blokes got quite irate. "There's no way we can see the bleeding stage from here! I can't see the bottom at all. I want to move! Now!" he shouted. "The stage is way back . . . behind the bleeding curtain, ya eejit! Will you calm down?" answered his missus.
As well as being edgy about getting value for money, Mrs Brown's fans are fiercely loyal. A middle-aged woman in a leather jacket sitting beside me leaned in before the show started and said: "He's very funny, you know." It was like that Al Pacino line from Godfather II when his sister says she wants to get married: "You disappoint me!" The implication from my neighbour was that we were all going to laugh like hyenas for the next two hours, even if this particular performance turned out to be the worst thing to ever grace an Irish stage -- because we were all there to have a good time, OK?
The show was packed with gangs of families -- several generations from teens up to grannies and grandads. Clearly Brendan O'Carroll cleverly crammed every possible character type from a typical family into his show. That means Granny is dragged along because she reminds her family of Mrs Brown, while Grandad is just like Mrs Brown's father-in-law, etc.
Getting through the How Now Brown Cow show is a lot like real life. After the first 'fuck' is out of the way you get used to it and it gets better. There are lots of similarities to the TV show, with several of the lines being used in both. There are Taser guns that are mistaken for telephones, sons dressed as giant penguins, and more F-words than a Paul Gogarty Dail speech. At the interval in the bar, and outside in the smoking area, it's commented several times, "He's very funny, isn't he?" Mrs Brown did cheer me up, but it's like being held down and tickled -- you're only laughing because you're being forced to by the constant stream of swear words, one-liners and physical comedy. But desperate times do need desperate measures. This is no time for subtlety.
Cliches are very important when dealing with the recession. Besides "the country's banjaxed", the one most frequently uttered must be: "Where's Roddy Doyle when you need him?" People must think Roddy Doyle is a brooding, Batman-like figure, standing on Dublin's rooftops waiting until our debt-to-GDP ratio dips dangerously: when the time is right he'll bang out a 100,000-word novel crammed with plucky sorts who swear freely and who beat the credit crunch with their indomitable spirit.
Novels about chip vans set in 2010 could end up being seriously unfunny when you've got to deal with 30kmh speed limits, catering licences, the obesity crisis and the lack of an Irish team in this year's World Cup. Hence Roddy's got better things to be doing with himself.
Another overachieving DVD in the top 100 that is perfect for these straitened times is Katherine Lynch Live (The Diddy Diddy Dongo Tour). Remember, Twink practically got us through the Eighties with her big personality and ready access to the RTE wardrobe department. Katherine Lynch's DVD nearly outsold Des Bishop and easily outperformed Neil Delamere's and PJ Gallagher's DVDs. Her TV show, Katherine Lynch's Single Ladies, also won massive audiences for RTE Two late on Tuesday nights. Lynch clearly knows there's a gap in the market for over-the-top, wild-haired women from the country to cheer up lonely single chaps since Blathnaid left The Afternoon Show, and she fills that . . . ahem . . . gap with great gusto. RTE, in fairness, tried to give Katherine's show a respectable, politically correct gloss in the programme description by saying it "delves deep into the world of women living life on the cusp". It's a brave move, trying to pass it off as a sort of Open University Sociology 101 course, when the show's real appeal is characters such as her burlesque Traveller who climaxes on trapezes.