Stuck in the middle with you
Because fancy practices like sub-prime lending in banking have got us into such a sorry state, the Irish public has become averse to any form of innovation, says Will Hanafin. And so, these days, we like our entertainment simple, old fashioned and traditional, from Brendan O'Carroll to the 'All Ireland Talent Show'
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.
Being challenged by an old stager like Brendan O'Carroll is certainly different for the poster boys of boom time stand-up comedy. During the Celtic Tiger, comedians made it big by being loud, rural and able to riff about religion, pubs in Offaly, or central-heating systems. Once they were on the primrose path, comics only needed to block-book Vicar Street occasionally, churn out DVDs and make de rigueur TV appearances mocking some sacred cow to keep the show on the road.
If those DVD sales are anything to go by, the More4 types are being elbowed out by MOR comedy fans. If you look at Irma's Top 100 DVDs for 2009, it's no laughing matter for stand-up comedians. Des Bishop's DVD sold the most and he still only charted in 63rd position. The DVD of RTE's nostalgic clips show Reeling in the 90s easily beat him, while among other stand-ups, Neil Delamere came in at 95th and PJ Gallagher at 97th. The craving for comforting and reassuring comedy was illustrated by strong sales of The Van and The Snapper in the DVD charts. Both were top-20 best-sellers last year, in fourth and 14th positions respectively.
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.
It's not just comedy that has gone back to basics, as the current musical offerings have also gone resolutely MOR. Back in the Noughties, to make it big as an Irish singer all you needed was an itchy yak-wool jumper, scratchy stubble and an acoustic guitar. After a few below-the-radar gigs in Galway or Cork to an exclusively female audience of under 30s whom you subjected to a sheaf of introspective songs about your pet dog's death, your career was up and running. Then it was a waiting game until some reviewer called your stuff "beautiful and poignant"; the album deal followed and soon one of your wearisome songs was being featured as the musical backdrop to Grey's Anatomy or The OC.
Unfortunately, most Irish people under 30 are now either on the dole or in Canada or Australia, so the chill winds of entertainment orthodoxy are back. Nowadays, the best bet for some scruffy guy in a check shirt who can sing would be to go for a part in some rock opera such as Jesus Christ Superstar. That, or hopefully your local surf shop is hiring.
The need for Z-list rib-ticklers when the chips are down is embedded in our DNA. And without fail, when we plunge into recession we grab the comfort blanket of unchallenging music. It certainly happened in the Eighties. If you look through the 1981 Irish charts you'll find perfectly respectable songs at No 1 by John Lennon, the Police and . . . Foster and Allen. With 20 per cent of the workforce unemployed in the early Eighties, cool songs were quickly jettisoned in favour of two lads in leprechaun outfits warning unsuspecting maidens to keep their garden fair, warbling A Bunch of Thyme.
When the Irish economy was still ticking over in 1979, the Boomtown Rats, U2 and Pink Floyd held sway. But finding ourselves washed up and on the dole in the Eighties, it was the likes of Brendan Shine singing Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down? that we turned to. MOR entertainment is a portent of true recession. It's like hearing the wail of a banshee, or spotting that scary spectre from the Richard Gere movie The Mothman Prophecies, who appeared before disasters. This new status quo is clear in the All Ireland Talent Show when Grainne talks about the pride of the parish. We've closed ranks and decided that a couple of people who're able to stand on each others' shoulders or play the tin whistle with their nostril will do us grand. Any notions of appealing to an audience outside Ireland have now been completely banished.
Because fancy practices such as sub-prime lending in banking got us into such a sorry state, the Irish public has become averse to any form of innovation. It's like the Mrs Brown audience who just want a good seat and a good show: punters have enough worries and they want to stay firmly in their comfort zone with no challenging stuff thank you very much . . . Just ask Yusuf Islam.
The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens took his show to The O2 last November, expecting a decent reception from the crowd as he hasn't played live since the mid-Seventies. Unfortunately, he hadn't factored in the unpredictable nature of a recession-hardened Irish audience. It all went well until he decided to preview a musical of his songs called Moonshadow about one-third of the way through the show. The poor innocent, who has led a quiet life of Islamic contemplation for years, said later that he thought he was giving the audience "a show and a half". In fact, he was giving them half a chance to be spectacularly ungrateful. He really thought he was giving them what they wanted when Ronan Keating was brought on for a duet. But the inevitable consequence of all this was moaning, walkouts and a queue to talk to Joe on Liveline on Monday.
Despite the negative reaction to Cat Stevens's Moonshadow, there's a veritable invasion of musicals right now, including Evita, Mamma Mia and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Some have been and gone already, including the much-hyped We Will Rock You, which was on at The O2 in January.
Like extremist politics and rickets, musicals tend to be spawned by recessions. Americans reacted to the Thirties Depression by embracing The Wizard of Oz. I suppose there's nothing like a few dancing Munchkins to cheer a body up.
Musicals have been difficult for me to attend since I was dragged along as an Eighties-recession kid to see The King and I being murdered. That and being brought along to Danny La Rue in the Cork Opera House killed my fascination with sequins and songs at a young age. But again, I was surprised to be told by people I thought I knew that they'd been to the Queen musical and it was great. I'd seen the cast on The Late Late Show and it looked like bad Tops of the Town, complete with ex-Coronation Street star Curly Watts looking like Worzel Gummidge. Clearly it was time for another cheering-up expedition.
You really know people are looking for hope when you walk into The O2 auditorium on a Sunday afternoon to see 9,000 patrons watching Curly Watts trying to sing, and waving a sea of green glow sticks at him. It shows you more than any economic forecast how much our spirit has been broken in the past two years. All these people had paid good money to listen to former X Factor and soap stars belting out 30-year-old songs while clad in spandex and tricolour knickers. All that and a ridiculous storyline about a malign corporation that has banned live music from the planet.
But then they sang We Are the Champions and I took in the lines. "We are the champions, my friends/And we'll keep on fighting -- till the end/We are the champions /We are the champions/No time for losers/'Cause we are the champions -- of the world."
Those rockers had reeled me in! It had happened. I was on my feet, swaying from side to side, surrounded by gay couples, mums with surly teenagers, girlfriends with long-suffering boyfriends waving their green lights, all singing at the top of our lungs about keeping on fighting till the end. It wasn't a recession, it was a depression. I'd reached rock bottom.
My memory banks were emptied of Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon lyrics. Musical discernment was gone. I just wanted to sing something stupid and hackneyed to feel like there was some hope. I didn't even need Brian May to come on and do the Bohemian Rhapsody finale.
A few days later I realised why we're now all frequenting rock operas, looking at buxom women pretending to be Travellers or laughing at some cross-dresser Tasering himself. The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, decided to treat us to a rousing speech telling us that there's light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it'll be in 2016 -- he thinks.
As Queen said, this is "no time for losers" but that's all we've got right now -- that and MOR entertainment.