Not too long ago, the world was stunned upon hearing the news of comedian Rik Mayall’s death. For a lot of my age group, our first introduction to his unique blend of slapstick comedy was in a film alongside Phoebe Cates named Drop Dead Fred. For so many others who preceded generation X, he’ll always be remembered for his role on a British sitcom entitled The Young Ones. Aired on BBC’s channel 2 in the United Kingdom, and on MTV in the United States, the show has one of the most die-hard cult followings in history. So many people can recite lines word for word, and watch the series multiple times, and never grow tired of the antics of four housemates that made vaudeville seem conservative and stiff.
It’s one of the very few television shows that can lay claim to being almost perfect. It came around at exactly the right time, and it had the right people involved–both on and off camera. With so many shows that have jumped the shark, and end up pushing themselves further after the magic is nonexistent, The Young Ones ended its run at exactly the right moment. In a sense, it was perfect guest to a housewarming party. It showed up exactly when it needed to, provided an enormous amount of entertainment, and knew when it was appropriate to grab their coat and depart.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, or its premise, it’s relatively easy to explain. We follow 4 college students, (who we never see going to college, ironically) their difficulties in communal living, and the ridiculous situations they find themselves getting into on a weekly basis. Our cast of crazies includes Rik, (Rik Mayall) a Cliff Richard fanboy who thinks of himself as an anarchist and a poet of the proletariat. Joining him is Vyvyan Bastard, (Adrian ‘Ade’ Edmondson) a metalhead-punk hybrid who’s only a little too eager to break objects and cause bodily harm at every possible opportunity. There’s Neil, (Nigel Planer) a hippie who’s just a bit to keen at the prospect of suicide, and serves as the punching bag for the rest of the household. Last, and certainly not least, is Mike. (Christopher Ryan) He’s your typical suave and cool ladies man, or at least he is in his own mind. He’s actually the perfect straight man, and the polar opposite to everyone else’s over the top personalities. Joining them each week was actor Alexei Sayle, who often showed up as obnoxious landlord Jerzei Bolowski, one of his many family members, and even Benito Mussolini in one episode.
In only 2 seasons and 12 episodes, Mayall and company left a comedic legacy that many audiences still find themselves being drawn to, even today. In order to get a firm grasp on the dynamics of the show, it’s important to examine the origins from whence it came. Before a foot of celluloid was committed to this show, or any material was written, three of the lead actors (Mayall, Edmondson, and Planer) had all spent time on a show called The Comic Strip Presents. The show itself was a showcase of sketch comedy, featuring Mayall, Edmondson, Planer, as well as future guest stars such as Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, and Jennifer Saunders. (Now of Absolutely Fabulous fame.)
Introductions aside, it’s time to move on to our main attraction…
The episodes of The Young Ones were a unique combination of slapstick and satire. They combined the antics and absurdity one might have seen with Monty Python and Benny Hill, and used them to address several issues that were relevant from the time period. This wasn’t just a comedy show; this was the voice of a generation in crisis. It openly mocked situations such as the nuclear arms race, police brutality, life under the Thatcher regime, and several unemployed who survived on the dole. At the same time, it made light of events such as the infamous ‘video nasties’ ban, and the activities of the counterculture. You know what they say; laughter is the best medicine. Unafraid of pulling lunches, there were even jabs at more family friendly BBC shows such as The Good Life and University Challenge.
With its constant fourth wall breaks, the show got us involved in every single episode. No mater who someone might be, there was at least one character that we could identify with, and call out favorite. We all knew people like this at one point in our life, and as we all know some of the best comedy comes from real life situations.
Counterculture, slapstick, and satire aside, The Young Ones also featured a wide plethora of musical acts. Billed as a variety show in order to bet a larger budget, every episode, with the exception of the finale in the first season had a musical performance. The acts encompassed a wide range of talent. The roster almost read like a ‘who’s who’ of some of the most prominent English musical talent from the time period. From Motorhead, The Damned, Madness, Nine Below Zero, to Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and Rip Rig + Panic, the acts were a proverbial melting pot, representing the diversity that the whole show encompassed. Sometimes they would even be introduced by one of the shows characters, making them a part of the comedy, and not just a distraction or sideshow.
When everything’s said and done, this show is one of the few that holds up over time, and can be appreciated by multiple generations. As much as it’s a product of its time, it’s also a product for all time. It pushed the envelope, and more than once conveniently sent it to the wrong address. If for no other reason, just to get under the skin of the status quo. If you’ve never seen The Young Ones, give it a watch, you might be pleasantly surprised. If you’ve seen it, then I certainly hope you have the same appreciation for it that I do.