Rik Mayall Had the Power to Make Depressing Stuff Hilarious
And that's what made him so great.
Rik Mayall (right), who passed away yesterday aged 56, with comedy partner, Ade Edmonson in Bottom
Watching Rik Mayall was like watching a man explode out of himself, like his skin couldn’t quite contain the speed of his mind. He was so funny it was savage. The world will be a poorer place without his unhinged, chaotic brilliance.
News of his death yesterday was met with a tide of tributes from his peers. “Last time I saw him he grabbed my crotch and said, ‘Not eaten yet, then?’ So sad… Funniest man of his generation,” said Bob Mortimer. “Rik Mayall was just pure wiry, energetic, unpredictable humour poured into the shape of a human," added Charlie Brooker. "You couldn’t not watch him.”
And he was right; you couldn’t. The Young Ones and Bottom kept – or, in my case, still keep – households sane. They were Pete and Dud for a generation who were allowed to see people swearing on the telly, a more likeable, more pathetic Monty Python. But for all Mayall and Ade Edmonson’s farting, screeching, groin-thrusting accessibility, they were often very dark.
In The Young Ones, they took the manifesto of alt comedy and made it anarchic and ridiculous. Mayall played Rick, a lispy, Cliff Richard-loving radical and writer of abysmal poetry, and perfectly captured reactionary student cuntiness. In Bottom, Mayall and Edmonson played two perverted, dole-wasting morons who barely leave their Hammersmith flat. The pace Mayall was capable of was terrifying. It made you glad he wasn’t in the room with you. You always got the impression, too, that there barely even needed to be a script between the two of them, that they were connected by an invisible network of synapses and anus jokes.
In both shows there was a grimness that’s hard to define. It’s partly the total absence of women – nothing is sadder than a group of horny guys pratting around, unable to deviate from the sex-fart-sex-fart pentameter of their conversations – and partly the futile, desperate set-up. The fag-stained ceilings, the rank wallpaper, the mould, the utterly drab greyness of those sets. It’s a pre-Changing Rooms, pre-Grand Designs, pre-Ikea, pre-regeneration London that we don’t really see portrayed any more.
Mayall and Edmonson, though, were the splash of colour. They were today’s “feature wall” and their lonely-blokes-hanging-out formula is one that has percolated through British comedy ever since, even if all the existential dread has been stripped from it. Without them, there’d have been no Men Behaving Badly (like Bottom, but with clanging frying pans replaced by cuddly love interests), and almost certainly no Inbetweeners, which is basically the same thing but less depressing 'cos the virgins are kids.
My own personal Mayall favourite was Drop Dead Fred. The first time I watched the film with my sister we both simultaneously wet our parents' bed. This scene had my dad running up the stairs two-at-a-time to check we weren’t, in fact, killing each other. But despite this – and his star turn as Lord Flashheart in Blackadder – Mayall always seemed at his best with Edmonson, who said yesterday, “There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him.”
The bleakness they sired into British comedy continued in The Comic Strip, especially Four Men in a Car and Four Men in a Plane, which was basically four David Brents trapped in various modes of transport trying desperately to return to the 1980s. Then there was Mayall's portrayal of the insufferable, homicidal Tory MP Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman. Again, Mayall excelled at and revelled in playing a complete and utter prick – somehow, he managed to play this role over and over in his career and still wind up a national treasure.
That Mayall ran the gamut from something like The Young Ones to Drop Dead Fred to voicing Roald Dahl stories is testament to how, despite being a manic, guffawing fireball, he could channel his energy expertly. Even something as cute as George’s Marvellous Medicine sounded a bit dangerous with Mayall’s narration, and I've always believed that he could provide the voiceover for something as basic as a log's journey down a river and still remain funny enough for primetime TV. Of course he was perfect for kids’ things, though. He was a massive kid on grown-up legs. My dad told me when I was young never to trust anyone who doesn’t find Bottom (or, indeed, farts) funny and I stand by that to this day. I actually think he moved us to a tiny country village called Matching Tye simply for the fact that Mayall was born there.
I think a massive part of his appeal was that, like many of the best comics, beneath the bluster was a distrust of himself in the world, a belief that he could only deal with it by pretending to be other people. I remember Chris Morris saying somewhere that he stopped making Jam because the real world was much more horrifying than anything he could produce.
With Mayall, though, maybe it was this existential angst that made his performances – especially in something as overpoweringly bleak as Bottom – so electrifying. All the jokes and close, suffocating situations (four men in a car, two men in a flat) do the same thing: lampoon male insecurity. Could a man write those lines without carrying it himself?
For those who attribute much of their comic DNA to The Young Ones, Mayall's death adds poignancy to one of his greatest monologues. “This house will become a shrine! And punks and skins and Rastas will all gather round and all hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader! And all the grown-ups will say, ‘But why are the kids crying?’ And the kids will say, ‘Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!’”
Mayall might be dead, but I imagine he’s cackling somewhere over the absurdity of fucking Cliff Richard, currently turning the colour of Ayers Rock in Barbados, outliving him. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and pound the gasman’s face in with a frying pan.