After hearing of the recent untimely death of British comedian Rik Mayall last month at the age of 56, Michele and I re-watched the television series that he was most associated with: The Young Ones. Originally running for two six-episode seasons in 1982 and 1984 on the BBC, The Young Ones became an influential cult classic. Michele likes to say that it is her all time favorite television series. She first saw it when it aired here in the States in 1985 on MTV. Myself, I caught a few of the episodes in the mid-1990s when it was on Comedy Central. While I enjoyed them somewhat back then, watching the series in its entirety on DVD definitely gave me a real appreciation for it.
The Young Ones was co-written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer, with additional material by Alexi Sayle. It featured the bizarre, nonsensical, and grotesquely over-the-top misadventures of four university students from Scumbag College who were rooming together in North London:
Rick (played by Rik Mayall) was a would-be anarchist revolutionary who would go on endlessly about the evils of Margaret Thatcher and the oppression of the people, while treating everyone else about him with disdain. He regarded himself as “the people’s poet,” the so-called “voice of a generation,” although in reality he was a self-important egotist who was full of crap.
Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) was a loud, psychotic, alcoholic punk metal-head who considered Rick “a complete bastard.” Despite being an ultra-violent imbecile, Vyvyan was studying medicine at Scumbag College. I suppose the blood & guts appealed to him.
Neil (Nigel Planer) was a perpetually depressed hippy pacifist who had constant verbal & physical abuse heaped upon him, and who was always expected by the other three to cook dinner, even if they were too broke to buy groceries. Neil alternated between preaching the virtues of such causes as vegetarianism & environmentalism, and moping about bemoaning the fact that everyone hated him.
Mike (Christopher Ryan) was a suave con artist who was always scheming to make money. On several occasions referring to himself as “the cool person,” Mike believed he was a real ladies’ man, although on various instances he was spotted sleeping with an inflatable sex doll.
Rounding out the regular cast was Alexi Sayle, who portrayed a variety of characters, including the various members of the Balowski Family. Sayle’s performances were often a satire on British societal stereotypes, with him sending up the popular image of the working class, or merely rambling on in a stream of consciousness manner, via some cleverly nonsensical monologues.
There were appearances on The Young Ones by a number of talented actors and comedians. Some of them were already established at that time, and others were up-and-coming. Among the various guest stars to appear on the show were Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Frost, Terry Jones, Patrick Newell, Helen Lederer, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson.
Each of the episodes featured a musical performance, which was always worked into the plot somehow or another, even it was just that week’s band just standing around the living room or out in the street while the action unfolded about them. Some of the musical guests were definitely on the obscure side, such as Amazulu and Rip Rig + Panic. Others were better known, as in Motorhead, The Damned, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Madness (who appeared twice). There was one episode, “Flood,” that instead of music had a lion tamer performing in Mike’s room, and that incongruous appearance ended up being a key aspect to the resolution of the plot, such as it was.
Of course, that was the thing about The Young Ones. The episodes did not have much in the way of straightforward plots, but were rather more like a series of jokes and gags that were somewhat loosely strung together. There were also a number of random asides tossed in that had little or nothing to do with the rest of the episode.
The humor ranged from sophisticated and intellectual to crass, vulgar, gross, tacky and utterly lowbrow. Copious amounts of cartoonish violence were regularly inflicted upon the characters. The Young Ones was the sort of anarchic mish-mash of comedic insanity that could have easily collapsed into an incomprehensible, unfunny heap. But the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the performers and writers instead resulted in a set of a dozen episodes which were hysterical and laugh-out-loud funny.
The series often broke the fourth wall, with characters directly addressing the audience to deliver jokes or monologues. The most extended example of this was in the episode “Sick.” Halfway through the episode the quartet are alarmed to learn that Neil’s parents will be coming to visit, and they desperately start attempting to clean up the house, hoping to look at least somewhat more respectable. The audience’s expectation is that Neil’s middle class parents are going to be upset that he is living with a trio of disreputable individuals in a shithole of a building. Instead, we quickly find out that they are furious Neil is starring in such a shameful, trashy television show as The Young Ones, with his father critically commenting “It’s a waste of a licensing fee! Pardon my French, but why can’t you be in one of those decent situation comedies that your mother likes?”
Re-watching The Young Ones, Michele began to suspect that it could have been a major influence on Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy. She has a good point there, and I would not be surprised to learn that she’s correct.
Our favorite episode of The Young Ones is undoubtedly “Bambi.” I really enjoyed that one even back when I first saw it in the mid-90s. Seeing it again on DVD, it was hilarious. The housemates attempt to wash their laundry for the first time in over three years, leading to the anthropomorphic machine at the launderette to violently spit out the load, loudly proclaiming “No way!” Vyvyan then utters one of my favorite lines of dialogue from the series: “This calls for a very special blend of psychology and extreme violence.” Fooling a lecherous washing machine into thinking they have actress Felicity Kendall’s underwear, the four of them stuff their clothes into it, only to belatedly realize that they don’t have any money to put into it. Returning home, they vow to never wash their clothes again and become the dirtiest students in the whole world. When Mike comments “Hey, now there’s a challenge,” Neil suddenly remembers that the four of them have been selected to represent Scumbag College on the television game show University Challenge. Cue a mad dash to the railway station, with Motorhead providing incidental music. I won’t say any more about the episode. Trust me, if you haven’t seen the it, it’s well worth watching.
It might seem odd, at least to an American audience, that The Young Ones was so influential while only lasting a mere 12 episodes. But actually I think the British method of producing television, with shorter seasons, is a good one. I really think that too many American shows stretch their resources thin making 24 episodes a year. The end result is that you usually end up with several really good installments, a number of merely average ones, and at least a few stinkers. But if you have half that number, or less, the writers can really focus their energy on crafting several high-quality scripts, the various members of the production team can better allocate their time & resources into filming them, and the actors aren’t overworked. Looking at the run of The Young Ones, not a single one of the episodes is a dud.
It certainly is a shame that co-star and co-writer Rik Mayall died so young. Michelle posted a nice tribute to Mayall on her own blog. Looking at his work on The Young Ones, as well as other projects he was involved with over the years, it is apparent that he was extremely talented. Mayall had a genuine gift for comedy, delivering lines in just the right way, offering up the most insane facial expressions, and excelling in dynamically bizarre physical comedy. Yeah, I would go so far as to say that he was a genius.
If you aren’t familiar with The Young Ones, check it out. There are plenty of clips from the series posted on the internet, as well as the actors’ appearances in the 1980s reprising their roles elsewhere. For all twelve episodes, plus some informative extras, The Young Ones: Extra Stoopid Edition DVD set came out in 2007 and is still available.