Remembering Rik Mayall, Britain's Finest Comic Firecracker
An enormously influential performer in the UK, Mayall's humor often seemed to play to the lowest common denominator but belied a worldly view of his home country's social dynamics.
Rik Mayall, an irrepressible British comedy legend who was an equal master of brutally intense physical comedy and wry class satire, died at the tragically young age of 56 today of unspecified causes. An enormously influential performer across the pond, Mayall's humor often seemed to play to the lowest common denominator but belied a worldly view of his home country's social dynamics. To Americans, he's probably known best as the star of cult comedy Drop Dead Fred, but there's so much of Mayall worth celebrating today.
The Young Ones
Mayall and his comedy partner Adrian Edmonson came up together in college and became writing and acting partners, performing live in Manchester and then London and meeting other up-and-coming comedy luminaries like Ben Elton. One of his earliest characters developed into Rick, the self-important anarchist of The Young Ones, a groundbreaking BBC sitcom that ran for twelve episodes in 1982 and 1984.
The Young One was a vibrant, intense mix of crazy slapstick and agitprop mockery about a bunch of "Scumbag University" students living in a squalid flat. It featured Edmonson as violent punk Vyvyan, Nigel Planer's hippie Neil, Christopher Ryan's shady Mike and a deep ensemble of guest appearance by recognizable faces. Like all the best British sitcoms, it burned brightly and quickly and left an indelible mark. Mayall's manic energy was its biggest propellant, but his Rick was just as funny for his own internal delusions as his incredible pratfalls. It was also one of the first non-music things broadcast on MTV in 1985, giving it a cult following in the States.
Mayall only appeared in three episodes of enduring British history sitcom Blackadder, and only twice as the obnoxious Lord Flashheart, but it might be the role he's best-remembered for in the UK—many of the in memoriam tweets that followed the news of his death mentioned the character. In both the Elizabethan and World War One iterations of Flashheart, Mayall is a destructive force who whirls into the episode causing havoc. His work in the fourth season, where Flashheart is an egotistical flying ace, is especially memorable. "My God!" Hugh Laurie's character screams as he enters the bunker. "Yes, I suppose I am," Mayall retorts.
The New Statesman
Mayall's post-Young Ones work included a couple of mid-'80s sitcoms, Filthy Rich & Catflap and Hardwicke House, that didn't hit with audiences; the latter was canceled after two episodes because of the overwhelmingly negative reception. His next big hit was 1987's The New Statesman, a political satire created by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran and Mayall's most significant contribution that didn't involve his comedy partner Edmonson. He played Alan B'Stard, a seething, evil, uber-priviliged Conservative Party MP who resorted to everything, including murder, to get what he wanted, was in a loveless marriage with an equally sociopathic woman, and was convinced his penchant for premature ejaculation was a sign of sexual prowess. Even though the series was painfully acrid, it was a big hit, debuting at a perfect time as the Thatcher government began to lose steam and airing 26 episodes and three specials over seven years.
Probably the purest distillation of Mayall and Edmonson's comedy partnership was slapstick sitcom Bottom, which they developed as a baser, more twisted and violent take on Waiting for Godot after performing that play on the West End. Bottom is plotless and borderline avant-garde: Mayall is a man named Richie Richard, Edmonson is his flatmate Eddie Hitler, and the two live in squalor and largely assault each other. The BBC rejected a fourth season but the show endured as a stage show and a grueling, peculiar movie called Guest House Paradiso. It's one of those demented British things that perplexes as much as it hypnotizes.
Drop Dead Fred
Mayall's biggest incursion into the U.S. came with this cult 1991 film, a perfect use of his talent. He was the title character, an imaginary friend to the buttoned-down Phoebe Cates, who returns in her adult life to cheer her up but only causes more chaos. It was slammed by critics but gained enough of a following for its dark themes and depiction of mental illness. It was almost remade with Russell Brand, but luckily that idea seems to have died down.
Mayall continued to work through a horrifying 1998 quad bike accident that almost killed him, doing a lot of voice work in his later career and filming scenes as Peeves the Poltergeist that were sadly cut from the first Harry Potter movie. His last major role will be as a willfully insane dad in UK sitcom Man Down—a tragic reminder of his irrepressible energy.