It is very difficult to imagine a world without Rik Mayall in it. A staple of the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, his untimely death at the age of 56 in June 2014 led to an outpouring of tributes for the ‘comic genius’. Although such a phrase is often used in the death of a well-known figure, is it an accurate label for the energetic and confident performer that Rik Mayall was?
Born in Essex in 1958, Rik Mayall was the son of drama teachers. In 1975, he began studying drama at The University of Manchester, where he met his comedy partner, Ade Edmondson. This would prove to be a very successful meeting, with Mayall performing his best known and most highly regarded comedy with Edmondson over the following decades.
Mayall and Edmondson began their comedy careers in a double act at The Comedy Store in London, performing as the Dangerous Brothers. Mayall also performed solo as a variety of characters, including amateur reporter Kevin Turvey, and anarchist poet Rik, a character who would become a staple of his comedy performances. The great enthusiasm and energy of both Mayall and Edmondson was apparent, which was all aided by a great self-confidence from Mayall in his performance. If he was ever nervous, he never showed it.
Television came calling, and Rik Mayall co-wrote and starred in BBC sitcom The Young Ones, depicting four students, all with vastly different personalities, living together. The first series was broadcast in 1982, and a second in 1984, becoming a massive hit. Mayall played anarchist poet Rik studying sociology, the character he had played on stage, whilst Edmondson played punk Vyvyan. They lived with hippy Neil, played by Nigel Planner, and cool guy Mike, played by Christopher Ryan.
As the Dangerous Brothers, the appeal of Rik Mayall was limited to those seeing him in stand-up, but with The Young Ones becoming a hit, Mayall was thrust into the limelight. His character Rik lost none of his confidence or self-indulgence during the transition from stage to television. The appeal of alternative comedy was now vast, thanks to the far reaching appeal of The Young Ones, with Mayall right at the centre of it. As with everything he did, Mayall was often regarded as the best part of it.
As well as appearing with Edmondson and a variety of other alternative comedians in episodes of The Comic Strip Presents on Channel 4, Mayall also appeared in several episodes of comedy series Blackadder, as the over-the-top and flamboyant Flashheart, often stealing the show from the more famous comedians and actors with whom he was performing. Not easy to do when appearing alongside a murderers’ row of the era’s elite comedians, including Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.
In 1987, Mayall played Tory MP Alan B’Stard in four series of The New Statesman, lampooning the Conservative government of the 1980s. This was a perfect opportunity for Mayall to showcase his comedy talents, not just in the way he would move and use slapstick, but in how he could use emphasis in his lines to produce a very funny, but ultimately an awful character. The show was very successful, winning around critics and repeatedly holding high viewing figures. Away from Edmondson, and away from his traditional slapstick, Mayall still manages to ooze confidence in his performance.
In 1991, Mayall and Edmondson came up with one of their greatest creations, writing and starring in three series of Bottom for the BBC. Following the lives of Richie and Eddie, unemployed housemates living in Hammersmith, Bottom featured their trademark use of slapstick violence, and became a cult hit, spawning several live shows and a film, Guest House Paradiso, starring Simon Pegg in one of his early film roles.
Comedy snobbery may have been prevalent, with certain opinions that slapstick humour and juvenile phrases aren’t funny. After all, this is a duo that named their television series Bottom. However, alternative comedy has been shown to range greatly, from Mayall and Edmondson as the Dangerous Brothers, to Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton with their political comedy. Mayall and Edmondson are certainly not regarded as any less significant when looking back at the alternative comedy boom of the 1980s. Although they would joke that they would only play one character with different names in their comedy careers, it is apparent that these comedy characters didn’t fail them in their years of performing.
The clique of comedians being depressed in their personal lives, and using their performances to hide it, does not seem to be true for Rik Mayall. He was often ‘performing’ when he was himself, which can be seen in outtakes from Bottom when Mayall continues to make faces behind the back of Edmondson between shots, or in his improvising skills during interviews. He never stopped being funny, even when he was out of character.
The curse of the comedy duo, that double acts often break up and lose their relationship, also doesn’t seem apparent with Mayall and Edmondson. Although both stopped working together, they continued to work separately and their personal relationship never ended, continuing to remain friends until Mayall’s untimely passing.
Rik Mayall was many things to many people; comedian, actor, writer, anarchist, funny, political, clever and silly. Regardless of anyone’s personal thoughts on him, it cannot be denied that his comedy paved the way for alternative comedians of the future, and his role as a cultural icon will not be disappearing anytime soon. Rik Mayall was a very, very funny man.
Comedy genius? I think so.