RIP Rik Mayall of The Young Ones fame
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
Rik Mayall passed away this month. Most folks under 40 in the U.S. probably have no clue who he was. (Aside from obsessive Black Adder fans or those familiar with the truly awful 1991 film Drop Dead Fred -- shot right here in Minneapolis.) However, if you were of a certain age, he was your gateway into alternative culture.
American television in the '80s was a lot different than it is now. For one thing, it was a lot more white and a lot more middle class. You didn't see a lot of images of alt culture -- well, at least not on TV that didn't start with M. When alt peeked through it was a moment of excitement. I could show my parents and say, "See it's not just me, lots of people have big spiky hair." Not that it ever really helped me all that much.
There was the WKRP in Cincinnati punk rock episode in 1978, and the infamous 1982 punk episode of Quincy in which America's favorite medical examiner revealed the dangers of slam dancing. There's the New Wave character Johnny Slash on the 1982 show Square Pegs, and the 1987 after-school special The Day My Kid Went Punk, which starred Jay Underwood, AKA Johnny Storm in the horrendous Roger Corman Fantastic Four film. None of these were ongoing concerns, but just one-shots that fell in and out of the TV universe. And then, from the epicenter of '80s youth culture came The Young Ones.
Almost Dadaesque in its absurdity -- with random musical interludes, cuts to talking flies, dancing food, the cartoon violence, or the subliminal cut ins -- The Young Ones was a relatable, wacky show you could connect to. We could spot aspects of ourselves in each of the characters, while at the same time spotting our friends in it as well. It was sort of like The Breakfast Club -- minus the morals and any of the girls.
The Young Ones was all about archetypes of the characters. Rick (Rik Mayall) was the anarchist, Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) the hardcore punk, Neil (Nigel Planer) the hippie, and Mike (Christopher Ryan) the cool one. In reality, Rick was a total poseur. He was Daffy Duck as an anarchist with no grip on reality and his favorite musician was Cliff Richard -- or as I like to think of him, the super-boring Elvis of Britain. Vyv was all the meathead of what was mostly a boy's club rolled into one testosterone-fueled rant, with orange hair and spikes in his forehead. Last was Mike -- arguably the least cool of the quartet, and an eerily '70s throwback with no discernable tribe except that everyone knew a guy sort of like him. The one that that got everyone else to do their bidding, not to mention the first to unleash a custard in any pie fight.
I learned how traditional families worked by watching TV. In many ways I was raised by Andy Griffith, and to a lesser extent Gomez Addams -- though you had to take his fatherly advice with a diabetic killing dose of salt. My parents traveled a lot -- for two to three weeks a month. That might seem like every teenager's fantasy, but it's sort of less than ideal; after all, nothing grows really well in a vacuum. I was in Fridley, which is like the Gary, Indiana of Minneapolis suburbs, only minus the charm. It's also a place not known for its strong punk roots. Add to that I went to Totino Grace, where I became the first male student affected by odd-colored hair bans. So yeah, I got that going for me.
If you can imagine learning how to speak English only by reading it, you are naturally going to mispronounce a lot of words. Ditto learning to be a person by watching TV; you're going to be a little off. A lot of TV at that time, at least the reruns I watched, was the representation of our ideal self. Not like the current self-deprecating Soul Train dance of fart jokes and people with the last name Kardashian. It's hard to slack when your dad was Andy Griffith, Eddie's father, the Father that Knew Best, and the Beaver's pop. That's a lot of father figures to do right by.
That level of traditional dad media was what made The Young Ones such a breath of fresh air. It was irreverent, smart, and funny, like the Marx Brothers, only with a better record collection. It was also a regular show that gave you a skewed look into a culture so different than what any kid in suburban U.S. anywhere would ever understand. It felt authentic, in spite of it not being authentic at all.
It was also the place to see the bands that MTV wouldn't play. For all the people who think of that time as the golden age, the station still played an awful lot of Journey and Huey Lewis. The Young Ones gave us Motörhead, the Damned and bands that were inaccessible to most Midwestern teenagers. It gave us even crazier Madness, Amazulu, weird alien sounds that couldn't help but have some mad influence on virgin ears. Just watch part of this video of Rip Rig and Panic from the show. It's a world away from the Dead Kennedy'd/Black Flagged world.
We learn by observing. Watch what the other guy does, then adapt and make it our own, even if it's by taking it in a completely opposite direction. The Young Ones was a smorgasbord of alt culture and showed that it didn't have to take itself so seriously, which was a revelation. Honestly, what teenager doesn't think that their subculture is the absolute most important cultural revolution ever? Don't believe me? Try talking to any tweenaged girl about how much One Direction sucks.
Comedy can show us things that drama can't; it shows us the absurdities and illusions that we sort of gloss over just to get through the day. Comedy is just drama in another gear after all. Which would maybe make this high drama with a broken transmission. Rik Mayall never quite got his due in the U.S., a cult icon that maybe made him a sort of the "Wreckless Eric of Comedy." When you could find it, it was always worth experiencing. That is, if you could find it.
To quote his poem about Cliff Richards, from The Young Ones.
"Sometimes it must be difficult, not to feel as if
"You really are a cliff
"When fascists keeping trying to push you over it
"Are they the lemmings, or are you Cliff?
"Or are you, Cliff?"
RIP people's poet.
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