I can’t speak for his country of origin, but in America, you can tell a lot about a person if you know they’re a fan of Rik Mayall’s work. The actor and comedian, who passed away today at the age of 56, leaves behind an impressive body of work, the bulk of it for UK film and television — a sign that his comedy could be classified as “too British” for American audiences. Although my Anglophilia dictates that nothing can really be “too British” for my tastes, things that are massive across the pond — from most good ’90s Brit Pop (i.e., neither Oasis nor Blur’s “Song 2”) to Are You Being Served? — often confuse, annoy, or just miss the mark completely here. Save for maybe Monty Python and Mr. Bean, Americans have never fully embraced British comedy. That’s precisely why those of my countrymen who also embraced Mayall’s unique brand of madcap, often insane comedy are a special group within a group.
In retrospect, my first time glimpse of Mayall on screen was a fitting experience: when I was nine years old, my babysitter took me to see the film he’s probably best known for in the United States, Drop Dead Fred. It’s a film that features Mayall as imaginary friend Fred, telling dolls they’re going to die before ripping them apart, slicking boogers into Phoebe Cates’ mom’s (who he calls “the mega-bitch”) coffee, then looking up her dress and claiming to see nothing but cobwebs. To me and my high school-aged babysitter, the film was hilarious, but to most of the parents dragging their kids out of the theater before the movie’s half-hour mark, Mayall didn’t seem funny so much as disturbed.
But for me and most other fans, Mayall will first and forever be remembered as the poetry-writing anarchist on The Young Ones.
Roommates with a hippie, a punk, and a wannabe cool guy, Mayall’s Rick was usually the catalyst for whatever chaos ended up taking place during the episode. A self-proclaimed anarchist who was highly excitable, wired entirely wrong, and intolerably arrogant, Rick was usually the center of any scene he was in, and a perfect character for Mayall’s manic brand of comedic acting.
Later in his career, Mayall would go on to other British television roles, in shows like Blackadder and The New Statesman. He nearly had another flirtation with American audiences, after landing a small role in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but that was cut. He kept working even after a quad bike crash in 1998 left him in a coma for nearly a week. Yet when you watch Mayall, in any scene from his career, his eyes bulging or body wiggling almost to the point of convulsion, his ability as a physical comedian becomes instantly apparent. That’s what really set Mayall apart from most other comedians from England or anywhere else. Everything he did looked like it was on the edge of complete anarchy, but he pulled that chaos together into something that only a handful of truly great comedic talents have been able to create.