The comic was an innovator who shocked and amused audiences with his sheer physicality and onscreen anarchy
There is a moment in the Bottom episode “Parade” when Richie’s face fast-forwards through a five-second gauntlet of harrowing expressions. He has been holding court in a pub, relaying false tales of his time in the Falklands in a bid to impress the barmaid. Upon being caught out by a veteran who had actually served, Rik Mayall offers a succinct glimpse into the captivating mania that only he was so capable of. In the five seconds after being shown a service medal, his face tells a story of shame, guilt, nervousness, anxiety and arrogance. In Richie, Mayall took the loser and the liar in all of us and amplified it by a thousand. No one could do it quite like him.
Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, his lifelong writing partner, began their careers at London's famous Comedy Store, with an intention to reinvent British comedy, having grown tired of the old guard’s reliance on formulaic racism and misogyny. There, Mayall developed a character called Kevin Turvey, a typically pathetic personality – an awkward "investigative journalist" who still lived with his mother.
It was this persona that launched Mayall’s career and propelled him from comedy clubs to national television, when he was picked up by the BBC sketch show A Kick Up The Eighties. Although Mayall’s characters became more physically frenetic, Kevin Turvey was a foundation for everything Mayall would go on to satirise: the embittered, defensive, utterly dislikable man down on his luck. But devious and pathetic as his characters always were, Mayall was always totally impossible to stop watching.
In The Young Ones, Mayall played Rick, a self-styled anarchist, "people’s poet" and overall pseudo-radical. Whilst he may have been taking on the character of a politicised youth pretending, Mayall was defining a new wave of comedic punk IRL.
Violently slapstick, The Young Ones took the piss out of life as bottom-of-the-barrel students, allowing the liberal gang of comedians (Mayall, Edmondson, Alexei Sayle and Nigel Planer) to lampoon their own politics. Every caper was characterised by their complacent idiocy and absolute disregard for considered decision-making. The results were hilarious, gripping and completely uncomfortable – whether it was Rick boasting to people about staying up until 1am or the group being so hungry that Neil (Planer) is preparing meals of snow and pretending that it’s risotto.
The Young Ones didn't advertise a scummy student lifestyle – far from it – but it did humanise a demonised demographic. It's incredible to think that a group of punks and outsiders stole the hearts of a nation, even though they represented an underclass of selfish scroungers. They were barely alive human waste, the dregs of society – but their sheer desperation saw them embraced by Britain. Even with Thatcher in power, the economy unstable and the future uncertain, things could still be funny. They embodied a reluctance to give up and a determination to exist. It was this punk spirit that made them so lovable.
While the sitcom established Mayall as a genius of his generation, it was his work with Edmondson in 90s comedy Bottom that forever enshrined him in the annals of British comedy.
Inspired by their performance together in Waiting For Godot, Mayall and Edmondson played Richie and Eddie, two "friends" who share a squalid flat in Hammersmith and live a meagre life supported by the dole. They love and hate each other in equal measure but both are entirely dependent on the other and consequently inseparable – a formula for any poisonous relationship to prosper.
Richie is a shit: a pompous, arrogant, deceitful sexual deviant (who never gets laid). Mayall’s character sinks to the wild, savage depths of human personality, often plotting against his only friend Eddie for his own tiny gains. There are times in Bottom when Mayall appears so completely out of control that one critic described the sensation of watching him as “though he may come through the screen at any moment.”
Bottom is an exercise in comedic nihilism and Mayall ran the show teetering on the edge of insanity with his sheer physicality and facial contortions. Despite the toilet humour and chaotic slapstick, Bottom sits in a no man’s land between high and lowbrow; a contemporary Punch & Judy that operated on its own terms and did whatever it wanted, like any true punk.
Mayall’s performances always gave the impression of a man that could give no more, of a man so lost in a moment that there was no other option but to go with him. His was an act so steeped in physical chaos that you wondered if his career kept him fit – Mayall summoned reserves of strength that other comedians simply don’t need. It's likely that Mayall exaggerated his own spirit in front of the camera. Sometimes watching him appears so real that it's impossible to imagine that he couldn't have felt some of the things that his characters experienced. Tellingly, many of his personas' names were variations on "Rik".
He has died tragically early at the age of 56. His health had been in decline since a quad biking accident in 1998 that left him in a coma for five days. At the time, Mayall remarked that he’d “beaten Jesus Christ 5-3.” This week, Edmondson lamented his early departure, saying, “There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. Now he’s died for real, selfish bastard.”
Rik, there will truly never be another like you again. Amongst the tears of grief being shed, there will be many remembering the tears of laughter.