Cliff Richard had a rough week. On Wednesday, Morrissey cancelled his American tour in which Sir Cliff had secured the opening slot. A day earlier, Rik Mayall, who had played a Cliff Richard-loving student activist in The Young Ones—its title and theme song paying ironic homage to the British pop-star—died of a heart attack at 56 after a morning jog.
The uninitiated get a sense of Mayall’s humor by reading his autobiography, or at least the title: Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ. The funnyman, in a coma for five days after a 1998 four-wheeling accident on Holy Thursday, often invoked the similarities between his and Christ’s resurrection for comedic effect—just as he crossed taboos to use the German anti-Christ to elicit laughs.
Children of the ’80s knew Rik Mayall best as “Rick,” a pain-in-the-ass, high-strung, left-wing poseur in The Young Ones, which MTV picked up after its 12-episode BBC2 run.
“God, this stuff is so reactionary,” Rick spiritedly exclaims upon reading a comic book. “Why can’t they show us some real heroes?” Rick fogs out into a fantasy in which his poetry combats comic book villains. “Ha! Ha! Ha! You gay black bastards!” two goonish British bobbies tell kids minding their own business. “We’re going to victimize you!” Rick, in his guise as the rhapsodizing superhero the “People’s Poet,” knocks back the establishment evildoers with biting verse.
The depiction of real-life good guys as cartoonish villains, the heroic self-perception, the faith in words to right wrongs all perfectly capture the infantile mindset of radicals lacking responsibility. More so than the miserable Meathead, Rick parodied as much as played the grating voice of moralizing youth. “Neil, are these lentils South African?” he angrily asks his unthreatening hippie roommate. “You bastard. You complete and utter bastard. Why don’t you just go out and become a policeman? Become a pig!”
Whereas The Young Ones chronicled the unproductive lives of students sponging off their parents and grants, Bottom traced very similar characters in the next stage of life as they lived off the dole without ambition or gainful employment. The series reunited Mayall with Adrian Edmondson as “Richard Richard” and “Eddie Hitler.” As with The Young Ones, viewers loved a show about despicable characters.
After parodying an annoying idealist in The Young Ones, the welfare state in Bottom, and a soulless parliamentarian as Allan B’stard in The New Statesman, Mayall entered the political fray in a more direct way by appearing as Adolf Hitler in a commercial opposing a unified currency. “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein euro,” Mayall’s fuhrer shouts. He breaks character and tells viewers in English: “Euro? Oh yes, please.” He explained to the Sunday Times that he lampooned the drive to abolish the pound because he was “not a joiner.”
Mayall’s comedy occasionally intersected with politics; his life, less so. He wasn’t trying to convert anyone to this or that party. He aimed to provoke amusement, which he usually did. The laughter didn’t stem from ideological solidarity. It came because he was hilarious. Comedy served as the alpha and omega of his act, not means to some so-serious end as it does with Michael Moore, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, and so many other humorless humorists.
In The Young Ones, when the anti-heroes drive their bus through a Cliff Richard billboard and off a cliff, and in Bottom, when a government hit squad murders Richard Richard and Eddie Hitler after they attempt to blackmail the prime minister with a sex tape obtained while looting, Mayall grasped the show-biz rule of ending in style.
As Mayall’s real death came on the week of the 2014 World Cup, his fans have put an appropriate exclamation point on his life by pushing into the British top-ten an obscure soccer anthem featuring Mayall reciting Shakespeare’s Henry V to inspire the English team. Should he hit #1, it strangely won’t be the first time. In 1986, Mayall and The Young Ones roommates joined forces with Cliff Richard—good sport he—to redo “Living Doll” for Comic Relief.
Mayall’s death leaving an appreciative audience wanting so much more has fans recalling the last line of his breakthrough show’s theme song: “we may not be the young ones very long.” The death of a good friend, even a pixelated one, makes us feel our age.
Good comedians make us laugh. Then they make us cry.