It’s only right that I ended up living somewhere in the former British empire, as one of the key warp engines on my young American mind was British comedy. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits,” the Beatles and rare Dandy comics, Adrian Mole and Peter Sellers – all these things I mainlined under sunny California skies.
But for me, my first love will always be “The Young Ones.” I spent the weekend re-watching the entire series for the first time in ages, and its wacky, ugly and surreal comedy still holds up. The punk-rock anarchy of “The Young Ones” combines the rude genius of the Pythons with classic sitcom tropes and a Looney Tunes-style madness that still makes it shocking today.
Rik, Vyvyan, Neil and even comparatively dull Mike were my Beatles of comedy. Like the best British shows, it knew when to quit – 12 episodes and that’s it, and with the late, great Rik Mayall leaving us way too soon in 2014, there’ll never be another.
“The Young Ones” for teens in the US was like a secret treasure, airing on MTV in the dark of the night around 1985. Screaming punks, snotty anarchists, soiled hippies – What the hell was this? The sheer surrealism of the show blew the mind of us California high-school kids. Objects might start talking, the scene might abruptly shift to the middle ages or a Rat Pack TV show. Anarchy!, as Rik would shout. One of my all-time favourite moments is “Elephant Head” in the episode “Summer Holiday” – the 11-second cameo makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and to my 14-year-old mind watching MTV in the ‘80s, that’s what made it totally brilliant.
“The Young Ones” could be stunningly gross (nobody who’s seen the “Sick” episode and its cure for Neil’s sneezing fits can ever forget it) and scathingly harsh about British politics. The recurring gags about racist British cops are funny, but admittedly a punchline like “Sorry, I thought you was a n*****” doesn’t hold up so well today. The violence may be a bit much for some, but I can’t help but crack up every time Vyvyan whacks Rik in the head with a blunt object. And there’s more catchphrases than one can safely repeat in one lifetime in the show’s 12 episodes (my go-to is “Cor, that looked just like a negative reality inversion, didn’t it?”)
Several times, episodes build up with plots involving things like axe murderers or vampires or marauding medieval peasants only to abruptly draw curtain on the episode. Nothing really matters, the ‘madcap adventures’ can be waved off and the show will restart as normal the next episode. There’s something very existential about these damned housemates, trapped in their greasy grey pigsty and never changing, being squashed by a giant eclair in one episode and back for more in the next.
The funny bits of “The Young Ones” when I was 14 are still funny, but the bits that sting even more today for me are the ones that wail and cackle endlessly into an uncertain void and make me wonder if Vyvyan smashing everything around him to bits had the right idea. That’s life, innit?