Rik Mayall, the English comedy legend best known for the TV shows “The Young Ones,” “The New Statesman” and “Bottom” as well as the film “Drop Dead Fred,” has died at age 56. Causes are not yet known.
Only the hippest (which is to say Anglophilic) Americans had much of a chance to know Mayall, likely through “The Young Ones,” which was picked up by MTV in the ’80s. Though the show featured four mismismatched roommates dwelling in a squalid home, it really took its restlessly absurdist energy from Mayall’s Rick, a sneering failed anarchist prone to spastic, temperamental outbursts but cowardly whenever confronted. It was here that Mayall’s style of violent, alternative comedy broke through to a mainstream that wasn’t always sure what hit them.
On the show and elsewhere, Mayall established a peerless gift for uncontainable energy that spouted forth like a blender with the lid off. The extremity of his style could be an acquired taste; despite being one of Mayall’s heroes, Spike Milligan despised his work, calling him “the arsehole of British comedy.”
Mayall made a brief volley for American crossover success with 1991’s “Drop Dead Fred,” playing the lunatic imaginary friend of a young woman (Phoebe Cates). Mayall did not temper his approach, playing the role as full-tilt obnoxious. Either way, audiences largely stayed home, not even getting the chance to be turned off or on.
He functioned better in his homeland anyway, and usually on TV. Apart from his legendary run on “The Young Ones” (see above for one of many best-of mash-ups), he reunited with the show’s co-star Adrian Edmondson for the very popular show “Bottom.” And he made numerous guest appearances, briefly stealing the likes of “Blackadder,” on which he played the cartoonishly swaggering Lord Flashheart, he of the pelvic thrusts.
Perhaps even better was his turn as Alan B’stard, the ultra-right-wing monster in the Thatcher-era show “The New Statesman.” There he fully gave himself over to evil, embodying every deplorable conservative impulse and then some more, including murder. It was the rude, blustering evil twin of the posh and tasteful “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” and Mayall’s performance remains one of the great forces of nature on television.
Details of his passing will be released soon.
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