In 1986, I discovered a weird, British show that was playing on Sunday nights on MTV. It was about a group of college students who shared a house together, although they seemed to hate each other, and the bizarre and nonsensical adventures that they found themselves in. The show made little sense, had great musical guests, and often ended without any resolution to the “plot-line.” It was called The Young Ones, and it became one of the most important influences on my life and work…
The Young Ones – BBC Video / Warner Home Video (2002)
Considered one of the first “punk” influenced shows to air on British television, The Young Ones was written by Rik Mayall (who plays “Rick” in the show), Ben Elton, and Lise Mayer, and was directed by Paul Jackson and Geoff Posner. It ran for two seasons, (the first in 1982, the second in 1984), and each season had six episodes—and yet with only 12 episodes in total, the show made a lasting impact, partially because of the brilliance of the nonsense, and partially because the actors who play the horrible, awful, nasty characters were so incredibly funny!
There were four regular “stars” of the show. The first, Rick, is a wanna-be, anarcho-punk poet who fancies himself a brilliant and charismatic leader of the underground movement, but in all actuality, he’s just a spoiled rich kid. Next is Vyvyan, the psychotic metal-head medical student, who spends most of his time torturing Rick (who definitely deserves it.) Another is Neil, the chronically depressed hippy, who does most of the cooking and “cleaning” around the house. And then there’s Mike, the slick conman and womanizer (who isn’t smart enough to be a conman or handsome enough to get any women.) Together, these four characters experience everything from being attacked by a vampire (from South Africa?) to traveling back in time to the medieval era to having their home invaded (on at least three occasions) by various psycho killers. Most of these stories aren’t followed to any kind of satisfactory resolution, but their premises become themes that are sometimes returned to as the craziness progresses.
Instead of straight plots, most episodes start with one of these weird premises, then various non-sequiturs interrupt the story—a puppet will start singing or a killer sock will crawl into the room or the camera will focus on a picture on the wall and then the story from the picture will unfold, or a band will show up and take over the scene. (Some great early 80s bands made guest appearance on The Young Ones, including Motorhead, Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners, Amazulu, The Damned, and (my favorite) Rip Rig + Panic!) Guest stars also popped up constantly, including Terry Jones (from Monty Python), Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson!
The show was full of bad puns, ridiculous visual jokes, Three Stooges style slapstick, constant references to pop culture, terrible puppets, the characters turning to the camera and addressing the audience directly, scenes where the actors broke character completely and point out that they’re on a television set, and weird little subliminal blips (which you could go back to with your VCR or, later, your DVD player, and watch in frame by frame mode, although they always ended up being some bit of nothing, like a fraction of a second from an old western or a bird flapping its wings…) The show was confusing and juvenile and often pointless, and absolutely brilliant. It’s true that other comedy shows, like Monty Python or The Muppets, had similar elements, but the tone of this show made it unique. The characters were awful to each other, the scenes are frequently cruel, but the violence is so silly that you can’t take it seriously, and the pace of the show was ridiculously fast, like Family Guy, but ten or fifteen years before Stewie’s first attempt to murder his mother.
Personally, I still find the show hilarious, even though I’ve seen each episode hundreds of times. (I wore out the VHS tapes that I had, and it’s lucky that DVDs don’t wear out as easily!) Some of the episodes, particularly “Bambi,” “Nasty,” and “Bomb,” are so funny that I can watch them over and over again. (I would tell you what they’re about, but it’s tough because they’re all over the place.) As a writer, I’ve been influenced by Mayall, Elton, and Mayer’s embrace of following a line of illogic to it’s absurd conclusion, no matter how far away from reality that might take you. The show may not be enjoyable to people who like a beginning, middle, and end in their stories, or for people who want at least one or two of the characters in their entertainment to be “likeable.” These folks are completely horrible, and that’s what makes the nasty things that happen to them so funny! Still brilliant, still uncomfortable, still unique. And (spoiler alert) they all get killed off in the end!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)