Bombast: Drop Dead Fred, Come Back Rik Mayall
The Young Ones
Last Monday, word went around that Rik Mayall, the English comedian, had died at the age of 56. He was buried yesterday. And while I’m not a great believer in the RIP industry and the chasing of hearses for content, once a week I fill this space with whatever is on my mind, and in this particular case, that something happens to be Rik Mayall.
Mayall was born in 1958 in Harlow, Essex, but raised in the West Midlands, an identification which would leave a deep impression on his comedy. In 1975, Mayall entered the University of Manchester, and there met future collaborators Ade Edmondson, Ben Elton, and Lise Mayer. Mayall and Edmondson began performing as a two-man act called 20th Century Coyote while still at university, and after graduation they gained a degree of infamy at London’s Comedy Store, where Mayall rolled out the characters that would soon make his name. (Such was the popularity of Mayall and other young comedians at the Comedy Store that they eventually broke away to create their own venue, The Comic Strip.)
Mayall made his first real impact on television by way of a character never widely known to American audiences, a shut-in Midlander named Kevin Turvey. On each episode of the sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties, which first aired on BBC2 in fall of 1981, Kevin would appear to deliver a digressive, stream-of-consciousness monologue in direct-address to “armchair Britain,” single takes infused with a nervous energy by Mayall’s fidgety presence, his slightly askance, lazy-eyed stare, and choppy done-over-the-sink-at-home haircut. These combined to give Kevin the air of not being quite all right, an impression furthered by his fixation on cornflakes and casual references to being sick on himself. Kevin’s monologues were labeled investigative reports, though his investigations never seem to take him much further afield that the Tesco in his native Redditch, and he would usually forget his topic before he even began, becoming flustered and distracted by niceties of language and wholly irrelevant details. Kevin’s topics included “Death,” “Nasty Little Sticky Things,” and, more than once “Sex” though, despite a hang-up on a local girl named Theresa Kelly, Kevin had seemingly never “done it,” per se—a quality that he shared with many a Mayall character in years to come, including “Richie” Richard in Bottom (1991-95).
The most celebrated of Mayall’s unfuckables was broadcast into British living rooms the following year with the debut of The Young Ones, written by Mayall, Elton, and Mayer. Set in a dilapidated student house that wobbles like it’s fit to blow over any second, The Young Ones concerns four undergraduates at Scumbag College, among them Edmondson’s pimply, human-wrecking-ball punker, Vyvyan, and a simpering self-proclaimed “People’s Poet” in New Waver togs named Rick, played by Mayall. Rick works himself into a state of near-constant spluttering indignation over such topics as South Africa and the pop singer Cliff Richard, whom he venerates, and preeningly vents his outrage by spitting frightful verse in a loathsome lisp. Mayall played Rick with a stoat-like overbite, reminiscent of that affected by Monty Python in their “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” skit, and in such a mercilessly shrill manner that you wanted to inflict grievous bodily harm on his person. (Later, Mayall would prove just as repellent as a right-winger. Through four series of The New Statesman he played conniving Conservative MP Alan B’Stard from Haltemprice, the archetypal Tory scum, and a posh sociopath to give Patrick Bateman or Gregory Crutwell in Naked a run for their money.)
The Young Ones
Among the various elements that made up The Young Ones’ obscene mulligatawny stew were frequent detours from the narrative proper, rather like Kevin Turvey’s random, useless footnotes. These included appearances by guest-act bands, noxious puppets, and standalone blackout skits. For example: in the first episode, “Demolition,” Vyvyan busts through a wall and stumbles into a grim, grave Eastern European domestic drama that resembles something from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse. Later, Rick switches on the television to watch a new young adult–oriented program called Nozin’ Aroun’, only to kick in the set in disgust when the host, a cheery twit in a Clash tee, starts sucking up to “very special guest Roland Percival, who’s Careers Officer at East London Poly,” a gray-haired establishment plant in a natty suit. The significance of this gesture is clear: unlike the Nozin’ Aroun’s of the world—programs that used the trappings of youth culture to perpetuate the status quo—The Young Ones was the real thing, a one-for-us moment when an identifiably counterculture comic sensibility overflowed into the view of the broader public, something like the how the debut of Saturday Night Live had been received by American viewers years earlier.
Mayall’s impact on U.K. comedy seems akin to kicking in the telly, but to approximate the point of view of armchair Britain in 1982 is outside the ken of my experience, and the reason that I was compelled to write about him is because his work has meant a great deal to me personally. Mayall entered my life sometime around 1991, when I was a preadolescent Anglophile—it’s a condition that it’s best to get through when you’re a kid, like Chicken Pox—and The Young Ones was part of the imported PBS slate of Britcoms that I indiscriminately lapped up, along with Blackadder (in which Mayall had a recurring role as Lord Flashheart and the descendants of his line), Red Dwarf, and quite anything else featuring an English accent, with the exception of Are You Being Served? (The particular yellow shade of Mr. Humphries’ teeth was just a little much to stomach.) And while I didn’t know it then, even my favorite American program at the time, Fox’s Get a Life, was indebted to The Young Ones—conceived after producer/director David Mirkin and star Chris Elliott had failed to launch a U.S. adaptation of the BBC show with the title Oh No, Not Them! (Get a Life, which also took great relish in periodically killing off its protagonist, brought some of The Young Ones’ nonsensical, non sequitur humor to the American sitcom, in the process connecting to a tradition of native comic surrealism at least as old as Million Dollar Legs and Hellzapoppin’.)
Whatever sense of humor that I have today, then, has been in some way shaped by Rik Mayall. The reason that I singled out 1991, however, is because that was the year of Drop Dead Fred, Mayall’s most noteworthy big screen role and, for about six to eight months, my favorite movie. (After making my mother rent Drop Dead Fred on something like a weekly basis during this period, UHF eventually regained the top slot.) It is a strange thing to, as a theoretically more discriminating adult, revisit the formative works of one’s childhood. These things, when encountered at a certain vulnerable age, write themselves onto the gray matter like initials in wet concrete. Practically every time that I refresh a page on my web browser, I hear in my head the “Reload!” from the video game Lethal Enforcers; every time I wash dishes I hear the “Dish washer” speech from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story… What, then, might repeated exposures to Drop Dead Fred have done to me?
As with all great children’s movies, Drop Dead Fred kicks off with a scene of sexual humiliation. Mousy Lizzie Cronin (Phoebe Cates) is trying to reconcile with her husband, Charles (Tim Matheson), a loathsome yuppie who runs a Jaguar dealership, and who has strayed into an affair. He rebuffs Lizzie, and this sends her into a tailspin which ends with her sleeping in her childhood bedroom at the stately, coldly perfect home of her overbearing mother (Marsha Mason). There Lizzie discovers a taped-shut jack-in-the-box which, when opened, spews out a bouncing ball of return-of-the-repressed Id, in the form of her nearly-forgotten girlhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Mayall). Fred is an overgrown 4-year-old, violent, needlessly destructive, abrasive, obnoxious, and with an orangutan’s sense of fun that tends towards booger-flicking and poo-flinging—in short, he’s everything that prim, deferent Lizzie is not. Fred’s all-around horridness extends to his appearance: he wears a variety of putrid, pupil-searing yellow-and-green ensembles, and has bright orange hair which is at one point done up in such a way that he resembles a lit match. (Fred can also pop his eyes out like a cartoon wolf, earning the dubious distinction of beating Jim Carrey’s The Mask to the live-action cartoon thing by a couple of years.)
Drop Dead Fred
The ’do also lends Fred a passing resemblance to John “Rotten” Lydon, and his therapeutic credo—“When something’s not working right, the best thing is to tear it apart to make it better”—is quite close to the “Rip it up and start again” of post-punk. Anarchist Hobbes to Lizzie’s Calvin, Fred reintroduces an element of chaos to her life, though his therapy contains more than a measure of abuse, as he manhandles her body in public so that she seems to have lost control of it. It’s a variation on the “Stop hitting yourself” routine so beloved of older siblings, and because no one but Lizzie can see Fred, to the outside observer she appears to be having a mental breakdown during these Tourette’s fits, or to be belligerently Drop Dead Drunk. The latter metaphorical reading is supported by the presence of Carrie Fisher, a very public recovering alcoholic, in the role of Lizzie’s friend—though this wasn’t picked up on by critics, including the Washington Post reviewer, who even thought to disparagingly compare Drop Dead Fred to 1950’s Harvey, which featured Jimmy Stewart as a tippling fantasist. (I should mention that Fisher’s character lives on a paddle-steamer houseboat in the Mississippi River, and that for some reason the movie takes place in Minneapolis.)
It seems possible that Drop Dead Fred was greenlit thanks to the success of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, which likewise features invisible nemeses wreaking havoc on snooty upper-middle-class cunts, or thanks to the brief popularity of the “acting out” subgenre (Home Alone, Problem Child). But Drop Dead Fred, which carries a PG-13 rating for swearing, sex, and scatology, isn’t one of those “Movies for kids that adults can enjoy too!” I’m actually not sure what demographic it was intended for, or if enjoyment even enters into the equation—this would be a Carmelo Bene production if Mayall’s performance were any more deliberately grating.
Drop Dead Fred
Un film de Ate de Jong, Drop Dead Fred is an unlikely candidate for auteur appreciation. Mayall’s is the personality that asserts itself most clearly upon the material—or, better to say, terrorizes it. A scan of the involved personnel reveals that the original story was written by a woman named Elizabeth Livingston, while the screenplay is credited to Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton, and none of the three have particularly robust bodies of work. (Fingleton, however, was a silver medalist for the backstroke in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and his autobiography Swimming Upstream, which apparently addresses his troubled relationship with his father while growing up in Australia, was made into a 2003 feature film of the same name directed by Russell Mulcahy.) As for de Jong, I must withhold comment until I’ve seen any of the 13 other feature films that the Dutch-born director has been credited with since 1976—1995’s All Men are Mortal, a Simone de Beauvoir adaptation starring Irene Jacob and co-written by Variety’s Steven Gaydos, certainly piqued my interest.
Talking of de Beauvoir, though, it’s worth wondering if Drop Dead Fred could be reclaimed for feminism, being as it is a story of female disobedience. The movie takes the form of a fractured fairy tale, featuring a pre-credits scene in which a young Lizzie rejects “Happily ever after” nostrums, responding to the ending of a bedtime story with “What a pile of shit!” (“She made me puke,” Fred later says of Cinderella. “I remember the ugly sisters, they were great!”) I’m not sure, though, how much scrutiny Drop Dead Fred’s gender politics would bear up under. In flashbacks we see that Lizzie’s mother, dubbed “megabeast” by Fred, is to blame for everything that subsequently went wrong in her daughter’s life, while Lizzie’s father is absolved for everything but his diffidence. (He’s an easygoing Englishman named Nigel, aligned by his accent to Fred, who plays the role of substitute father, this one able to stand up to mum.)
Drop Dead Fred
Drop Dead Fred currently owns a 5.7 User Rating on IMDb, although it is fondly enough recalled—or at least its premise is still regarded as being monetizable enough—to have spawned persistent rumors of a remake to star Russell Brand. (Who, in his current role of earnest, dissident deep-thinker, has something of the quality of People’s Poet Rik.) I will not make any inordinately grand claims for Drop Dead Fred, though having recently reviewed it on a 360p YouTube video, I can confirm that it more than works, and that Mayall’s performance, on top of being extravagantly unpleasant, is at times deeply touching. In the course of writing this, I realized that Drop Dead Fred’s release and subsequent reign as my favorite movie coincided almost perfectly with my own parents’ divorce, and that this is probably not unrelated to my fondness for the movie and my great feeling of warmth for Rik Mayall and his screen persona, so defiantly repellent. Though I never so much as saw Mayall in the flesh, I feel with his passing that I have lost a childhood friend, and so I offer a eulogy paraphrasing the words of Drop Dead Fred:
“GOODBYE FOREVER! I’M SORRY YOU DIED HORRIBLY!”