British comedy legend Rik Mayall nearly died in the late nineties following a quad-bike accident that had him in a coma for days. Now he has actually died at 56, from causes as yet undetermined, and I'm seriously bummed out about it. Mayall's career profoundly influenced my love for physical comedy, and I'd just finished writing about part of it for an upcoming Birth.Movies.Death when the news hit.
Many of our readers will know Rik Mayall from Drop Dead Fred. Incredibly, I have never seen the movie that gave Mayall a cult following in the United States, but I understand it's much-loved by many people, and I will dutifully seek it out accordingly.
It is Mayall's television work that stand as his most iconic for me. Shows like The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents and Bottom were the comedy cornerstones of my early university career: my friends and I really hammered decade-old home-recorded VHS tapes of these shows and got a lot of big, dumb laughs out of them. These shows span the gamut between lowest common denominator pratfalls to sophisticated, surreal alternative comedy, often within the same scene. Mayall's influence is in there as a writer, but his performances take the words off the page and into the realm of kinetic, motormouthed, bug-eyed frenzy. He was theatrical and punk-rock in his comedy, twisting his face and gyrating his body to wring the maximum laughter from his silly, dirty jokes. In Bottom particularly, he must have put himself through physical hell - the slapstick in that show is up there with the Stooges. There is little more universally hilarious than falling on your bum-bum, a truth Rik Mayall proved time and time again.
Mayall's characters were rarely heroic. They were occasionally sympathetic, but more out of pity than likeability. More often than not, he played snivelling, naive dicks, given to stupidity, lechery, and pathetic narcissism. His The New Statesman character Alan B'stard was outright evil. Mayall was the best in the business at these kinds of guys. It's hard to divorce him from his characters: even his autobiography Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ is written in a similar voice, but it's unclear how much of that is the elusive private Rik or an elaborate comedy act. Many will remember him from his preening appearances as Lord Flashheart in Blackadder II or, my favourite, Blackadder Goes Forth:
He even had work that came to our own turf, Fantastic Fest. His rare dramatic turn in Errors of the Human Body was both unusual and oddly compelling. Director Eron Sheean indicated at the festival that Mayall seemed uncomfortable playing such a role, his flamboyant performance tendencies constantly creeping in around the edges and needing to be tamped down. It was that flamboyance - that sheer anarchic energy - that made Rik Mayall the performer he was.
Finally, some words from Adrian Edmondson, whose collaboration with Mayall spanned decades, from stand-up to cinema. Their work as a duo and amongst other comedians represents the kind of partnership any creative person would envy.
There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he's died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.