overthinking the idiot box

June 5, 2006

Anarchy in the UK

The Young Ones rips good taste (and comedy) a new one
by Jeff Stone

How does one describe The Young Ones? At its core it sounds like a fairly standard sitcom premise: four mismatched students share a house in London, each kid falling into a broad stereotype. Thereęs Nigel (Nigel Planer), the hippie, Vyvyan (Adrian Edmonson), the violent punk, Rik (Rik Mayall), the insufferable anarchist, and Mike (Christopher Ryan), the smooth-talking ladies man. But this was a show infused with the punk mentality and created and performed by Britainęs premier alternative comedians, and the result was a sitcom turned not just upside-down, but beaten savagely and ripped to shreds with a chainsaw.

Written by Mayall, Lise Mayer, and Ben Elton, The Young Ones premiered in Britain in 1982. Using Fawlty Towers as its template of a successful sitcom with unlikable characters, the writers based the four leads on characters they had known at university, and threw in healthy doses of cartoon-like violence and non-sequiter asides. Part of the –anything goes” attitude that permeated the show included regular musical guests, which the writers stuck in since variety shows were allowed bigger budgets. As a result, the boys might find that their trip to the train station would be scored by a live performance by Motorhead.

Vyvyan isnęt particularly interested in the money the oil will generate; heęs mostly looking for an excuse to hit Rik with a cricket bat.
I first discovered The Young Ones back in high school, playing at some ungodly hour on Comedy Central. It was the episode –Oil,” in which the boys strike oil in their basement and Mike sets up a fascist dictatorship in the house using Vyvyan as his muscle. Vyvyan isnęt particularly interested in the money the oil will generate; heęs mostly looking for an excuse to hit Rik with a cricket bat.

Certainly the show depended on a large amount of surrealism, but also wasnęt above making pop culture references. My favorite being when Vyvyan ducks in the closet during hide and go seek and winds up in Narnia. There were also pointed barbs at British television (including a sitcom called –Oh Crikey!”), and the show never passed up an opportunity to rail against the police or Margaret Thatcher. The showęs primary goal seemed to be to generate as many varied gags as possible in a singe 40-minutes stretch.

Naturally, if you throw this much material at an audience, not all of it will stick. Some gags, and even entire episodes, fall entirely flat. When things arenęt clicking, the frantic pace and over-the-top violence can be shrill to the point of monotony ® an endless string of shouts and pratfalls.

My goodness, Hugh Laurie! You're positively dapper!
But when it works, it works like gangbusters, most especially in the episodes –Flood” and –Bambi.” –Flood” not only includes the aforementioned Narnia gag, but also has Sayles interrupt the action for a half-time report, in which he grimly informs the audience that –The Young Ones” is being trashed in the ratings by the Swedish program, –Oop, Whereęs Me Volvo?” –Bambi” is an even bigger triumph, as the boys go on the University Challenge game show to compete against Scumbagęs rival, rich-kidsę school Footlights College. The Footlights team is played by familiar faces Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Young Ones head writer Ben Elton. Suffice to say, hilarity ensues, and the episode concludes with the boys being crushed by an enormous sticky bun dropped on them by a gigantic Robbie Coltrane. If thatęs not funny, I donęt know what is.

The DVDs contain all 12 episodes and have a few extras, including a couple of excerpts from larger comedy documentaries, as well as early short live performances by members of the cast. Also included are the first episodes of two other series featuring Young Ones cast members: Filthy Rich and Catflap and Bottom. Both episodes (and the series to which they belong) are hysterical, although neither can quite match the qualities of The Young Ones at its best.

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 18.