To Americans in the 1980s trying to understand the ways of British punk rock, few characters were more influential than comedian Rik Mayall, who died on Sunday in London. Mayall played the spastic anarchist named Rick in the short-lived but influential BBC sitcom "The Young Ones," where he traded barbs and butted heads with his three roommates – a hippie, a red-headed punk and a football-loving ladies' man.
The show featured typically raucous British humor and ridiculous scenarios. Its four characters were "The Odd Couple" doubled: a quartet who shared little in common but a roof and utility bills. Each character was memorable in his own way, but Mayall as Rick was a truly singular creation. He fancied himself both an anarchist and a poet, and with those two traits the actor gave explosive performances.
One highlight: While strapped to a cross affixed to a building, Rick offered the following poem:
House, house, house
Ooh, you're made of stone
But you're not alone, house
I am here.
Elsewhere the acrimony among the quartet was filled with venom. When during one episode Rick fills his mouth with pills in an over-the-top suicide attempt, the hippie, Neil, asks punk rocker Vivian, "Can you kill yourself with laxative pills?" Vivian's reply? "I don't know, Neil, but I'm going to stay and find out."
Stateside, though, "The Young Ones" was notable for another reason. After it concluded its 12-episode run in England, a fledgling MTV signalled a new programming path when it started airing the show in 1985. Prior to doing so, the station was focused primarily on music programming; "The Young Ones" appealed to music fans and featured guest performances at the end of shows, but it was a sitcom, not a music show.
Its success on MTV made Mayall a cult celebrity in America and proved a portent. "The Young Ones" paved the way for MTV to further experiment with non-music-video programming.
"The Young Ones" did, however, offer some seminal music moments among its dozen episodes. Motorhead did a searing version of "Ace of Spades." Madness performed – and threatened to beat Rick up in the plot. Dexy's Midnight Runners, hot on the success of their hit "Come On, Eileen," presented their cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."
And in a wild, wonderful breakout performance, a young Neneh Cherry burst into America's consciousness for the first time when she performed with her early band Rip, Rig + Panic.
In England, Mayall continued his comic success with shows including "Bottom" and "The Comic Book Presents." In the latter, Mayall jumped from punk to heavy metal as a member of the pre-Spinal Tap band Bad News, a parody group that released music, including a wildly funny take on Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (produced by Queen's Brian May).