In this weekly column, I’ll introduce you to the world of British comedy in the chronology of how I, an American anglophile, discovered it in my life. This week: The Young Ones.
I had my first cigarette when I was 13. I also snuck my first beer that same year. But way more formative, and certainly more badass, is the fact I was 13 when I saw my first Young Ones episode. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
As the wooly-minded innocence of youth was being shorn away by the impinging horrors of adulthood, I was primed and ready to embrace something radical. Something ugly, foul, chaotic and brilliant. And that’s exactly what I found in The Young Ones, a show that has had more influence on me than almost any other piece of entertainment. In fact, the name of this very column is a reference to the show itself.
Debuting on BBC2 in 1982 and running for two, six episode series, The Young Ones brought Britain’s alternative comedy revolution to television in a major way. Gone was the relevance of dad’s Benny Hill Show, never to return.
The Young Ones revolved around four rotten students at Scumbag College, living together in a filthy, run-down house. Each character resembled an archetype of the time; there was Rik, the twitchy, anarchic poet (played by Rik Mayall), Viv, the nihilistic and violent punk (played by Adrian Edmundson), Neil, the fully-baked, lentil loving hippie (played by Nigel Planer), Mike the, “cool one,” (played by Christopher Ryan) and Jerzy Balowski, the bizarre, monologuing landlord (played by Alexei Sayle).
Trying to explain the plot of a Young Ones episode is like trying to herd a pack of with-it teens into a taping of Nozin’ Aroun’: damned near impossible!
The free-flowing, seemingly stream of conscious narratives would gleefully follow long non-sequitur tangents into hilarious dead-ends and often featured strange jump-cuts, “subliminal” images woven into the edit and musical numbers featuring emerging bands of the time (Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Motorhead to name a few!). In a lot of ways, The Young Ones was sort of The Monkees for creeps.
A comedic indictment of everything and everybody, The Young Ones was a truly meta show, at once representing their school-aged audience’s frustration with the world, while skewering their apathy and self-righteous indignation at the same time. None more so than Rik, whose faux-proletarian stance and awful poetry for the people, was sharply contrasted by his implied upper middle-class background. He was the most abrasive and reviled character in the show, and rightly so.
Rik as, The People’s Poet:
The Young Ones could easily just be labeled a, “cult classic,” but that would be an injustice. The show was so much more important than that. It stood, and still stands as a grotesque edifice of rebellion against the comedic norm. A sleazy tribute to anyone who’s ever snuck into a party full of swells and let loose a secret fart that cleared the room.
Modern absurdist greats like The State, The Upright Citizens Brigade and Tim and Eric share a lot of comedic DNA with and owe a tip of the cap to The Young Ones, who helped pave the way for wild alternative comedy on television (The Young Ones was one of the first non-music programs in the early days of MTV).
Despite its dangerous and disgusting nature, there was a time I would have gladly lived in that house with those nasty bastards.
I don’t smoke anymore, and I barely drink, but if the Young Ones comes on, I watch it.
I leave you with some best-of moments from the show…
Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He’s written for The Onion, MTV’s Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.