A Day with Rik Mayall

Rik Mayall was my age. Well, a year older, but close enough.

Like most American comedy geeks, I first saw Mayall when MTV aired The Young Ones in the mid-80s. Loud, brash, violent, absurd, The Young Ones was unlike any other Britcom shown in the States. It became an instant hit, inspiring MTV to also air The Comic Strip Presents, short films featuring Mayall’s generation: Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, and Mayall’s longtime partner, Adrian Edmondson.

They were the children of Python; of Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, and Rutland Weekend Television. They were the next wave, stripped down, frenetic, untidy. They remade and, for a time, defined English comedy. They set the stage for those who followed – Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Eddie Izzard, and Russell Brand.

The success of The Young Ones naturally led Mayall to seek greater American exposure. When I met him in July 1990, Mayall was working on two films: Drop Dead Fred and Little Noises. Mirabella magazine assigned me to interview Mayall on the set of the latter project.

I arrived at the Hoboken location just after Mayall had finished a take. He quickly greeted me, flashing his trademark mad smile.

“I’ve got to do it again. Do you mind? It shouldn’t be long.”

Of course I didn’t mind. It was a treat watching him work up close. Mayall nailed the take. The set broke for dinner, and we walked to a corner pub to talk.

I ordered a Heineken. Mayall ordered a Bud, which surprised me.

“Why would you drink that?” I genuinely asked.

“Because to me, it’s imported beer. Do you know how much Budweiser costs in London?”

As we settled in, Mayall became low-key and expansive. He spoke at length about his career, his style of humor (subverting racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes a key part of it), and how he was perceived by the tabloid press.

We discussed politics, what it was like to live under Margaret Thatcher, the target of so many Young Ones rants. Mayall wasn’t as animated as his on-screen persona, but shared a similar disdain.

He was fascinated with American comics Steven Wright and Emo Phillips. “I could take just one of their jokes and turn it into a show,” he said. “All that imagery so tightly packed. It’s amazing.”

Mayall talked briefly about Little Noises, but he thought Drop Dead Fred would be his breakthrough role. Still, he confessed being a bit in awe of the American comedy market. “It’s so big compared to where I’m from.”

After a couple of beers, Mayall invited me to eat with him on set. There we were joined by his co-star Crispin Glover, who had macrobiotic food delivered from Manhattan.

Glover was soft spoken, intense, and extremely polite. He and Mayall seemed an odd pairing, but it was clear that they forged a decent chemistry.

We ended up debating the films of Stanley Kubrick. Glover tried to convince me that Barry Lyndon was Kubrick’s masterpiece, but I held out for Dr. Strangelove, which Mayall also championed.

Barry Lyndon is a beautiful movie,” I conceded, “but I can’t get past Ryan O’Neal as the lead.”

Mayall and Glover immediately shushed me. They looked around for O’Neal’s daughter Tatum, who also appeared in their film.

“No need to go down that road,” said Mayall, smiling. Glover nodded in agreement.

Mayall walked me off the set, shook my hand, and winked. “Now go make me famous.”

I did my best. Mirabella loved the profile and was ready to run it when Drop Dead Fred premiered. The reviews were tepid, in some cases bad. My editor phoned to say that she was dropping the piece.

I sent a note of apology to Mayall, telling him I remained a fan despite the reviews. I never heard back from him. He seemed to do fine without me.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

A Day with Rik Mayall