Jessi Klein on the Offbeat, Anarchic Humor of The Young Ones

Rik Mayall, Christopher Ryan, Nigel Planer, and Adrian Edmondson of The Young Ones. Photo: ©BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

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In 1982, when the United Kingdom was being strangled by the culturally conservative neck brace of Thatcherism, a jolt of comedic mayhem began broadcasting on BBC2, much to the delight of viewers desperate for entertainment defined by bawdiness and bad manners.

The Young Ones, which aired 12 episodes over a two-year span, followed the absurdist traditions of Monty Python and was geared toward a similarly disaffected youth. Picture a bizarro The Odd Couple, but instead of opposites Oscar and Felix sharing a semi-spacious apartment, you have a depressive hippie, a volatile punk rocker, a smug anarchist poser, and a shady money guy all crammed into a dilapidated dorm room at a place called Scumbag College.

Despite the manic, heightened performances from Nigel Planer, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, and Christopher Ryan (all staples of Britain’s alt-comedy scene), The Young Ones appeared to follow traditional sitcom beats: personal drama, comedy-of-errors mix-ups, wacky adventures, the whole nine. But the proceedings were punctuated by a violent surrealism. Talking rat puppets would suddenly be introduced, only to be smashed to death by a guitar. The fourth wall would shatter and transport the audience to a completely different cast of characters who had nothing to do with the show, or a live band would interrupt the taping with a set. Literal walls would also crumble, as characters would burst through the side of the house and continue a conversation as if that entrance was completely normal. It was total chaos.

The Young Ones eventually made its way across the pond to a small batch of American viewers thanks to a then-budding and struggling MTV, which briefly aired the series as part of its non–music video programming. A pair of those eyeballs belonged to writer (SNL, Kroll Show, Inside Amy Schumer) and actress (the voice of Big Mouth’s Jessi Glaser) Jessi Klein, who instantly gravitated toward the show’s anarchic, alien tone. While Klein admits that the The Young Ones might be too obscure for even the nerdiest of comedy nerds, its brief blip on her comedy radar is too enduring to ignore.

Now that Big Mouth — a series also celebrated for its lovingly loony sensibilities — has returned to Netflix for its second season (a season she promises will “dial up the very genuine teenage angst” of the first), Klein hopped on the phone with me to explain just why this overlooked British sitcom still holds a special place in her heart.

I hate to admit this, but The Young Ones is the first Underrated comedy selection that I’ve never even heard of.
I might’ve gone a little too deep cut. [Laughs.]

Luckily the entire first season is available on YouTube, so I got to witness this British bedlam before our interview. But for those like me who fancy themselves comedy fans but have never seen this show, could you explain what it’s about?
I’ll try. The Young Ones was this very silly, insane British TV show that I believe ran between 1982 and 1984 that’s about four roommates living together in total squalor. It was technically a multi-cam sitcom, but it really had this feeling of anarchy to it. Like, they would have bands randomly come on and there were puppets.

Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge, Fawlty Towers, and even Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace are usually the go-to British series you hear referenced as influential comedies. Why do you think The Young Ones remains so overlooked?
Honestly, I don’t even totally remember how I even had access to it. I think it did start to run on early MTV at some point, although my family didn’t have MTV. So I almost feel like it was on a UHF-type channel that came through the static or something, like it was beamed from another planet.

There was something about seeing The Young Ones against the backdrop of the sitcom landscape that was on at the time. There were a lot of really great sitcoms in the late ’80s, but everything was very clean and overly aspirational. There was Diff’rent Strokes and shows like that, where the norm was very much about functional families that at the end of the day, even if they squabbled, everyone eventually got along. So the filthiness of The Young Ones really appealed to me. This was four people just screaming all of their feelings at each other all the time, which I found kind of cathartic. There was a silliness and unexpectedness to it that felt very different than anything else I was watching. It was a little Marx Brothers-ish. The Marx Brothers were a really big influence on me, and this in some ways was an extension of that.

Is there a specific bit or recurring gag or character moment that really left a mark on your developing comedy brain?
I just loved that it was really fucking weird. The show is very silly, but I do think Rik Mayall, who was one of the creators and stars, had a really inspired combination of the put-upon, long-suffering guy who at the same time was also losing his shit all the time. I guess it says a lot about me and the feelings I related to as being put-upon and also wanting to freak out. It’s been quite some time since I watched it, but there’s one episode in particular I remember where the roommates were in the middle of some situational chaos but then the band Madness suddenly came on with their instruments and played during the middle of the show. It all just felt like, I don’t know what’s gonna happen on this show, and I’m really enjoying that feeling.

You’ve worked on many shows with similarly surreal tones, from Strangers With Candy to Kroll Show. Did any of the comedic DNA of The Young Ones find its way into the material you’ve helped create over the years?
It’s funny — there’s something about characters who felt free to say exactly how they were feeling without putting very much spin on it that I’ve always found very relatable. I always appreciated in a show when someone just outright says, “I’m sad,” which I do believe Amy Sedaris did in Strangers With Candy. Neil the hippie on Young Ones would often just directly emote about being depressed if I’m remembering correctly.

In the first episode he quite literally puts his head in the oven, Sylvia Plath–style.
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, that. That’s not necessarily how I would write that particular moment, but again, just seeing that on TV against the landscape of what was on at that time felt very wild and exciting. Mainly this unbridled expression of emotion on something that was technically a silly sitcom really tickled me.

There’s something about British absurdism and their comedic sensibilities that just seems way more radical than that of their American counterpart.
Yeah, I think something that British comedy has always done better is respond to a sense of comfort with extreme sarcasm and silliness. I’m not a certified comedy nerd in the way that others are — I certainly always loved comedy — but the degree to which Monty Python created something so inventive and insane, before anyone else, helped spawn a lot of this type of humor. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But when they nailed it, they nailed it.

How would you spread the gospel of The Young Ones to make it less underappreciated by this new generation of comedy fans?
The show still does stand out in my mind as something that’s really unique. It’s this little fossil that got buried in the world of comedy. I certainly think it’s not for everyone. But I think there’s stuff in it that really was genuinely inspired. It’s not easy, especially in a world where there’s so much content to choose from, to come up with something on TV that feels totally different and nothing like you have seen before at this point. People are definitely doing it, but now that there’s so much TV it’s getting harder and harder. The Young Ones is something that just takes a lot of chances and leans into being very off-the-wall before that was happening a ton.

Jessi Klein on the Offbeat, Anarchic Humor of The Young Ones