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Beloved pioneer of British alt comedy, Rik Mayall, has died today at the age of 56. Known primarily for his role as Rick the anarchist poet on the BBC2 sitcom The Young Ones, and later as a spastic imaginary friend in the American comedy film Drop Dead Fred, Mayall's boundless energy and kinetic facial expressions influenced generations of comedians who came up watching him on TV, and earned him praise from the English humor aristocracy that came before him.
"Very sad to hear of the passing of Rik Mayall," Monty Python's Eric Idle tweeted this morning. "Far too young. A very funny and talented man."
Mayall and his Young Ones co-creators modeled their groundbreaking comedy in part around Monty Python's Flying Circus, creating a surreal comedy landscape that frequently trampled the laws of physics, time and British etiquette. Centered around the four part ensemble of a depressed hippie, sadistic punk-rocker, shrewd capitalist, and Mayall's Thatcher-hating, clueless revolutionary all living as roommates while attending “Scumbag College,” the show found a devoted audience in London's burgeoning alternative comedy scene.
Only running for two short, six-episode seasons from 1982-84, The Young Ones was later picked up by MTV in 1985, presumably due to the live music performances from bands like Motorhead, Madness, The Damned or Dexys Midnight Runners contained in each episode.
The Young Ones cast originally met and gained a following performing at The Comedy Store (London), where Mayall and Adrian Edmondson (who would go onto play Young Ones' violent, skull pierced Vyvyan) first developed their comedy duo, The Dangerous Brothers, who would go on to be banned from Saturday Live — the UK's version of SNL — for being “too violent, too sexy,” only to stage a protest in the studio parking lot where they blew up a car.
Following The Young Ones, Mayall and Edmondson continued performing together over the next twenty years, delivering their kinetically violent style of slapstick in TV shows such as Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, Filthy, Rich and Catflap, and Bottom.
Aside from starring in a handful of early Nintendo ads, Mayall is best known to American audiences for his 1991 performance as the snot-flicking, dog-poo dancing, Johnny Rotten doppleganger in Drop Dead Fred. A mostly non-political version of his explosive Young Ones character, Drop Dead Fred was the intractable imaginary friend of a young girl who, after growing up, reencounters Fred as an adult and has her life torn to pieces by this ADD ball of destruction.
Mayall's comedic style of hyper physicality could be lazily compared to icons of silliness like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Though while Carrey and Williams would often employ goofy voices and manic-monkey expressions in their act, Mayall's brand of wide-eyed intensity often carried a recognizable context — whether directly lampooning the self-important motives of underground leftists in Young Ones, or embodying the I-can't-sit-still intoxication of childhood in Drop Dead Fred.