A comedy hero of mine died this week.
I know all of the reasons that this kind of thing sounds absurd and why a celebrity death SHOULDN’T feel like an old friend died. I know it shouldn’t feel like a part of who I’ve been up to this point has floated away into some other sky and I won’t ever hold onto it again. I know that this sort of thing shouldn’t knock the wind out of me. I know that.
But Rik Mayall suddenly died yesterday at the age of 56. I grew up laughing at his jokes before I ever knew that they were rude or stupid or devilishly clever. And it feels like an old friend died and a piece of me that I will never hold onto again has floated away into some other sky, and the wind has been knocked out of me.
Rik Mayall was not a household name in the United States. Here, he is probably best known as “that guy from Drop Dead Fred.” And even though I unquestioningly love that movie, it’s kind of a shame that it stops there for most people. (I will say though that the scene where he’s laying on the ground trying to convince Snotface not to take another pill is some of his best and most touching acting.) It saddens me that so many of my friends don’t know how insanely, stupidly funny he was. They got a taste of it in “Fred,” but if you haven’t seen his work in The Young Ones and Bottom and Guest House Paradiso and Blackadder… You’re just plain missing out. You’re missing out on a guy who said some really rude things. Some insanely funny, stupid things. And some really, really smart things. He could make you laugh with high comedy and low comedy in the same beat. He could make political jokes live on the same page as fart jokes and treat both with the same imagination. That’s a gift.
Rik started out (and largely STAYED) as an “alternative comic” in England, cutting his teeth with the likes of The Comic Strip alongside lifetime BFF Ade Edmondson. He moved on to The Young Ones (also alongside Ade), which used to play super-late at night on MTV when I was a kid. I remember wanting to watch it because my brother was into it, and my mom thinking it was stupid and/or inappropriate. To this day I’ve kept an old VHS tape that has a couple episodes on it, despite the fact that I don’t have a VCR in the house anymore and the fact that I’ve got the whole series (TWICE) on DVD. I just can’t throw it out. On that show, Rik, Ade, and the other main cast members (Christopher Ryan, Nigel Planer, and Alexei Sayle) rubbed shoulders with people who’d go on to be British comedy and American drama royalty. In one episode (“Bambi,” from which the post title is taken) they sit on a panel across from Ben Elton, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie…and ran around causing mayhem while Motorhead played in their living-room.
Rik had an extensive career including appearances on several British hits like the aforementioned Bottom and Blackadder. He even had a brief foray into English heavy metal playing the somewhat disinterested, if not completely inept, Colin Grigson in the parody band Bad News. (AKA – “That band that was Spinal Tap before Christopher Guest thought of it…”) At every step along the way, he was prepared to look like a complete jackass to make people smile.
Rik’s career took a downward turn following a quad-bike accident in 1998. His wife looked out onto the lawn one day and Rik was on the ground. The quad-bike was still moving and Rik wasn’t. At first she thought he was kidding–it was his type of humor. He wasn’t kidding. He was in a coma. For five days. He claimed to have been clinically dead for a while, stating that he was dead for five days, beating Jesus’ record of three by two whole days. (His joke, not mine.) When he rose again, he had a smattering of good roles, but he was mostly just happy to be alive, exchanging gifts with his wife and children on the anniversary of the accident in the years that followed. He was just glad to still be around. His fans were glad of that as well. We didn’t want to lose him. Sixteen years later, we STILL didn’t want to lose him. But we did. And it sucked.
Ade Edmondson wrote of his friend, “There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he’s died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.” Thanks Ade. Needed the laugh.
Rik was irreverent. He was anarchic. He was insane. He was hilarious. But by all accounts I’ve ever read, he was also incredibly kind to those who approached him. He would smile and talk with fans–not a lot of people do that. He put on a tough front. His one and only tweet, published in 2010, almost appropriately reads, “Opening my very own Twitter to stop another bastard from doing it. So fuck off & don’t expect to hear from me any time soon. Love Rik x.” But when it counted, he could be quite lovely. After hearing about Rik’s death, Hugh “Fucking HOUSE” Laurie tweeted this:
And that’s Rik. A complete bastard with a heart of gold.
We’ll miss you, Rik. But if you come back in SIX days this time, just to break your own record, we’ll never forgive you.