Monday, June 9, 2014

R.I.P. Rik Mayall (7 March 1958 – 9 June 2014)


I’ve been obsessed with the death rate in professional wrestling since I was in college. That dates back 20 years. I think it was Eddie Gilbert, Brian Pillman and Louie Spicolli all dying within three years of each other and all between the ages of 27 and 35 that really made me pay attention. They were all favorites of mine. Many wrestlers had died young before them, but those three hit me pretty hard.

Nearly as saddening – and lately, perhaps even more so – are the premature deaths of comedians. As a teenager, even before the death of Eddie Gilbert in 1995, three great comics – Robin Harris (36), Sam Kinison (38) and Bill Hicks (32) – passed away in their prime.

By then I had already known about funny people who had previously died way too soon – Lenny Bruce (40), John Belushi (33), Andy Kaufman (35), Gilda Radner (42). Even Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle” was a mere 46 when he passed on.

The rest of the 90s saw the deaths of television and film comedians John Candy (43), Chris Farley (33), and Phil Hartman (49) then John Ritter (54) in 2003.

In the last ten years, stand-up comedy has been rocked by the deaths of some of the most talented and funny performers: Mitch Hedberg (37), Richard Jeni (49), Bernie Mac (50), Robert Schimmel (60), Greg Giraldo (44), Patrice O’Neal (41), John Pinette (50), and Otto Petersen (53).

Think of it this way: When Bob Hope and George Burns died (Both were 100), each of them was older than Hicks, Belushi and Farley combined. And right now, Carl Reiner (92) and Mel Brooks (87) have each lived more than twice as long as more than half of the aforementioned comedians.

When Otto Petersen died, I wanted to write a tribute on this blog. I had met him; he inspired some of my writing. I decided, however, that writing something for Otto here would have been self-serving. My personal connections to Otto? Who cared, really?

Then this morning, as I was driving to work, I got a text message from my sister, comedy critic extraordinaire Angie Frissore. It’s sort of become our thing: she texted me about Patrice dying; I texted her about Otto’s death.

Her text this morning was simple: Rik Mayall died.

The name Rik Mayall probably doesn’t ring too much of a bell for 21st century American comedy consumers (Some may know him strictly from starring with Phoebe Cates in the film Drop Dead Fred in 1991.), but to me, and many others, he was a comedy genius. Mayall was a co-creator, writer and star of such classic British comedies as The Young Ones, Filthy Rich & Catflap and Bottom, as well as the stage and television act The Dangerous Brothers. HarperCollins published his hilarious pseudo-autobiography Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ in 2006.

I remember when I first came upon Mayall’s comedy. It was quite by accident, as, when I was 14 or 15, MTV ran Monty Python’s Flying Circus every weeknight at 7 p.m. (In fact, this was around the time that another British comedy genius, Python’s Graham Chapman, passed away at 48.) MTV also ran Python at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights. That Monday was a holiday. So my parents allowed me to stay up late, and I somehow fell asleep watching Python. When I woke up it was about 10:45 and what I saw on the television blew me away. I will always remember hearing the line “Oh, great! The front door exploded!” in particular. The speaker of that line was Mayall, and the show was The Young Ones. I was instantly hooked, and I later videotaped all 12 episodes, watching them over and over again. At school, I began giving friends two fingers instead of just the middle one, a la Rik; I called everyone a “fascist” and used words like “bastard” (pronouncing it “BAH-stid”) and “Boomshanka.”

I later learned that Mayall, along with comedy partner Adrian Edmondson, starred in other fantastic comedies, including Filthy (Created by Ben Elton with Mayall playing Gertrude “Richie” Rich and Edmondson as Edward Didgeridoo Catflap) in 1987, and Bottom (Created by Mayall [playing Richard Richard] and Edmondson [playing Edward Elizabeth Hitler]) between 1991 and 1995. I grew to love Bottom even more so than Young Ones. Thanks to eBay, I later bought all of the live performances of Bottom on VHS.

Mayall stands in my mind as one of the greatest comedy geniuses that has ever been, comparable perhaps only to John Cleese in terms of British funnymen.

Now comes the self-serving part.

After publishing my first poetry chapbook Poetry is Dead, I immediately wanted to publish a second one. Unlike the first book, the title of which I pulled out of thin air on the spot, I knew what I wanted my second book to be called: Long Blue Boomerang.

Fans of The Young Ones might recognize this as a tribute to Mayall’s character “Rick,” a poet who fancied himself “The People’s Poet.”  In fact, I titled the first poem in LBB “The People’s Poet” –

I started calling myself
“The People’s Poet,”
like Rick from
The Young Ones,
only the “people” were
actually finger puppets
I made out of
construction paper,
and the “poetry”
just lines I took from
Dokken and Cinderella songs.

At the end of Long Blue Boomerang, I included the quote from Rick’s free-form poem from the episode titled “Flood”:

Rick, “The People’s Poet”: Marrow…Meringue…Boomerang…Long blue…

Vyvyan Basterd: Oh, shut up!

It made me both happy and sad to read a quote from Adrian Edmondson upon his friend’s death: "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."

To me a fantastic example of Mayall’s brilliant humor comes from his one and only tweet:

Or this autograph he sent to a fan:

So R.I.P., Rik Mayall. You left us way too soon. All I want to do now is break out my Young Ones and Bottom DVDs and watch all 30 episodes in one sitting.