What I learned from Rik Mayall | Dave Cohen on a personal inspiration...

What I learned from Rik Mayall

Dave Cohen on a personal inspiration...

It's been difficult over the last two or three days to avoid the tributes to Rik Mayall, just about everybody I know in comedy has either commented on the Rik they knew, or the Rik that inspired them to do comedy. Is there anything more to be said?

Maybe not, but every week I write a blog asking what we can learn about how to make a living about comedy, and Rik Mayall was one of the first people to educate me. So here are a few random thoughts of mine, about what we can learn from Rik.

Learn From Everywhere And Everything

I wrote about Rik and Ade in my book, and how seeing their 1979 Edinburgh Fringe show Death On The Toilet was my moment of epiphany. It was theatre, it had comedy, cruelty and jokes, lots and lots of jokes. There had never been anything like it on the Fringe and it's no exaggeration to say that it was the template for so much future comedy.

In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that almost the entire body of comedy that has appeared live, on radio and TV since the early 1980s can be traced back to just two people: Alexei Sayle and Rik.

Rik and I became friends during that 1979 Edinburgh, meeting every day in the Moray House pub and talking about our shared interests: punk, the writer Flann O'Brien and of course live comedy. But I also learned a hell of a lot from Rik about Samuel Beckett. I'd never thought of him as anything to do with comedy but Beckett's bleak, tragi-comic world view would become the backdrop to much of Rik and Ade's best work over the next 20 years.

Be Nice To People

Having foregone the chance to join the Manchester gang down at the Comedy Store in 1979, I didn't move to London until 1983, by which time Rik was already a huge star. But that didn't make him unapproachable. He was one of the few people I knew in London when I moved, and it didn't do any harm that he was working at what I wanted to be doing.

He was always happy to meet up and talk about ideas, even though he was busy making TV history while I was starting out as an open spot at the Earth Exchange. I even remember one time, Rik was in the middle of recording series 2 of The Young Ones, but still met me in the pub one evening - complete with Rick-style dreadlocks, that he was having to wear the whole time. This was also the first time I saw what fame close-up looked like - people coming up every couple of minutes and practically mobbing him. And he stayed polite and amusing with them, the whole time.

Don’t Think That Knowing Someone Who Becomes Famous Will Help You In Any Way

This happens from time to time, someone you used to hang out with, or used to watch dying horribly on stage in some crappy pub in south London, becomes a comedy superstar. It may even be you. I arrived in London kind of aware that I wasn't about to sell a script off the back of knowing Rik, but once I became a working comic and writer there were a couple of projects that I attempted to get made hoping to receive his endorsement.

One was a comedy and cartoon magazine (in the days when Viz was still only available in Newcastle), and he helped us develop the mag (he came up with the title, 'Lies') even though he was the most in-demand performer of the moment. Rik was kind and helpful and put me in touch with several good people, but even at the time I felt uneasy about it, and should probably have left him alone.

Do What Instinctively Feels Right To You

Perhaps it was something to do with achieving so much success, so young, on his own terms, but Rik studiously avoided the circuit of panel shows and talk fests that have become the mortgage-paying staple for today's stand-ups. That's not to say he couldn't have done them, or that they are intrinsically bad to do, but these appearances can compromise how a performer is seen by his audience.

'Theatre’

Although this was one of his most famous piss-take poems, Rik's love of theatre was part of what drove his career. It remains something we British do very well, and the audience sitcom (at which he was the master) is its comedic relation. It's funny how The Young Ones, which so successfully blew away a generation of comedy cobwebs, helped to revive the audience sitcom as a valid form. It pleased me that on the night of Rik's death I was able to watch the very funny Badults, a Young Ones sitcom for the 21st century from the majestic Pappy's Fun Club.

Keep Laughing

Rik was the first comedy superstar of my generation. We were born in the same year, he was involved in comedy as long as I have been but there the similarity ends. I'm still struggling to believe that Rik is no longer with us. And Addison Creswell, and Felix Dexter. I'm getting used to my generation, my age group, being there one day and not the next.

I could at this point drift off into a wistful melancholia and pronounce on our fleeting mortality, and how even the greatest among us are reduced to a few paragraphs in yesterday's paper. Instead I'm preferring to remember Death On The Toilet, and Kevin Turvey, and Rick, and the guy who pretended to be a feminist to get off with chicks, and Richie and Alan B'Stard and Colin from Bad News on the phone to his mum. Thanks Rik, you may no longer be here, but you're still making me laugh.

Published: 12 Jun 2014

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