Once in every lifetime comes a show like this: a zany, preposterous, living cartoon, complete with gratuitous violence, self-reflective puppets, and random alt-rock music breaks. If you ever wondered what’s at the heart of Gen X—or anyone else with a weird sense of humor—look no further than the short-lived, early ’80s sitcom about four lovable-loser college students forever known to us as The Young Ones.
The show was the madhouse brainchild of Rik Mayall (a principal Young Ones writer, who played the character of Rik), while he and university pal Adrian Edmondson (psychopathic medical student Vyvyan) were sharpening their absurdist farce on the comedy circuit. Nigel Planer, who played the lanky, drippy, assuredly-tortured-in-each-episode hippy Neil, as well as Alexei “Balowski Family” Sayle (another series writer), were also well-known club comics. Comedic “straight guy” actor Christopher Ryan played the delusional ladies’ man who visibly repelled any woman he came in contact with. With creators Mayall, Ben Elton and Lise Mayer at the helm, the series launched on BBC Two 40 years ago on November 9, 1982, ending its two-season run on June 19, 1984.
Once MTV took off in 1981, it cracked open a fantastical world of new music and the artists behind it. MTV was truly all music videos back then, with a sprinkling of select programming about on-scene and art life (like Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, ’85-’87). This was also our British invasion, led by the likes of goth and new wave, introducing us to a whole new world of post-punk, pop synths, and a reinvention of our ‘70s favorites. (Think Paul Weller’s post-Jam Style Council.) It was a world where, in many homes, cable TV was relatively new and, even then, only on select televisions. You watched what came on—or you left the house to seek entertainment. For most of us, MTV was—quite literally—our only access to these worlds, outside British print import rags like Melody Maker, NME, and some other greats that were sometimes tough to get our hands on.
As with all cool British imports, by the time MTV aired The Young Ones in America in June 1985, the series had been officially over for one full year. I don’t think any of us knew nor cared. All we knew was we’d never seen anything like it—and never would again.
This was a pliable time for Gen X, now mostly in our easily influenced adolescent and teen years. None more than my childhood friend Vyvyan Howland, now a Massachusetts-based software engineer and mother of two. The girl that I knew as “Jill” changed her name legally at 18, inspired by Edmondson’s psycho-menace Young Ones persona.
“Since the time I was three, I said I was going to change my name. It was like this lifelong search for the right name. Then I saw The Young Ones, I loved Vyvyan…he was my favorite, right?” she tells me, clearly opting to leave out the character’s surname of “Basterd.” “It wasn’t until the gameshow episode where they showed the spelling of his name that I was like, ‘That’s my name. That’s what I was looking for.’ I had to wait ’till I turned 18, and then I went to court and got it changed.”
“Bambi,” Season 2, Episode 1, eventually finds the gang running—very late, while Motorhead appears singing “Ace of Spades” in the living room—for their chance to appear on the collegiate game show University Challenge, representing—naturally— Scumbag College. Their polar-opposite, high-end, snobby (fake) Footlights College opponents are played by Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and Ben Elton, with Robbie Coltrane playing the scientist who observes them under a microscope, eventually dropping a chocolate éclair on them and ending the episode.
The idea of being tied to this specific show for the rest of her life was thoroughly considered—and welcomed. “I loved his attitude,” she says of Vyvyan Basterd. “I loved that he was completely over the top, especially all the physical comedy with Rik.” She pauses and laughs, recalling that time Edmondson’s character decapitated himself on a train and then got in a fight with his own head. “I get this guy’s humor for sure,” she adds.
We all did—so what does that say about us?
No doubt, the jokes are dated in more ways than one, most notably Edmondson’s character’s flagrant homophobia, an odd ‘80s sitcom staple. Especially odd, looking back, at a group of characters who were mentally adolescent and essentially asexual. We did, however, expand our insult vocabulary in the most British way possible: “poo-faced git,” “farty breath,” “fascist bully boy,” and, of course, the enduring “bastard,” which has to be used a record amount of times for any TV show. Because of our age, and because the show depicted college students (all the actors were in their 20s and 30s), they were a younger replacement for all our more, oddly, high-brow Monty Python favorites, which, by then, Gen X had memorized episode by episode. If Monty Python raised us, Vyvyan, Rik, Neil, and Mike simply took over babysitting duties where John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones (who made a cameo on The Young Ones) left off.
It’s true that every single Young Ones episode was built on an impending disaster and, usually, someone getting hit over the head and falling on their face (mostly Rik and Neil). There’s that time that Rik accidentally kills Neil and buries him in the garden (with fertilizer, so several Neils come back to life), an atom bomb falls through their roof—and then some. Even when Vyvyan decapitates himself, has a fight with his own head, and punts it like a soccer ball, he plops it back on and trots off to University Challenge, unscathed.
As the show basically took place in the student’s living room, you could anticipate exactly where Vyvyan would pop his head through the wall by the obvious ultra low-budget design. There was nothing remotely real or threatening about this place.
And just when things are building to a frenzied peak, there’s the music. Lucky for us, they had great taste. Season One introduced us to Nine Below Zero, Rip Rig + Panic, Dexys Midnight Runners (covering Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said” in the bathroom), and Radical Posture, led by Alexei Sayle, singing the anthemic “Dr. Martens Boots.” Madness appeared twice: in the first season, singing “House of Fun” in a club; and in the second season, in the middle of a street riot, playing “Our House.”
Motorhead was the first act of Season Two, followed by Ken Bishop’s Nice Twelve—comprised of Squeeze’s Jools Holland and Chris Difford, the Police’s Stewart Copeland, and others. Amazulu and John Otway also performed, as well as the Damned, who, according to the 2018 documentary How The Young Ones Changed Comedy, allegedly reunited specifically to craft and sing the song “Nasty,” as the students attempt—and fail—to watch a porno.
If we know every episode by heart, it’s because there simply aren’t enough of them. The end is as final as final gets, with the boys quite literally driving off a cliff in a hijacked double-decker city bus that completely combusts. The Young Ones was over, but their careers were catapulting forward. Nigel Planer’s cover of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” (produced by Dave Stewart) reached No. 2 on the U.K. Singles Charts, and he’s still enjoying a thriving career in TV and theater. Young Ones cameo comedians Jennifer Saunders (who married Edmondson in 1985) and Dawn French launched Absolutely Fabulous in ’92 (Christopher Ryan had a reoccurring role). Edmondson and Mayall created the series Bottom (’91-’95) and brought so much hilarity to stage and screen through the years. Mayall, who passed away suddenly in 2014 at 56, will forever be known as a genius of British comedy.
Vyvyan Howland doesn’t think The Young Ones is as relatable to younger generations today. “Gen X relatable points: having no money right out of college, expecting to live with a bunch of people you don’t necessarily love, having no car, and having to go to the laundromat. Most younger people could never imagine living that way.”
So, then…how did The Young Ones shape us? Perhaps it’s embracing the absurdity in everyday situations, or soldiering on in the most catastrophic circumstances. Or maybe it’s just appreciating all things alternative—comedy, too. Amidst the many immortal words we’re left with are the opening theme lyrics, particularly the final verse:
The Young Ones
Shouldn’t be afraid
To live, love, there’s a song to be sung.
Cause we may not
Be The Young Ones