It can barely have escaped your attention that Rik Mayall, one-quarter of The Young Ones and a shining light of alternative comedy, has died suddenly at the age of 56. Yesterday saw an outpouring of grief online, with many of Mayall's former colleagues coming together to express their admiration.
Many of the obituaries have rightfully focussed on Mayall's long and successful career and the impact that he made on British comedy. The Young Ones broke the mould of what constituted a BBC sitcom, and even after 32 years it still feels fresh and dangerous. His appearances in Blackadder as the various incarnations of Lord Flasheart are among the funniest supporting roles in comedy history. With The New Statesman he helped to forge a new form of political satire, combining the razor-sharp wit of Yes, Minister with his own brand of pantomime violence. And in Bottom he and his long-time partner-in-crime Adrian Edmondson helped to take scatalogical humour to new heights.
At his best, Mayall was able to use seemingly low-brow forms of comedy to convey interesting insights into the human condition. It's no coincidence that he and Ade conceived of Bottom after appearing in Waiting for Godot on stage: it is essentially Samuel Beckett's play with knob gags, in which two blokes stand around, talking about everything and nothing, in a story with no real beginning or end. The string of self-titled characters he created are some of the best documents of failure and inadequacy in British culture, from the try-hard, right-on student to the sexually desperate, middle-aged loner. As skilled as he was at being brash or over-the-top, Mayall's talent as a social caricaturist is perhaps his greatest legacy.
There's any number of ways in which you could pay tribute to Mayall besides marathoning the shows I've mentioned here. I would recommend watching the Comedy Connections documentary about The New Statesman (which can be found here), and also checking out his brilliant voice work in The Wind in the Willows and The Willows in Winter. He is to my mind the definitive Toad of Toad Hall, and one of our greatest ever comedians. RIP.