The programme revolved around four undergraduate students sharing a house: violent punk rocker Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson), pompous anarchist Rick (Rik Mayall), long-suffering hippie Neil (Nigel Planer), and the mysterious and diminutive Mike (Christopher Ryan). It also featured Alexei Sayle, who played the quartet's landlord, Jerzei Balowski, and other members of the Balowski family.
The show combined traditional sitcom style with violent slapstick, non sequitur plot-turns and surrealism. These older styles were mixed with the working and lower-middle class attitudes of the growing 1980s alternative comedy boom, in which all the principal performers except Ryan had been involved.
Although the series was set in North London, many external scenes were filmed in Bristol. All four characters attended the fictional Scumbag College, although they were never seen attending the institution and were rarely seen studying.
The show was voted #31 in the BBC's Best Sitcom poll in 2004.
As The Comedy Store became popular, Sayle, 20th Century Coyote and The Outer Limits, with French and Saunders and Arnold Brown, set up their own club called The Comic Strip in a nearby Soho strip club. The Comic Strip became one of the most popular comedy venues in London, and came to the attention of Jeremy Isaacs of Channel 4. Peter Richardson then negotiated a deal for six self-contained half-hour films, using the group as comedy actors rather than stand-up performers.
The first of this series, The Comic Strip Presents..., was on Channel 4 on 2 November 1982. In response, the BBC began negotiations with Edmondson, Mayall, Richardson, Planer and Sayle to star in a sitcom in a similar style. Paul Jackson was installed as a producer.
The series was written by Mayall with his girlfriend Lise Mayer, and with Ben Elton (who had attended Manchester University with Mayall and Edmondson). Richardson was originally set to play Mike, but clashed with Jackson. He was replaced by Christopher Ryan, the only member of the group who wasn't a stand-up comedian.
When it was first broadcast, the show gained attention for violent slapstick. Though new to mainstream audiences, Mayall and Edmondson had been using it in 20th Century Coyote for some time. The show also featured surreal elements, such as puppets playing talking animals or objects. Confusion was added with lengthy cutaways to scenarios not involved in the main plot.
Episodes in the second series sometimes included "flash frames" (three frames, equivalent to 1/8 of a second), but these were edited out of some repeats. These were included as a mockery of the British and American public's fear of subliminal messages in television and music. Unlike original flash frames, which lasted only one frame, these were long enough to be noticeable without actually being identifiable. The images included the end caption of Carry On Cowboy, a rusty dripping tap, a leaping frog, a dove in flight, a skier, and a hand making pottery.
In 1984, after the second season, Planer (in character as Neil) reached No. 2 in the UK charts with a version of Traffic's "Hole In My Shoe". The accompanying Neil's Heavy Concept Album, a loose collection of songs and spoken comedy, included appearances by Young Ones alumni Dawn French and Stephen Fry.
Most episodes had a musical guest performing in the house or street. By including the groups, the show qualified as variety rather than light entertainment with the BBC and was allocated a bigger budget than a sitcom. This helped introduce several British bands to American viewers, such as Dexys Midnight Runners, Motörhead, and Madness. The latter appeared in two episodes; they were under consideration for a Monkees-style show at the time.
|1||Demolition||Nine Below Zero||"Eleven Plus Eleven"|
|2||Oil||Radical Posture (with Alexei Sayle)||"Dr. Martens Boots"|
|3||Boring||Madness||"House of Fun"|
|4||Bomb||Dexys Midnight Runners||"Jackie Wilson Said"|
|5||Interesting||Rip, Rig and Panic (with Neneh Cherry)||"You're My Kind Of Climate"|
|1||Bambi||Motörhead||"Ace of Spades"|
|2||Cash||Ken Bishop's Nice Twelve||"Subterranean Homesick Blues"|
|6||Summer Holiday||John Otway||"Body Talk"|
Neil is pessimistic and believes everyone and everything hates him, which is mostly true, though he does have some friends, two hippys, one also named Neil and one named Warlock. He dislikes technology except for videos and speaks out for Vegetable Rights and Peace. He is a chronic insomniac, believing that "sleep gives you cancer".
Neil wants the others to feel sorry for him, or just acknowledge his presence. His attention-seeking ranges from repeatedly banging himself on the head with a frying pan to attempting suicide. He claims "the most interesting thing that ever happens to me is sneezing".
In the second series his parents - who appear in the episode "Sick" - are revealed to be upper-middle class. They are conservative Tories who look down on Neil for starring in such a disreputable comedy series.
Neil also says 'heavy' frequently.
Rick is a hypocritical, tantrum-throwing attention-seeker who loves Cliff Richard. Rick tries to impress the others with his non-existent wit, talent and humour. He verbally insults and often physically assaults Neil at every opportunity. He fights and bickers with Vyvyan and attempts to impress Mike.
Rick is a vegetarian, agnostic and wishes all men to love each other like brothers. However, he rarely does anything that can be attributed to brotherly love.
Rick is portrayed as unlikeable and so self-absorbed that he believes he is the "most popular member of the flat" even though his housemates hate him. Vyvyan describes Rick's name as being spelled "with a silent P". Despite the fact that the other members dislike and disregard Rick, he is heard to say that they "really are terrific friends". Believing himself the 'People's Poet' or the "spokesperson for a generation", Rick exaggerates or lies about his political activism and class background and is exposed in the final episode "Summer Holiday", when it is suggested he comes from an upper class, Conservative background. He seems to also be a closet transvestite, as Neil found a dress in Rick's closet with his own name stitched on it in the episode "Nasty".
Rick perceives himself as an anarchist, fond of ideals produced by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky and states his interest in them in several episodes. He claims to dislike Margaret Thatcher, as is noted by his efforts threatening to blow up England with a bomb in the episode "Bomb" if she doesn't do something "to help the kids, by this afternoon." This is also noticed in "The Young Ones Book," first published by Sphere Books, wherein negative references are made to Thatcher and the Conservative Party.
Rick speaks loudly and cannot pronounce his "r"s sometimes.
Vyvyan owns a yellow Ford Anglia, with red flames painted along the sides, and a Glaswegian hamster named Special Patrol Group ("SPG" for short) which he is very fond of, although SPG is also frequently subjected to Vyvyan's extreme violence. His mother is a barmaid and former shoplifter, who before "Boring" had not seen Vyvyan in ten years and has no idea who his father is.
Vyvyan displays feats of inhuman strength on occasion (moving entire walls with his bare hands, lifting Neil above his head in a fight with Rick, biting through a brick and even being decapitated and re-attaching his own head), surviving a pick-axe through the head, and eats just about anything; televisions, dead rats, caviar and cornflakes with ketchup.
Despite being a homicidal maniac, Vyvyan seems quite sociable and creative; In one episode ("Flood"), he has developed his own potion to transform a person into an axe-wielding homicidal maniac (he claims "it's basically a cure...for not being an axe-wielding homicidal maniac...the potential market's enormous!"). He has more friends than the others but apparently "he doesn't like any of them." He frequently causes havoc or damage such as wiring the doorbell to a bomb and adding a 289 CID Ford V-8 engine to the vacuum cleaner which proceeds to suck up the carpet, the floorboards and a friend of Neil's (the vacuum also prompted one of the few clashes between Vyvyan and Mike; when Mike admonished Vyv not to use it anymore, Vyv replied by calling him a "poof"). Disturbingly, Vyvyan also appears to be the only member of the group with a driving licence.
He frequently utters confusing, profound-sounding phrases which baffle the others (for example, when asked by Rick if he stole his apple, Mike replies "Well, if you're gonna sin you might as well be original."). Mike is supposedly the ladies' man of the bunch and brags about his prowess with women, although he is eventually forced to admit his virginity to the others in "Nasty." Though he is a virgin, as are the rest of the housemates, he makes every attempt at wooing the opposite sex, being quite forward and unsuccessful.
A con artist, he always has some kind of plan to make quick money such as renting out Rick's bedroom as a roller disco and soliciting bids for the unexploded atom bomb that fell into the house. Mike attends Scumbag College only nominally as he has blackmailed his tutor and the Dean of the school for grants and apparently passing grades. In "Summer Holiday" he muses "I think I'll ask for one of those Ph.D.s next year."
While Mike often does things at the expense or detriment of his housemates, he rarely expresses the sort of open hostility that the others do, and seems to cause them trouble only when it benefits him, rather than out of sadistic joy. He has, however, managed to nail his own legs to a table, and knocked Neil out during a game of cricket, albeit unintentionally. We only see violence inflicted on him twice (at the end of the "Living Doll" video, when Vyvyan knocks him unconscious with a hammer and in "Summer Holiday", when Neil transforms into the Incredible Hulk, who picks up Mike and throws him to the ground, however it turns out it was only Neil's imagination).
In the second series, Sayle's characters also included a train driver, a Mussolini look-alike (by day the head of the local police force, by night an entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest), and "Harry the Bastard" (manager of the local Rumbelows store, disguised as a South African vampire).
Mike is the natural "leader" of the house. Always trying to make himself appear more important and exciting than he really is, he does appear to have done some of the things he claims to have done (such as getting Bambi the "Babycham" commercial in "Bambi"). He experiences little hostility from the other members of the house. If there is any "fruitful" or amicable relationship in the house it is between Mike and Vyvyan. Vyvyan accepts Mike's role as the house leader whereas Mike needs Vyvyan's physique and willingness to act forcibly to enforce his own authority.
Neil is the second least liked of the four, although he is the only one who performs any kind of household chores and is therefore needed by the other three.
Rick is the least liked. Rick thinks very highly of himself. He tells poor jokes and stories (but finds them hilarious himself), is a would-be anarchist (although deep-down he is quite conservative) and frequently acts like a child when he doesn't get his way. He generally vents his frustration (when trying to impress the others) on Neil, since Neil never sticks up for himself and is ignored by the others. However, on the one occasion that Neil looked as if he was going to retaliate, Rick fled. The majority of his anger is generated in endless battles with Vyvyan, which he invariably loses.
In the final episode, the four students steal a red AEC Routemaster after robbing a bank, only to drive it through a billboard with a picture of Cliff Richard on it and then over a cliff, exploding into flames at the bottom of a quarry.
At the 1986 Comic Relief stage show they performed the song live (following a short skit which involved Rick doing a comic song about showing his underwear and bodily parts, before being ejected from the group by Mike, and Vyvyan supposedly having backstage sex with Kate Bush with Neil as his contraceptive). The skit climaxed with Neil claiming Cliff Richard could not perform with them and John Craven had been booked as a replacement, only for Cliff Richard himself to appear on stage.
Mayall, Planer and Edmondson reunited in 1986 for the Elton-written Filthy Rich & Catflap. The series had many of the same characteristics as The Young Ones as did Mayall and Edmondson's next sitcom Bottom. Ryan, for his part, was regularly recruited to play roles on associated series (such as Happy Families, Bottom and Absolutely Fabulous).
DVD releases have been somewhat basic: only the U.S. "Every Stoopid Episode" edition featured documentaries and no extra footage was included. Musical references proved difficult to clear so "The Sound of Silence" (one line) and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" were excised from the U.S. editions. A "bloopers" tape made for the amusement of cast and crew has, according to a BBC employee, gone missing from the BBC archives.
A new DVD release of all episodes ("Extra Stoopid Edition") was launched in November, 2007, containing new documentaries and two commentary tracks (pilot and final episodes only). This edition restores the line from "The Sound of Silence" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues," but is missing other scenes, most notably the brief shot of two teddy bears copulating on Rick's bed in "Nasty."
In 1986 MTV bought half the episodes to run on their cable systems during 1987.
Mayall and Edmondson elaborated on some of the series' concepts later in their sitcoms Filthy Rich & Catflap (written by Elton, with additional material by Mayall) and Bottom (written by Mayall and Edmondson).
Most of the regular cast (and several of the guests) also appeared in Channel 4 and BBC2's comedy films, The Comic Strip Presents. All four main actors have since gained reputations as dramatic, as well as comic, actors.