Dead from the Bottom Up

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

For NME, 12th October 1991

Ten years after The Young Ones, Rik Mayall is busy selling toilet humour to Americans in Drop Dead Fred, where he plays, oddly enough, an annoying twat in the mould of, erm, Rick from The Young Ones. Plus ça change exclaims Roger Morton

“They gave me a limo to come here, and the guy driving it said he’d just been driving Mel Gibson around and he was saying he just didn’t have any privacy or private life. If that’s what being a big film star means, then I don’t want that. I don’t want to be taken away from my audience and I don’t want to have to think each film would be so important. Plus, you’d spend your whole life being interviewed and doing chat shows.”

Rik Mayall is a busy man these days. America has fallen for the bogey routine and Rik’s star is on the rise. In its first week of release the almost star vehicle for Mayall, Drop Dead Fred, went to Number Six in the US movie charts. It stayed in the Top 30 for 15 weeks. For an eccentric, British produced, American written film whose under-12 kiddy appeal relies largely on the charm of a little known Brit actor flicking bogies, smashing windows and looking up girl’s skirts, this is quite an achievement.

The signs are that Mayall is posed on the toilet brim between grubby British comedy certainties and the scary but luxuriant shagpile expanses of Tracey Ullman-style US fame. At home he and Comic Strip partner Adrian Edmondson have enough pulling power to stage a humour-highlighted West End production of Waiting For Godot, coppying the idea from a New York production that featured Steve Martin and Robin Williams. They also have the current Young-Ones-meets-thirtysomething TV series Bottom up and running. But for Mayall the offers are coming in from the States. Which way will he swing?

“It’s nice to go to America to make a film ’cause the actual process is fun and it’s a chance to explore myself a bit,” says Mayall. “But it was never a burning ambition. I never wanted to go and ‘crack America’, like Cliff tried to… and didn’t.

“It would take an awful lot for me to go back. It’s got nothing to do with my experiences of America, which were very, very good. But I like having a good time, which is why I’ve designed my life like this, and making a movie involves going to the gym for six months, and if you’re going to do it you’ve got to be really serious about it. I’d like film to be a part of my life so I could go and do it every couple of years. When I’m happy with the role.”

Clearly Mayall took his role as destructive ‘imaginary friend’ Fred pretty seriously. Prior to Drop Dead Fred’s filming he spent months in the gym getting his energy level up to hyperactive brat standards, and until he fell down a flight of stairs celebrating Thatcher’s resignation he was still fit. An ironic accident, considering that Mayall was given the Fred part after being spotted as Alan B’Stard getting whipped by Thatcher on a Red Nose charity broadcast.

“I just thought ‘Yeah, I can do that’,” says Mayall on his decision to take the Fred part. “Most good film actors worth their salt can break your heart and make you cry just by raising an eyebrow. That’s not really my discipline, that’s too small for me. But Fred isn’t constricted like that and that’s one of the reasons I went for it.”

Although there’s plenty of physical punch to Mayall’s Fred character (a kind of John Lydon possessed by a Gremlin) the more obscene tendencies of some of Mayall’s past creations have been removed. For those who view the Mayall-Edmondson style of puking punk slapstick as simply puerile body function flaunting, this will be no great loss, but according to Mayall, inane scatology is more than just a load of shit.

“There’s a lot of stuff that got cut out of Fred because it was a little bit too much for the Americans. There’s a long sequence in a toilet where I was watching a fat lady having a poo, which I thought was great, and they didn’t like that. I mean, we laugh at that sort of thing not ’cause we actually find it funny, it’s the stupidity of it I think that we find funny. There’s a level of irony that we have over here about things like that.

“Like we call Bottom that not because I consider bottoms to be funny, although maybe I do, but there’s a thousand different ways of looking at it, and there’s a lot of irony in there in the fact that me and Ade should call a programme Bottom. Because it’s rude, stupid and a waste of license payers’ money, and that’s the point. But yeah, the Yanks tend to be less into poo jokes and things. There’s a bit where I dribbled on Phoebe’s head just after I’d wiped the dog poo on the carpet, which I thought was very funny but they thought it was too gross.”

Mayall admits that on the whole British comedy has a long way to go before it catches up with the quick-fire Americans.

“They have housefuls of gag writers and we have one insane git called Ben Elton sitting in his garret.” But for the time being it looks like Rik will be concentrating his shit-stirring efforts within these shores. Apart from Mayall’s concern that movies would cut him off from the feedback of a live audience, there’s also the fact that as a father with a young family, he can do without the upheaval. That’s the funny thing about Mayall. For a shit-smearing, bogey-flicking, violent psycho-comic, he seems like a nice bloke.

“The kind of comedians I like are mainly people who say ‘Look! I’m an arsehole! Laugh at me!’ That tends to be the way I operate, that’s the area I’m interested in rather than someone saying ‘Hey! I’m hip! Come with me and let’s laugh at someone!’ I’m more interested in people making genuine arseholes of themselves… But it’s not me, it’s a performance. That’s why I don’t really like doing interviews. ‘Cause I don’t like people to think that I’m … normal.”

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