Are You Saying I’m Not Funny?

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

The Times, 30th September 2006

Eight years after he nearly died, Rik Mayall is still desperate to make us laugh, says Ed Potton. Almost too desperate Rik Mayall’s family call it Crap Thursday. He prefers “the day I smashed my head in”. Everyone else knows it as the day, in the Easter of 1998, when Mayall overturned his quad bike and entered a five-day coma: “I was technically dead until Bank Holiday Monday, so I beat Jesus 5-3. It’s important for people to know that,” he beams.

Now, at 48, and holding court in a private members’ club, Mayall is in good nick. The blazer and greying crop suggest an advertising executive with a colourful past. The trademark nostril-flaring cackle is unleashed and there is a salacious smile as he catches the waitress’s eye: “Darling, could you close that curtain for us please?” The hovering PR man is dispatched with an Alan B’Stard-esqe “What do you want, boy? Get the f*** outta here!” Once we’re left alone, Mayall proffers a cigarette, a light and a question.

“You’re a proper journo, yeah?” he asks, presumably calculating whether he should select his silly or his serious mode. He ends up flitting between the two throughout the next hour, a switchback cacophony of play-acting and sincerity, braggadocio and paranoia, during which he tries a variety of opinions for size. He still sounds like the anarcho-surrealist he has professed to be since he helped to invent alternative comedy with The Comic Strip Presents… and The Young Ones in the early 1980s – even if he is also now “a middle class man in a suit in West London”.

Mayall is here to promote a couple of DVDs. The first is The New Statesman, the series that introduced B’Stard, the monstrous Tory MP whom Mayall has recently resurrected as a new Labour convert in a live stage show, The Blair B’Stard Project. “I’ve just done 117 consecutive shows and they were all good. No they weren’t, they were brilliant.”

Like his other most popular characters – Rik, the student pseud from The Young Ones; Richie, the jumped-up inadequate in Bottom – B’Stard is a creature of vanity. Why does Mayall find this so consistently funny? “How about this for an answer?” he says. “The best characters have a facet of yourself that you disapprove of. You are trying to join other humans in saying, here are my sins – ridicule them.”

So he’s prone to vanity? Another snorting cackle. “I’ve been accused of that, yes. It’s a standing joke with people I work with that Rik gets bored if the conversation isn’t about him. That’s why I wrote my book, the great autobiography that I wrote myself about me (the semi-fictional Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ).”

But if self-regard is his meat and drink, there’s more delicate fare on offer in the second DVD, Rik Mayall Presents, six self-contained comedy-dramas from the early 1990s. The most intriguing production is Micky Love, in which Mayall plays a middle-aged television presenter desperately clinging to his show. He is “particularly proud” of the episode, which made him cry when he watched it. But Mayall’s insistence that ” Micky’s not me” is not entirely convincing. For a start, he can’t help drawing parallels:

“Micky’s been in the game for 30 years and so have I. My first paid gig was in autumn 1975 in a pub in Manchester (where, at university, he met his fellow Young Ones contributors Adrian Edmondson and Ben Elton).”

Surely he must identify with Love’s attempts to cling to the celebrity tree?

“I don’t really look at it that way. There’s a massive pleasure for me in hearing 3,000 people laugh, and that’s something you’re keen to protect. But you always stop at the top. I was the one who said we needed to stop The Young Ones, because I didn’t want to fade away. That’s why me and Ade (Edmondson) shot Bottom in the back of the head.”

Abruptly, he changes direction: “Look, I’m very proud of meeting Little Richard.” They crossed paths at the Groucho Club, and got talking about live performance. “He said (adopts a Deep South drawl) ‘You wait till the audience get high – dat’s when you get on the stage. Then you take ’em higher, and when they can’t get no higher, you get off that stage.’ ” Did Mayall know what he meant? “F*** yeah!” When was the last time he felt that?

“Friday night in Milton Keynes (performing The Blair B’Stard Project).”

His is the zeal of a fame junkie. Indeed, Edmondson has suggested that Mayall’s problem is a lack of hobbies to distract him from his work. Quad biking certainly seems to be off the agenda… Mayall grins: “That’s rather nice of Ade. I am my art. Adrian is his hobby. No, that’s not nasty enough. Paedophilia is his hobby. No, don’t go there.”

They are still close, but Edmondson is rumoured to have found Mayall harder to work with since the accident. Does Mayall feel it has changed him? “Are you trying to say that I’m not funny since I fell off the bike?” He frowns.

“I’d love to work with him and he’d love to work with me, but you don’t do it until you get the good f****** idea.”

He is “a bit cross with telly, although I promised myself I wouldn’t say that”. Audiences didn’t buy him as a sane figure amid a cauldron of chaos in the sitcom All About George (2005), and he was irked when the media satire Believe Nothing (2002) was filleted of “half its jokes”.

For now, The Blair B’Stard Project is foremost in his mind, although he insists that “I don’t do theatre because I can’t do telly”. In the pipeline is “a very funny telly series, but it probably won’t be allowed because they’ll think it’s too naughty. I’m not telling you any more because someone might steal the joke and it might make people think, ‘Oh Rik’s too busy at the moment.'”

It’s hard to know how much of the “desperate actor” schtick is genuine. “I just want to say that I am very proud of these DVDs and very comfortable and available for work, although I have various ongoing projects at the moment,” he blurts. “Good interview,” he adds, more firmly, extending his hand.