40 years of ‘The Young Ones’

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Lessons we could all take away from The Young Ones, an alternative comedy triumph

The Young Ones is one of those masterpieces that – to reference Cliff Richard’s homonymous classic hit – comes “once in every lifetime”. The programme revolutionized the concept of comedy, as well as what was considered to be appropriate on television. Conceived as a product of the youth for the youth, The Young Ones officialised the entrance of the 80s alternative comedy scene into tv show schedules and viewers’ living rooms, whether they liked it or not. 

It all started in the late 70s when The Comedy Store – the first stand-up comedy club in Britain – opened in Soho, which provided a stage for a new generation of comedians that otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to perform. In fact, the tendency of the time was mostly of misogynistic and racist gags that, in comedian Alexei Sayle’s words, “assumed no intelligence in the audience”. But rather than being born as an intentional reaction to that, the alternative comedy scene spontaneously answered the growing demand for jokes that could make people laugh without being uselessly offensive. Just like punk, it was born instinctively by a group of like-minded people who proposed a different kind of comedy under no fixed manifesto or agenda. Alternative comedians delivered sketches that made fun of people in power, society, the government or the comedian themselves with the use of an irreverent and accessible style, as well as occasional slapstick action; some exponents were more politically-motivated, others just wanted to be silly. When The Comedy Store’s reputation grew, some BBC producers wondered how they could bring those novelties to television. 

The Young Ones ran from 1982 to 1984 and was written by Ben Elton, Lise Mayer and Rik Mayall. Mayall also plays the role of Rick – the quirky People’s Poet. Other characters included were Ade Edmondson as violent punk Vyvyan, Nigel Planer as depressed hippie Neil, Christopher Ryan as cool guy Mike and Alexei Sayle as various members of the Balowski family. Based on the writers’ and actors’ own experiences, the show centres around the bizarre chronicles of four broke university students living in filth and decadence, without any restrains to imagination or chaos. For this key reason, it firmly divided the audience, with adoring spotty kids on one side and concerned parents on the other.  

Despite coming across as anarchic and nihilistic, The Young Ones is actually a witty show that gave voice to the restless generation of young adults during the turbulent years of the Thatcher government. Margaret Thatcher became the main target of the youth’s rage, along with the rich and careless bourgeoisie adults. And, for the first time in British tv history, a series that’s the comedy equivalent of punk music was aired and aimed exclusively at kids who led a pretty different life from the idyll shown in programmes like The Good Life (at which Vyvyan directs one of his angriest outbursts).

the young ones

© Alamy

All this anger and passion weren’t in vain though: on the 40th anniversary of the first season, let’s have a look at the valuable lessons The Young Ones still teaches us today.

It’s okay to be messy – whether in life or in studies.The four roommates are students at Scumbag College, but we actually never see them study or go to lectures – even though they even take part in University Challenge. They’re not model students nor do they conform to university’s standards, but try their best to stay afloat through the squalor. 

Harmony is achievable. The protagonists are four very different personalities: we always see them bickering, insulting and hitting each other, but they somehow manage to find a middle ground to make cohabitation bearable and stick together in times of trouble.

Not everyone may like you so you might as well be yourself. One of the most iconic moments is certainly the hands up who likes me scene, where Rick tests his popularity in the household. As expected, nobody raises their hand but this doesn’t hold him from always showing his messy and annoying personality.

When creativity is in charge, nothing is impossible. The Young Ones is a surrealist reign where vegetables, animals and objects are brought to life, or a random door can lead to parallel worlds. The writers let their imagination flow freely, without worrying about realism or coherence. And, even if it gets absurd, the outcome is always astonishing.

Life can be funnier if shared. Each episode features musical performances of big groups of the time (e.g. Madness, Motorhead, Damned) and friends from the alternative and the Oxbridge scenes (e.g. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French), turning the show into a shared success.

We’re all born equal so nobody can be your superior. In pure punk spirit, the protagonists reject authority in all its forms: policemen (or “pigs”) are portrayed as unreasonably violent and comically obtuse, while Thatcher is loudly blamed whenever the roommates go through adversities. Rick in particular dreams for a world where the oppressed can rise and lead the revolution against fascists.

But, it’s the unexpected ending that offers the ultimate lesson that The Young Ones can teach us: we may not be the young ones very long. So, make the most out of your life, as you never know what might happen next.