Rik Mayall and Ben Elton begin a nationwide stand-up comedy tour at the Glasgow Pavilion on 24
November. Britain’s funniest young television writer discusses his humour with David Housham.
Ben Elton doesn‘t look like a young man who could be called the most successful comedy writer of his generation.
There may be some other. more presumptuous whirlwind of mirth laying claim to that intimidating ascription. but Elton is obviously its worthiest recipient in the square eyes ofdiscerning television viewers.
He wouldn‘t want it. ofcourse. Elton. 26. doesn‘t ﬂaunt his career afﬂuence. but favours almost drab. student style dress. His features have a soft. unsophisticated good-naturedness about them. and on first sight he resembles Adrian Mole's garrulous elder brother. eager to regale you with jokes over pints in the poly bar. But his comedy credentials demand to be taken seriously: co-writer of The Young Ones; sole writer of Happy Families; script editor on Girls On Top; and co~writer with Richard Curtis of the second series of Rowan Atkinson‘s zany Middle-Ages show. The Black Adder. which returns in January.
Elton‘s own undergraduate days were spent at Manchester University. where he was two years beneath new wave pranksters. Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. When he left he went straight to London and the Comic Strip in Soho where Comedy Store escapees Mayall. Edmondson. Nigel Planer. Peter Richardson. Keith Allen.
Alexei Sayle and French and ﬁThe List 15—28 November
Saunders were starting to attract the blandishments ofTV producers. Mayall and his girlfriend, Lise Mayer. asked Elton to help them out with the scripts for a wild comedy show that the BBC. spurred on by Channel 4‘s commissioning of The Comic Strip Presents. wanted them to do. It was called The Young Ones.
Elton didn‘t appear in The Young Ones. and now says demurely that it is Happy Families which is beginning to make his name familiar to the public. even though he has appeared in two series of the Granada television comedy sketch show. Alfresco. and presented an off-the-wall documentary series for London Weekend Television (for South East of England viewers only).
Taking a break from rehearsals for the third and now month-long nationwide stand-up comedy tour. kicking off in Scotland. that he and Mayall have undertaken. Elton insists they are able to play large venues purely because of the huge popularity of the latter as Rik the Cliff-loving prick. Kevin Turvey and so on. ‘Rik is an old colleague. friend. partner and mentor. It‘s fantastic fun being on the road with him. I couldn‘t possibly play the sort of halls we play otherwise. because Rik is terribly popular and fills the halls. I‘m there too which is a bit of a shock for some of the audience.
‘They are beginning to know who I
am — they read the credits on The Young Ones and Happy Families. It‘s a bit of a thrill for me. It seems that when I come off stage they‘re pleased to have seen me. which is nice, you know.‘
Elton wants you to know that there will be plenty of new material to Chortle at on this tour. but also admits that it will probably be the 9 last one in which he and Mayall will venture out with an unadulterated stand-up cabaret act — a microphone. a spotlight and a comedian. ‘Rik and I have talked many times about getting a “Crazy Gang” together. When we started being stand-up comedians in big theatres. with just the mike and the spotlight. it was quite an interesting thing to do with the stage. Our Young Ones audience are used to the sketch and play formats on the telly. but stand-up comedy is an original sort of experience for them. I think. Being live comedians is still interesting for us. but we have great hopes of finding some revue or theatre format that will involve more people. some special effects and present a bit ofa spectacle.‘
The Crazy Gang. sometimes described as England’s Marx Brothers. were a group of comics centred round music hall singing stars. Flanagan and Allen. who throughout the 305. 405 and 505 staged a number of rave hit West End revues famous for their chaotic
slapstick and vulgar mayhem. Like most professional creators of comedy. Elton is acutely aware of such historical ﬁgures and traditions in comedy: ‘l’ve always been really interested in theatre. and comedy especially. I remember reading a biography of Morecambe and Wise when I was 13 and being utterly mesmerised by it.‘
Perhaps the most frequent
criticism aimed at the Comic
Strip/Young Ones clique is that by performing in large theatres. making records. commercials. films and
programmes for ITV and BBC] they
have betrayed the artistic and political integrity of their early ‘angry’ work. Such sell-out accusations misunderstand the nature ofcomedy and the ambitions of comedians to be as funny as possible. Comedy’s tendency to defuse outrage doesn’t usually help to destroy governments. Equally the Comic Strip performers in attracting ITV-size rather than cult-size audiences can still be preferably ‘alternative’ to the tired cracks of the Jimmy Tarbucks and Ted Rogers. The Monty Python team learned lessons and progressed from their erratic Flying Circus shows to produce subsequently much better and more popular films and TV series. individually and in cinematic troupes. The Comic Strip crowd are similarly maturing. improving their skills in the art of being funny, and