Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Vyv! Eat the telly!"

A surrealistic, irreverent, and often violent exploration of four college students sharing a seedy house, “The Young Ones,” the first BBC series to debut on MTV, became a cult sensation that has kept its popularity for decades, gave audiences their first look at British comedians later to become worldwide stars, and predicted some of the shows that MTV made famous.

Much as stand-up comedy in America saw a sea change in style and attitude during the ’70s counterculture boom, England in the ‘80s was also in the midst of a shake-up in who would be creating comedy and how it would be done.

Oddly enough, both groups were getting noticed at clubs called The Comedy Store, though England’s had no connection to the famous Mitzi Shore-operated landmark aside from inspiration.

This new breed of British comedians were determined to stand out in direct, punkish contrast to both old traditionalist comedians, white males making cheap and often derogatory jokes about women and minorities, and newer comedians that had more progressive ideas, but were still from affluent backgrounds and thus having a certain detachment from the working class. These were educated but not posh individuals who wanted to shake up the audience, either through confrontational jokes or unconventional behavior.

Among the performers who earned a following from The Comedy Store were Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, who performed unpredictable improv-style sketches under the name 20th Century Coyote, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, who did genre lampoons often featuring escalating comic violence as The Outer Limits, and the club’s house M.C., Alexei Sayle, who mixed physical gags with directly left-leaning political material.

Peter Richardson, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer, Arnold Brown, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, Ade Edmondson

These five performers, along with some other promising talents, ultimately decamped and created their own club in Soho, The Comic Strip. Their reputations grew even larger to the point where two TV networks eagerly sought them out to put them on the air.

Channel 4, not yet broadcasting, signed them to a series of six half-hour programs under the umbrella title “The Comic Strip Presents.” As this show was being assembled, the BBC, with producer Paul Jackson, also offered them a series, which would be ostensibly a conventional sitcom, peppered with all the comedians’ strengths, which became “The Young Ones.”

“The Comic Strip Presents” debuted on the night of Channel 4’s first broadcast, November 2, 1982, with “The Young Ones” launching on BBC2 a week later on November 9.

The concept of the show came from Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer — who was dating Mayall during production — and Ben Elton, a college friend later to embark on his own stand-up career. They figured that for a sitcom setting, the actors needed to be in the same room for long stretches of time to play off each other, and while they initially considered making the characters unemployed, thought that notion would be too political.

Instead, Mayall decided to flip the script, and make them college students, saying, “I wanted them to be privileged, and for people to hate them.”

Much of the show’s characters emerged out of existing material the actors had previously worked out on stage. Mayall had created a vain, pompous, and easily angered poet character in his act which evolved into Rick, the posturing political agitator with an incongruous love of Cliff Richard.

Similarly, Planer had been playing a dim, earnest hippie character in his act which became the base for Neil, the glum and easily dominated pacifist. Edmonson had frequently used over-the-top violence in his sketches with Mayall, which was channeled into punk rocker Vyvyan, whose solution to most issues with people and things was to batter them with heavy blunt objects. Sayle effectively served as a human non-sequitur, showing up in an episode, doing something odd, and then leaving the scene.

Mike, the smooth semi-straight man and official “Cool Person” of the house, was the only character that didn’t have an antecedent from the Comic Strip days. It was also the only character not portrayed by a Comic Strip alumnus. While intended for Planer’s partner Peter Richardson, Richardson clashed fiercely with BBC producer Paul Jackson and exited the series before filming, to be replaced by actor Christopher Ryan.

The Young Ones on location in Bristol, UK, August 1982, left to right: Chris Ryan (“Mike”), Rik Mayall (“Rick”), Nigel Planer (“Neil”) and Ade Edmondson (“Vyvyan”)

Together, this character group allowed Mayall and the writers to tweak the template of the traditional family sitcom. “If you look at ‘The Young Ones’, it was a nuclear family. Mike was the dad, Neil was the mum, Vyv was the little boy and Rick was the little girl, complete with pigtails.”

In order to obtain the extra budget they anticipated to include special effects, location shoots, and the other wild items that added to the show’s individuality, the creators decided each episode would feature a musical performance from a band, because this automatically changed the network’s classification of the program from “comedy” to “variety,” and thus allocated them more funds. The bands tended to be left alone to perform their songs, though occasionally they were integrated for humorous effect, as in the episode “Sick”, when Madness prematurely stopped singing “Our House” and fought amongst themselves.

The series quickly became a destination for other comedians, some friends of the show creators, others established elsewhere. Perhaps the most retroactively star-stuffed episode of the series was “Bambi”, which featured appearances by Mel Smith, Griff-Rhys Jones, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson.

Since many of these performers had come from more affluent circumstances than the show regulars, the casting was fraught with some class tension, as Alexei Sayle recounted for The Guardian in 2013:

“I turned up for the recording to find several generations of Cambridge Footlights were in the show. ‘I thought these people were the enemy!’ I railed at the writers. ‘The whole point of what we were doing was surely to challenge the smug hegemony of the Oxford, Cambridge, [privileged]-schoolboy comedy network, as well as destroying the old-school working men’s club racists!’ ‘No, that was just you,’ the writers replied. ‘We never subscribed to your demented class-war ravings. We think all these people are lovely…Mel Smith’s going to take us for a ride in his gold Rolls-Royce, and Griff Rhys Jones has been screaming abuse at minions to make us laugh.'”

 The series ended for good after its second season in 1984.

Creator Mayall had observed, “If there were only twelve [episodes of] ‘Fawlty Towers’, why would I presume to do more?”

The cast had already moved on to other projects when MTV picked up the U.S. rights to the show and began airing it Sunday nights in June 1985.

Plenty of other British TV comedies had received exposure in America around that time, but most were relegated to selected PBS stations, and, aside from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” appealed to an older demographic.

Shows like “Are You Being Served,” and “The Good Life,” with their middle-aged casts and cutesy innuendos and general distance from everyday realities had little appeal to the rock ’n’ roll crowd.

“The Good Life” was directly slagged by Vyvyan in the “Sick” episode as he ranted, “I hate it! It’s so bloody nice! [Those characters are] nothing but a couple of reactionary stereotypes confirming the myth that everyone in Britain is a lovable middle-class eccentric!”

“The Young Ones” quickly became a U.S. hit. John Sykes, then-VP of programming for MTV, told Billboard magazine in November 1985, “Even though there are only fourteen episodes, we find viewers getting more and more excited about the show,” and also suggested the network would commission new episodes.

While that idea did not pan out, MTV later acquired U.S. rights to “The Comic Strip Presents” from Channel 4, and ran those episodes after “The Young Ones” for fans eager to see more of the cast’s work.

Planer’s put-upon hippie Neil became the favorite of U.K. and U.S. viewers alike. A tie-in book, Neil’s Book of the Dead, presenting his musings and poetry, was published in England in 1984.

A companion record followed, Neil’s Heavy Concept Album, featuring prog rock covers and sketches produced by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. Its first single, a cover of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe,” went to #2 on the UK Singles chart in July 1984.

In late 1985, based on the success of the MTV run, Book of the Dead received a U.S. release, and though the album did not, Planer appeared on MTV as Neil to do a Guest V.J. segment where “Hole in My Shoe” was aired; the video received repeat airings for a short time after.

Though a few years later “The Young Ones” would be gone from MTV, its impact upon the channel was large. Seeing that the music video crowd also craved comedy, MTV would add reruns of shows influential to “The Young Ones”: “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “The Monkees.”

Moreover, many of the original shows that MTV launched, as they began their move away from music video programming, can trace their roots to recurrent themes of “The Young Ones.” A house full of diverse individuals with caustic personalities that don’t get along? Here’s “The Real World”! Dim youth watching the telly and making rude observations? Hello “Beavis & Butthead”! Reckless guys subjecting each other to escalating pranks and grievous bodily harm? Welcome to “Jackass”! Self-centered narcissist with bad poetry demanding attention from people who don’t like them? Come to “My Super Sweet Sixteen.”

While allusions to other MTV hit shows may be stretching a point, it’s clear that “The Young Ones” tapped into many primal interests and instincts of a generation, and MTV noticed what those were and exploited them ingeniously.

It’s also notable that afterward, the next British sitcom to take America by storm would be “Absolutely Fabulous,” created by and starring Jennifer Saunders, who was also a member of The Comic Strip collective, a two-time guest star on “The Young Ones,” and since married to star Ade Edmondson. Saunders’ protagonist, Edina Monsoon, got her name by reworking his last name.

Though her husband had only minor impact on the series — singing its theme song, Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and appearing in two episodes — much like his earlier show, “AbFab” also dispensed with the politesse of the stereotypical British comedy and ventured to outrageous, vulgar possibilities that appealed to younger viewers.  It too bypassed the traditional PBS route and debuted in the states on MTV’s sister channel Comedy Central.

“AbFab” also featured “Young Ones” alumnus Christopher Ryan in a recurring role as Edina’s first husband, Marshall.

All of the stars of “The Young Ones” continued to create more TV series and other works that fans should definitely seek out. And chances are still very good if you are at a party and happen to reply to someone by saying, “Don’t be all heavy and uncool man,” or snapping, “Well LA-DI-DAH, Neil!” there’s an excellent chance you’ll have a bonding opportunity with a fellow ‘80’s malcontent.

It’s clear that “The Young Ones” mayhem will be enjoyed by young ones for years to come.

(This essay was originally written for Night Flight Plus. It has been recreated in the style it was presented in at the site, and matched to its original date of publication. Tremendous thanks to Stuart Shapiro and Bryan Thomas for the platform.)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Beth B & the Sleepy D

Our new contributor, Marc Edward Heuck, takes a look back at Dominatrix’s “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” — now streaming on Night Flight’s “Video Vault 7,” one of a collection of daring clips that spurred artistic ripples — which was the first music video for filmmaker Beth B., whose recent documentary on her artist mother Ida Applebroog has drawn rave reviews. The patchwork band Dominatrix would later see their cult song achieve unexpected longevity. Watch it now on our Night Flight Plus channel.

Photo courtesy of Robert Carrithers

Beth B. was a teenager in San Diego when her mother Ida had emerged from a hospital stay for depression in 1970 determined to go on her own and become an artist.

Rechristening herself Ida Applebroog, she moved to New York and became a lauded sculptress and painter. Beth soon followed her mother to NYC, enrolling in Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, where she focused her efforts towards film.

By the early 80’s, Beth B., with her then-husband Scott B., built a following as part of the “No Wave” movement that launched directors Jim Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman. Their Super 8 films like G-Man and Black Box combined startling scenes of torture and fetish play with stolen TV footage, and were screened in punk rock clubs to rowdy audiences open to having their sensibilities challenged.

Stuart Argabright

Concurrently, one of the prime musicians of the No Wave scene was Stuart Argabright, who first received notice with a punk band called The Rudements, then achieved notoriety with his electronic outfit Ike Yard, one of the few American bands to sign with UK upstart label Factory Records, home of Joy Division.

During this period, Argabright had struck up an unusual friendship with a local domina. As recounted by music historian Dave Tompkins, their favorite activity was not bondage play, but listening to her extensive record collection, though he did express fascination with the intrigue that came with her profession.

After the initial dissolution of Ike Yard, Argabright created Dominatrix, with participation from singer Claudia Summers, John Lydon collaborator Ken Lockie, Tangerine Dream alumnus Peter Baumann, and rising remix DJ Ivan Ivan, who co-produced.

While they recorded a few tracks, their sole release was “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” a cheeky reverie to those hang-outs with his domina friend. As he once opined on Facebook, “[There are] a whole bunch of people who [made] this hit happen. Most of all the hard beating ladies that inspired me in the first place.”

The song was picked up by dance producer Arthur Baker’s Streetwise Records, and released as a 12-inch single with multiple remixes.

Beth B. was working solo when she directed “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” video in 1984. The content is tame compared to what she was known for in her previous work, which may well be her subversive point.

The viewer is set up to anticipate a tawdry encounter between a blonde-wigged temptress and the buff garage worker she approaches, only to have a few other leather-clad ladies shove him in a closet, never to be seen again as they go on to dance and loaf about unencumbered.

Tonight, the ladies’ hot gear and sexy moves are not in the service of men’s pleasure, but of their own.

Dominique Davalos

Despite having no explicit content, MTV refused to play the video.

As Beth described it to Flavorwire writer Alison Nastasi, “[Males] were controlling the airspace [and] they are still today, [so their] executives saw women taking over the male domain of a garage, and that they kicked the guys, threw them out, and took over. I have no idea, maybe it was too sexual for [them], but at the last minute they pulled it, and it was not shown. But it became hugely popular, anyway. That year, Madonna said it was her favorite music video, and it was playing at all the clubs. I love it. It was really fun to make.”

After the video’s release, its participants split off to further diverse pursuits. Dominique Davalos, who played the title role, replaced Claudia Summers in Dominatrix for a series of live shows (the group toured as an opening act for Grace Jones) before Argabright disbanded the outfit in favor of a more hip-hop oriented group with graffiti artist Rammellzee called Death Comet Crew.

Beth B. directed Davalos alongside Viggo Mortensen and X lead singer Exene Cervenka in her 1987 satire of televangelism Salvation!, with footage from the Dominatrix video reused in the film. Beth eventually shifted from narrative films to making documentaries for HBO and Court TV.

“The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” video is now part of the Permanent Collection at MoMA, and has grown in influence. The song was featured in Grosse Point Blank with John Cusack and in Tamra Davis’ documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.

The beat is sampled in the 1999 Mase/Puff Daddy song “Do It Again.”

Joseph Kahn’s 2009 video for Lady Gaga’s “LoveGame” features a sequence where the singer, in a platinum low-bangs wig and leather gear reminiscent of Davalos’ look in Dominatrix, dances in a garage, albeit with boys allowed to join her this time.

Knowing Gaga’s love of ‘80’s NYC underground culture, the coincidence is probably intentional, as Argabright has suggested.

Argabright relaunched Dominatrix in 2008 with new material, and the original single received a bonus-laden vinyl reissue for Record Store Day in 2015.

While occasionally collaborating with her mother on projects like the 1989 short film Belladonna, it wasn’t until 2009 that, after they discovered lost drawings of Ida’s from the ’70s, Beth was inspired to make a film about her.

Shot over fifteen years and with often contentious disagreements over what would be filmed and revealed, Beth’s film Call Her Applebroog opened this spring in NY to glowing reviews. Retrospectives of Beth’s films, including her early collaborations with Scott B., have screened in multiple cities, with preservation efforts taking place simultaneously.

Look for Call Her Applebroog when it opens in more American cities this fall, and right now, you can watch the video that first brought Beth B. to wide attention on Video Vault 7,” on our Night Flight Plus channel. You’ll also see rarely broadcast works from Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Toni Basil, Paul Simon, and Laurie Anderson in this episode.

(This essay was originally written for Night Flight Plus. It has been recreated in the style it was presented in at the site, and matched to its original date of publication. Tremendous thanks to Stuart Shapiro and Bryan Thomas for the platform.)