The Bottom Of The Barrel?

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(Article originally appeared on ‘Chortle’ 14/01/13. This is the unedited version.)

All too often in our quest to find a truly great sitcom comedy fans overlook one that is sat right in front of them. One that has perhaps never been granted the respect it duly deserved is Bottom: the Mayall and Edmondson vehicle that always seems to have existed in the shadow of The Young Ones. It is all too common to see the series touted as a string of knob gags and people hitting each other with a variety of objects, putting it at the lower end of comedy programming. This is hardly a new idea that has come with the benefit of hindsight though, not an opinion that has changed to fit the received wisdom of today on what makes good comedy. Sketch show fans may recall that Bottom was the comedy program of choice for Wayne Slob, providing him with a chance to laugh at words such as willy. For many, this would provide the perfect brief synopsis for the show that allowed them to avoid the task of ever taking the time to watch much of it.

This is however a grossly unfair generalisation of the qualities of the program, in the same way that it’s hugely misleading to lump Father Ted with Mrs Brown’s Boys, purely by virtue of them both feature people that are Irish. Instead, I would postulate that Bottom marks the high point of the Mayall/ Edmondson partnership, with plenty of episodes that should rank alongside the greatest of shows the British comedy has to offer. So why does the show garner the reputation that it so frequently is saddled with? It would of course be misleading to suggest that there is not some degree of truth in the criticisms of the show. Certainly both innuendos and violent exchanges between the two leads are a large part of both the makeup of the show and the reason for it’s popularity and it would be wrong to play down these elements. Unfortunately, these would also prove to be the elements that opened it up to the criticism and lazy descriptions that failed to take into account what the show was actually trying to achieve.

Let us take this opportunity to slay a couple of myths the are often repeatedly trotted out, not only in relation to this show, but also to other similar programmes; namely that either double entendre or slapstick violence somehow makes a comedy lesser. This is a bizarre form of comedic snobbery that really stands up to little analysis, but has become a backbone of lazy comedy criticism when a writer has little else to say a programme. So why do acts such as Vic & Bob often receive a get out of jail free card for performances that often featured a large degree of slapstick? Are their bouts of frying pan wielding tomfoolery of comic value purely because they take place within a surreal context that somehow elevates the act of comic violence? Of course not and to suggest so would do a disservice to double acts stretching right back to Laurel & Hardy. Equally, the double entendre has a reputation for being a form of wit that graces the bottom of the humour barrel alongside Griff Rhy’s Jones’s scripts for It’ll Be Alright On The Night. The basis of them, however, is the oldest comedic technique of word play, and an ability to quickly find something suggestive in a sentence should be seen as the sign of a quick wit. This is not to say that they can’t be done badly, but surely even a lot of Bottom’s fiercest critics would have to concede that the innuendo was well done, even if they didn’t find it amusing themselves.

So what was it about Bottom that was particularly appealing and why did Bottom mark the highpoint of their output? Well it’s important to remember that Mayall and Edmondson had been working together on a whole variety of projects since they met at Manchester University in the late 1970s. It has often been commented on that their characters and more importantly the relationship between those two characters has always had some degree of a constant to it, with everything from The Dangerous Brothers to Filthy Rich & Catflap featuring some variation on what was essentially a tried and tested dynamic. Indeed, even in the latter when Mayall’s character was made to be (moderately) successful, the dynamic still remained the same with Edmondson’s character still being able to undermine him in a variety of ways. Accordingly, each project provided a refinement to their act and each one can be deconstructed to see elements of previous shows that have influenced the later ones.

By the time the pair reached Bottom they had the success of The Young Ones to trade upon, but also the ideas that had been used in Catflap with Mayall portraying a slightly less pitiful character in context, but one that could often be prone to bouts of stupidity that would see his character plumbing all new depths such as the mass slaughter of London’s milkmen. The sitcom setup that the writers chose to take with Bottom took was perhaps a surprisingly radical move considering the successes that the duo had had beforehand. While the likes of The Young Ones had strong characters, they were also strong ensemble pieces that you would struggle to imagine with a member of the core cast missing. In contrast, Bottom stripped things right back and often relied entirely upon the chemistry between Richie and Eddie to carry an episode, with regulars like Spudgun and Little Dave Hedgehog being something more of an occasional surprise than an expected constant.

This change in direction seems to have been something of a conscious decision, with 1991 seeing Mayall and Edmondson tackling Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting For Godot at the Queen’s Theatre. In many respects, Vladimir and Estragon are the roles they were born to play and had spent many years playing variations of, all be it unintentionally. Indeed, though little video footage of the production exists, we can easily draw immediate parallels between the performance and dynamic on display on stage in the production with what would go on to be used in Bottom.The pair have been quite open over the years about their intention for Bottom to act as a ‘cruder cousin’ to the surrealist play and the importance of it’s roots should not be overlooked. For every moment that Beckett takes to dwell upon the futility of existence, he balances it with moments of slapstick laden vaudeville humour that itself is not without a lavatorial basis to it at times. This balance is one that Mayall and Edmondson would go on to use, all be it in a slightly adjusted form.

Indeed, this sense of futility is one of the most important elements to Bottom, but also one of the most overlooked. While Richie and Eddie may not be tramps, as Beckett implies his characters may be, their existence is no less lowly. Godot has been interpreted on numerous occasions as a metaphor for limbo, with the wait for the title character representing a deity that will pass judgement on them and provide them with purpose again. Whether or not this view is correct, (and Beckett certainly refuted it on many occasions,) it’s concept relies on it’s surrealist landscape to work. By bringing this concept in to a setting that is closer to the real world, Bottom can be regarded as lowering the stakes to some degree, but the futility remains at the core.

Fundamentally, both characters are absent of purpose and are flitting away the days until the release of death. In Eddie’s case, the coping mechanism is one of drinking and time wasting while Richie chases a dream of sexual success at least once with any woman available. Richie’s belief that this will make his life improve is not dissimilar from the hopes that Vladimir invests in Godot; both are futile. In fact, by making the characters goals rooted in the most base of purists, the program gains a timeless quality that means the programme doesn’t seem as dated as either The Young Ones or Filthy, Rich & Catflap, rooted as they were in the cultures surrounding the respective decades they appeared in. Aside from references to the television programs Richie and Eddie use to while away their days, there is very little in the scripts for Bottom that confines it to a specific year. The highpoint of the series, the ferris wheel confined two hander ‘Hole’, could be performed in a theatre today and be just as relevant, it’s ending perhaps even more so. This ability to produce a sitcom that could be simultaneously absurdist and satirical, yet unconfined to the time it was written in, shows Mayall and Edmondson’s writing having developed to a new height which it had previously only ever achieved on an infrequent basis in their previous projects.

However, this lowering of goals often leads some to criticise Bottom, finding it an unusual device for sitcom due to Richie and Eddie being at the bottom of the social ladder. This is a criticism that has quite often prevalent among American viewers that have found the show bewildering on a number of levels, not least of all because they believe it to be mean spirited by mocking the poor and underprivileged. In British sitcoms, one of the most commonly used devices is a figure of authority whose plans fall apart at regular intervals, which is justified and provides humour by pricking the pomposity of those that suppress our heroes. But comedy has often presented characters with no social standing that have their own kind of pretensions, from Harold Steptoe’s beliefs that he would be cultured and respected if were it not for his father, to Rigsby in Rising Damp’s false belief in his own social status. These characters may be pitiful already, but through their regular flights of delusional-fancy we can find comedy in their struggles, not because it keeps them in their place, but because it stops them belittling those that suffer along side them through their own pretensions.

Of course, this is not the only parallel to be drawn with comedy programs and partnerships that went before Mayall and Edmondson’s rise to prominence and Bottom. For every aspect that can be viewed as a refinement of the duo’s dynamic there are also a great deal of comparisons to be drawn with double acts of the past. While some may be more at home with a Blackadder type structure of a clearly defined lead and stooge, Bottom’s take on the double act is an equally old dynamic, stretching back to the likes of Laurel and Hardy. Here we are presented a double act on which one of the leads believes themselves to be better than the other as the other is such a fool. They are then regularly proved to be just as stupid, if not more so than their counterpart and thus this is their pretension. Richie believes he is better than his drunk flatmate, but Eddie often outsmarts him and proves that he is in fact the smarter of the duo, but as they are still at the bottom of the social ladder it doesn’t count for much at all and in turn shows him to be just as much of a fool. It’s a basic comedy setup that has a variation put on the old idea with the darker elements that Mayall and Edmondson dealt in, along with their heavy use of innuendo and the making of their characters even more pitiful than the likes usually seen in sitcoms.

This said, do not for one moment consider this to be to the programmes detriment, as sitcom writing often comes back to a core set ideas. In music we are all too familiar with the concept of there being a limited number of notes and chords to choose from and as such similarities between pieces can often be overlooked. Yet for some reason, though many of us as comedy fans are aware of the basic types of jokes, we are all too often quick to criticise a show for presenting us with ideas that remind of of something else. In the case of Bottom, it is one of the many cases of bizarre comic pomposity that has perhaps kept it from being given the real credit that it deserves.

In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why Bottom would come in for unfair generalisation that would malign the efforts of it’s writer/ performers. It featured, heavy use of innuendo and slapstick that can often be dismissed as ‘simple’ or ‘crass’ and after their previous successes, Mayall and Edmondson’s effort was always due to be viewed as the poorer cousin to their previous work with the Young Ones. However, to subscribe to these points of view though is to take a very narrow view of what represents good comedy. The show take the ideals of Waiting For Godot and set them in a more grounded context which allowed for everything from the broad slapstick and that dark moments of Beckett’s play to satirical elements such as comments on modern day policing.

While some may still debate whether it was this show or a previous effort that saw the duo’s writing reach it’s height, the performances they give on the show unquestionably show them as being at the top of their abilities. Both the slapstick and the comic timing on display throughout the three series show required a technicality that could only be produced by a seasoned professionals with a wealth of experience to trade upon that allowed them to know not only how to get the best reaction from an audience, but even more importantly from their comedy partner. Watching Mayall and Edmondson’s comedic symbiosis is a joy to behold as they make each half hour appear effortless no matter what style of comedy they are dealing in at any one time. The combination the timeless quality that squalor and desperation provide along with the technically pitch perfect execution of a double act at the heights of it’s power mean that Bottom will doubtless be a programme that will be treasured by many comedy fans for years to come, but deserves far more appreciation critically than it usually receives and could no doubt receive if it were simply given a chance.

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