Sunday, September 9, 2012

TV Review: Bottom (1991-95)

For those of you who don't like comedy that's rude, stupid and violent, please rummage around elsewhere on this blog for a post about some lovely paintings or one about a tasteful nineteenth-century Russian novel. Gone now? Good. Now just to set the mood here's a clip from Bottom that shows the two stars engaged in a typical bit of japery while camping out on Wimbledon Common.

Bottom is a British sitcom written by and starring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonston, a comic duo who appeared together in The Young Ones and a variety of sketch comedy shows. The characters they play in Bottom are, respectively, Richard "Richie" Richards and Edward "Eddie" Hitler. As the title of the show suggests, this is a sitcom about two characters who are at the bottom of the barrel in everything: intelligence, personal hygiene, diet, living quarters, and morality. They also like to slap each other around the head with frying pans from time to time.

There's no doubt that this show is laddish and loutish to the max, but there's also no denying it's written with a lot of skill and a brutish wit, and the two leads, especially Mayall, are brilliant in their roles.  What's striking off the top about the series is that for the most part the episodes are duologues between Richie and Eddie. In fact, several episodes are wholly duologues, including one that's set entirely on a ferris wheel! Writing a dramatic duologue is difficult enough, so writing an excellent comic one set in a confined space deserves a lot of praise. According to Mayall and Edmonston, they got the idea for Bottom after appearing on stage in Waiting for Godot. That makes perfect sense, and they've done Beckett proud.

What stops Bottom from being just an exercise in vulgarity and excess (not that there's anything wrong with that) is the work that's gone into the characters of Richie and Eddie. They have a weirdly antagonistic and supportive relationship that makes their duologues wildly unpredictable; one moment they're trying to kill each other and the next they're united against the world. They also have an amusing habit of trying to affect an air of middle-class respectability. It's notable that they always wear shirts and ties (complete with tie clips!) no matter what hooligan behavior they're engaged in. Richie is especially class conscious, feeling that he's socially better than Eddie. This supposed class difference is the comic engine for a lot of their duologues.

I'm not going to claim that Bottom is one of the great British sitcoms of all time, only that I have an irrational love for it that annoys and horrifies most of my family (I have it on DVD). I recently reviewed Martin Amis' thunderingly bad comic novel Lionel Asbo, and what he was trying to achieve had already been done (in some respects) by Bottom. The main and important difference between the two is that Mayall and Edmonston actually know how to make people laugh.

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