“Oil” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired Nov. 16, 1982)
Meet the new house, same as the old house
Resurrection. Throughout the history of human storytelling, it’s a theme that just won’t die. From Jesus to Frankenstein to a certain Game Of Thrones character we should have seen again but probably won’t, the raising of the dead makes for powerful narrative abracadabra. Which makes it all the more subtle that “Oil”—yes, I’m using the word “subtle” in a write-up of The Young Ones—kicks off with a whopper of an unacknowledged resurrection.
As I mentioned in my review of the show’s pilot episode, “Demolition,” I’ve come to believe the house, or The House, in which Rick, Neil, Vyvyan, and Mike live happens to be not only the setting of The Young Ones, but also the main character. The problem with that theory being, well, The House is utterly annihilated at the end of “Demolition,” back in those innocent days when it was not only okay, but sometimes actually part of the fun to have a major spoiler spelled out in blinking neon in an episode’s title. Anyway, with The House dead, how can it be a character, let alone the main one?
“Oil,” the show’s second episode, addresses that conundrum in the most direct way possible. The House rises from the dead.
The resurrection of The House isn’t spelled out in so many letters. In the opening scene of “Oil,” the Feculent Four saunter up to their new abode—the actual house is located in the Bristol suburb of Bishopston—with their meager belongings in tow. Vyvyan’s only possessions are a trash bag and a skeleton, as it was established in the first episode that he’s a medical student of some sort (remember that severed leg he was supposed to write an essay on?). But that skeleton is also a tipoff. It’s a symbol of death, duh, but also of the body’s enduring foundation. As it turns out, The House’s own bones have been carried over too, in a way. As the boys stomp up to the front stoop, a statue situated in the front yard—a replica of Rodin’s The Thinker, the most overused piece of fine art in pop culture short of The Mona Lisa and The Scream—comes to life and gripes to the sunflower growing next to it, “More bloody students?”
The statue isn’t just a statue. It’s The Thinker, and it’s the embodiment of the mind of The House, and for a fleeting moment it has become its mouthpiece. The speaker of The House, if you will. The consciousness of The House has been reborn in this other structure; momentarily disoriented, it doesn’t recognize these new bloody students as the old bloody students. What does the sunflower—ancient symbol of longevity and constancy—say in return? “Oh, shut up and get some clothes on.” It’s time to dress the skeleton once more and restart the whole crazy cycle of creation and destruction.
Totally ridiculous theory, right? But later in the episode, Neil inadvertently calls forth a genie from a tea kettle and winds up gaining extra arms when the genie mistakes Neil’s lament of “I haven’t got six pairs of hands, you know?” as an actual wish. What does Neil say? “I’ve got six pairs of hands. I’m Vishnu.” Yes, Vishnu—the Hindu god who governs the whole crazy cycle of creation and destruction.
But wait, there’s more. The genie isn’t the only one granting wishes. In “Oil”’s most memorable scene—quite a feat, seeing as how dull, colorless Mike is the only one of the four roommates who appears in it—Buddy Holly appears. He’s hanging from the ceiling in Mike’s new room, 23 years after his supposed death in the legendary 1959 plane crash that also killed Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Holly hints to Mike that he’s been surviving on insects for over two decades: “I just love your English beetles. Mind you, after 20 years of suckers, I ain’t got much choice!”, with “the beetles” being cheekily interchangeable with “The Beatles,” a band that’s never shied away from its debt to pioneering rockers like Holly. He then sings a song titled “Kinky Daddy Longlegs”—a hilarious pastiche of Holly’s actual music that “Weird Al” Yankovic could be proud to call his own—and in doing so reveals the gleefully juvenile source of the wordplay: “Beetles, crickets/ Gonna get you sick,” he sings, referencing The Beatles again while also namedropping his own band, The Crickets.
Holly’s appearance isn’t treated as a resurrection, but it is: Mike didn’t see him hanging in that tiny room when he entered it seconds earlier, presumably because Holly wasn’t actually there. So what suddenly summoned Holly back to life? Immediately before Holly materializes, Mike—in his typical, wannabe-rake fashion—is strewing women’s underthings around his bed while playing a tape of a woman crying his name and moaning in pleasure. As he does so, he’s whistling a song: Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” (whose refrain of “’Cause that’ll be the day / That I die” is yet another joke-fragment within a joke-fragment). In other words, Mike inadvertently conjured Buddy Holly in much the same way Neil conjured the genie.
The genie is the link: The House is the one really granting wishes, and when it heard Mike whistling Buddy Holly, why, it thought it would give Mike what he seemed to want. Literally. And when Holly ultimately comes crashing down on his skull, ending him one final time, the visual pun is so honkingly huge that it almost evades notice and becomes subliminal: The Young Ones is all about turning shit on its head.
There’s rich, complex web of causality and subtext to The Young Ones, a show that’s supposedly just a bunch of chaotic nonsense thrown into a commode and flushed into your face. But “Oil” doesn’t just serve as an advancement of my perhaps overcaffeinated hypothesizing about the metaphysics of the show as a whole. It’s damn funny. Rick and Vyvyan’s fight over who gets the best bedroom is a classic example of pitch-perfect, on-the-beat comic rhythm and mock-rhetorical reversal, yet it’s as effortless as Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” or Daffy and Bugs’ “Wabbit season, duck season” bit. And Rick’s logically inverted shakedown of Neil for money for a benefit concert for “the oppressed workers of the house” (i.e. Neil himself) is as brilliant in its sociopolitical succinctness as the best Colbert Report segment.
This is satire of the highest kind: The essence of the target in question—in this case, the paradox that can pop up when abstract leftist theory is implemented in real life—is boiled down and fed to itself. Which makes it all the sadder that when Rik Mayall died last month, some online commenters took it upon themselves to condemn him for poisoning generations of young minds by playing socialist characters like Rick. It takes a special (or maybe no-so-special) kind of humorless, right-wing troll to think that Mayall’s portrayal of Rick in episodes like “Oil” in any way extoll the virtues of socialism. Not that the writers and crew of The Young Ones weren’t of the leftist persuasion overall. But at least they knew how to skewer their own side of the equation, even as they lampooned the other side when Mike, assuming the guise of El Presidente for no rational reason, stages a fascist takeover the house—with Vyvyan as his all-too-eager, cricket-bat-wielding stormtrooper. If the cricket bat is the episode’s one last Buddy Holly pun, well, so be it.
Wait, we forgot something. The episode is titled “Oil.” Right. That’s because Vyvyan thinks he’s found oil in the cellar, and that it will make them rich, like some kind of Bishopston Hillbillies. It never happens. The oil is barely mentioned, and it definitely doesn’t drive the plot. And when it finally comes time to try to dig that black gold up, it’s all anticlimax—just a pretext for some grotesque slapstick in the form of a pickaxe through Vyvyan’s entire skull, Phineas Gage-like. “By the way it’s a complete lie about the oil,” he finally admits during a pause in the end credits. Whereas the title of “Demolition” is a spoiler, the title of “Oil” is a red herring. But “Oil” is also a spoiler, in a vague kind of way, for a future Young Ones episode, when a certain petroleum-centric, prime-time soap opera of the ’80s will be roundly lampooned.
You might even say the whole oil thing gets, you know, resurrected.
- Musical Guest Report: Radical Posture is the musical guest of “Oil,” although the band is really just a thinly veiled excuse for The Young Ones’ jack-of-all-trades (jack-off-of-all-trades?), Alexei Sayle, to get up in front of a faux synth-pop group and hop around like a panting lunatic. The name of his song is “Dr. Martens Boots.” It’s about Dr. Martens boots. There are gratuitous shots of Sayle dancing in those Dr. Martens boots. Yes, it’s a sendup of product placement, which in 1982 wasn’t quite as blatant and insidiously ubiquitous as it is now. To put it in perspective: Today, Dr. Martens would be paying top dollar for insertion like this, and it would be called branded content. All that aside, Sayle’s manic grin and nerve-jolting energy once again command the camera whenever he’s in front of it.
- “Don’t, don’t you want me”: For a couple seconds in the middle of his song, Sayle drops out of footwear-salesman mode and quotes The Human League.
- Doc Martens for “19 pounds and 99p”?!? Ah, the ’80s.
- “Pianos aren’t gonna solve nothing.”
- “Luckily the guys told me my bedroom was on fire. I might have gone to sleep and burned to death.”
- The moose head in the bed: better than a horse head, at least?
- “Caption?” [Caption pops up.] “Thank you.”
- The four roommates have previously drawn up a “People’s Charter” with covers all kinds of bizarre contingencies and arbitrary exemptions for certain signees—Leonard and Sheldon’s “Roommate Agreement” in The Big Bang Theory, anyone?
- The involved, convoluted interlude in “Oil” is sublimely non sequitur. Two middle-aged castaways on a raft can’t seem to understand if they’re adrift on a raft in the ocean, being held hostage in a cellar, or some purgatorial combination of both. The Young Ones: poop gags interspersed with grim, Beckett-meets-Barthelme absurdity.
- “I’m going to watch the dot for a bit longer.” Perhaps the most existentially null moment in the television history.
- A clean-shaven yet unmistakably Hagrid-like Robbie Coltrane makes a cameo as, believe it or not, a super-strong giant—and it’s not the last time we’ll see him in The Young Ones.
- “Sleep gives you cancer. Everyone knows that.”
- “You missed both my legs!”
- “Revolution! Blood runs! Flags wave!”
- “Yes, it’s just the sort of vegetablist comment you’d expect from an oppressive dictator.”
- “Goodness, is that the time?” Every episode of every television show ever should end with this line.
- Mayall’s genius as a physical comedian is expanding before our eyes. His hip-thrusting body language is an entire master class in passive-aggressiveness. And the way he leaps and cheerleads Vyvyan along as he runs back and forth in the kitchen, giving Neil a countdown to cook his dinner… Mayall doesn’t waste a single frame.
- Neil’s summoning of the genie seems random, but it’s intrinsically linked to his character: Who else in that house would give a grimy tea kettle even a cursory rub?
- The quick line in “Demolition” about the house being turned into a roller disco is brought back and made manifest. For a show that revels in detritus, there is no such a thing as a throwaway line in The Young Ones.
- You may have noticed my relative lack of ink about Mike. I don’t like Mike. Granted, you’re not supposed to like any of the characters on The Young Ones—but naturally we all do. Mike, though, has just never stood out to me as either a well-written or a well-played character. Even a straight man needs some spark, and he just doesn’t have it. I can understand his role in the alchemy of the group as a whole, but lame jokes about being a cat burglar with 2,000 cats in a Swiss bank account just aren’t going to cut it. Sorry, Mike fans. All three of you.
- As off-putting as they’re supposed to be, Rick and Vyvyan are given way less acne in “Oil” as compared to “Demolition,” where their spottiness is not only grossly exaggerated but given lingering close-ups. Maybe the zits didn’t test well?
- In my write-up of “Demolition” last week, I mentioned how the show’s reruns on MTV in the ’80s had a lot to do with the impact it had on me (and many others) back then. But it’s also worth nothing that Comedy Central’s rebroadcast of The Young Ones in the mid-’90s accomplished the same thing, only with a slightly younger crop of viewers. Case in point: My wife, who is four years younger than me, first became exposed to The Young Ones via that Comedy Central run, and a couple days ago she got online and hunted down this old Comedy Central promotional poster—which bears the caption “Can you match each of the Young Ones with their vomit?”— that she had hanging in her bedroom in college. As if I needed another reason to love her.