“Boring” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 11/23/1982)
In which nothing happens. Also, everything…
In the Orange Is The New Black episode “Take A Break From Your Values,” a small yet profound debate is raised: Is boredom an emotion? Is it the lack of an emotion? Or is it some other state of existence entirely? OITNB doesn’t take this idea further than a few lines. But The Young Ones’ third episode, “Boring,” welcomes a little more rumination on the topic. For instance, if you assume boredom is not an emotion, it might be considered a mild pathology—a kind of muted, inverted anxiety in the absence of anything to fight or fly from. The human nervous system is designed to require a certain amount of leisure time, but not necessarily idle time. That’s a subtle distinction, one with far larger implications about humanity and society.
Luckily for us, “Boring” doesn’t give a fuck about any of that. Or does it?
“Nothing interesting ever happens to us,” whines Rick early on in the episode. It’s breakfast time. He, Mike, and Vyvyan slouch at the kitchen table. Mike is playing with his Rice Krispies. Vyvyan is entering a Corn Flakes-sponsored contest to win a car. (Apparently his yellow Ford Anglia with flames up the side isn’t enough of a ride for him.) Rick, meanwhile, is picking his nose and wiping it on his trousers. When Rick dares to point out the maddening mundaneness of this squalid tableau, Vyvyan snarls back, “Stop being so boring.” The only thing worse than being bored, you see, is explicitly conceding the existence of said boredom. The knowledge only makes it worse.
Not that Vyvyan is about to wax epistemological or anything. Neil enters the room, and from there, it becomes a pissing match to see who might be slightly less boring than the other. “The most boring person in the world is finally getting a taste of his own medicine,” Rick says to Neil, and this bored brinksmanship becomes the basis of the rest of “Boring.”
For an episode about how nothing happens, a shitload of stuff happens in “Boring.” Naturally, that’s the point. Neil pokes his head out the window to watch the sunrise, and the sun cracks in half like an eggshell. His groan-worthy punch line—“Morning has broken”—serves a deeper purpose. Magical, nigh miraculous phenomenon happen with clockwork regularity in the wondrous universe-within-four-walls that I like to call The House. The idiots who live there can’t be bothered to pay attention.
The interludes are numerous, but they all feel weirdly right. A group of rats play cards, harbingers of the Monopoly game their human counterparts will soon be playing. Like some putrid interpretation of Mother Goose, a rotten carrot roller-skates a slow dance with a rancid stick of butter. Another nursery rhyme is evoked, only this time literally, when Goldilocks And The Three Bears appear. A bizarre, Alice In Wonderland-esque world is opened up while Neil is digging a grave for his own eventual self-martyrdom; in that little pocket dimension, the king and queen—overloaded with decadence and novelty—crave the sweet release of boredom.
Segueing from Rick’s hideously yawing chasm of a mouth to that of a man being tortured by demons, the episode also gets in a few digs at pop music. “Let’s give him some Barry Manilow!” cackles one demon to the other; a Duran Duran poster hangs on the wall behind them. Caricatures of Middle Eastern terrorists—over 30 years ago, that was already the sad default—bring in a rocket as Rick and crew are watching TV. They think the explosions going on two feet behind them are each others’ farts.
This is social satire at its most cutting: While whiling away our days with our noses buried in the minutia of our regimented lives and prepackaged pastimes, we have the gall to say nothing’s going on. Boredom isn’t a curse. It’s an invisible privilege—one that even destitute college students enjoy, assuming they live in a privileged nation. It’s the insidious, purgatorial spectacle Guy Debord warned about, only in this case peppered with extra ass jokes.
Just when “Boring” seems to start circling the drain of myopic oblivion, the best thing that could have happened to The Young Ones in its third episode actually happens. The gang leaves The House, and the show leaves its cocoon. The boundaries of The Young Ones’ home dimension are expanding. A quick stroll to the local pub later, the foursome have traded their grimy kitchen table for a cleaner one down at the wonderfully named The Kebab And Calculator—a combination Kebab Hut and Calculator Bell?—where the show’s horizons are broadened even further: We meet Vyvyan’s mom.
To me, Vyvyan’s chance run-in with his mother, a bartender at pub, is one of the rare moments of pure pathos in The Young Ones. Not that it’s played for such—which is precisely why it’s so gut-punching. Vyvyan isn’t a character to pull on your heartstrings; he’s more liable to think they’re TNT fuses and take a match to them. He hasn’t seen his mom in 10 years, and the first thing she does is try to grift him. “You never told us your mother was a bartender,” Rick exclaims. Vyvyan’s reply: “Well, she was a shoplifter when I knew her.” The reunion quickly cools when she ditches Vyvyan in order to cozy up to Mike, the self-styled ladies’ man. There’s an entire unwritten novel in that small scene—and while I’d be exaggerating if I said it brings a tear to my eye, it is a moment that makes the raggedy tapestry of “Bored” even raggedier. In the best possible way.
Boredom rears its boring head once again, though, to the point where Mike notes, “I think we’re overdoing the boredom motif in this conversation.” The Young Ones is taking a jab at itself, or so it might seem at first. What’s really being revealed is just another facet of the show’s subversive streak. While seeming to mock its own overuse of a dumb joke about being bored, it’s really mocking the fact that viewers expect a show not to do that. It’s saying, in essence, “Yes, we know TV shows aren’t supposed to be this repetitive. We know that we shouldn’t draw attention to the lack of things happening. But we’re going to do it anyway—and we’re going to show the exact opposite on the screen, all the while appearing to be self-deprecating.” It’s not that nothing happens in “Boring.” It’s that everything happens. It’s the most kinetic and kaleidoscopically bonkers episode to date, by a factor of 10.
There’s only one basic rule of a story: Something has to happen. That rule has been challenged uncountable times, of course, both intentionally and otherwise. A lot of it depends on how you define “something” and “happen.” Really, though, when someone says, “Nothing happened in such-and-such story,” they mean to say that not enough happened, or what did happen wasn’t sufficiently broad-gestured or exciting. Like the alligator in Adaptation, sometimes the rule about “stuff happening” can be taken to ludicrous—not to mention meta—extremes.
“But we have to change the rules because Monopoly’s so boring!” Vyvyan says exasperatedly while he plays board (no pun intended) games with Rick and Mike. Vyvyan has been taking a pen and scrawling his own addenda to the Monopoly cards (my favorite being “You may keep this card, sell it, or stick it up Rick’s bottom”), much to Rick’s chagrin. But that mutilate-the-rules-because-they’re-boring ethic might as well be The Young Ones’ rallying cry.
“Boring” ends much as it began, with Neil hanging his head out of The House’s second-floor window. Only now, it’s nighttime. An entire day—mind-numbingly dull yet deliriously momentous—has passed. Sunrise, sunset. There is, however, no fiddler on the roof. Just an alien spaceship, landing in a fusillade of dazzling lights and a Close Encounters-esque synthesizer fanfare. Neil doesn’t seem to notice. Why should he? What could be more boring?
Musical Guest Report: I’ve gone on (and on and on) in my first two Young Ones write-ups about how I believe The House is an actual character in the show. Well, in “Boring,” The House finally gets its own theme song: “House Of Fun,” as written and performed by this episode’s musical guest, Madness. The great British ska-pop band mimes its British-chart-topping, 1982 hit as the gang walks to the pub—only to find Madness actually playing there. “Do any of you lot know ‘Summer Holiday’ by Cliff Richard?” asks Rick, continuing the Cliff Richard running joke that will ultimately culminate in the entire show’s demented, pun-based punchline. Suggs, lead singer of Madness, shoots back, “You hum it. I’ll smash your face in.”
Madness were one of the most popular bands in the U.K. at the time, and they’re still massively (and deservedly) well regarded, something we in the U.S. aren’t always aware of, since they were only one-hit wonders on this side of the pond. That lone U.S. hit, “Our House,” just so happens to be another house-themed song—and it’s a no-brainer that the band will end up playing it when they resurface a few episodes from now, the only musical guest to take an encore in The Young Ones.
The Madness Nerd also says: When Vyvyan quickly mutters “It’s an embarrassment” as he marches past the members of Madness in the pub, it’s a nod to the group’s 1980 hit single, “Embarrassment.” I wrote about that song (and other Madness classics) six years ago here at The A.V. Club in a forgotten series called Vinyl Retentive. I love it when a plan comes together.
- Seeing as how I’m someone who once suggested—only half-jokingly—that I ought to form a support group for punk rockers who love Rush, I’m always pleased to see Vyvyan’s Rush T-shirt.
- Every time I watch “Boring,” the “Boring, Sidney… boring, boring… boring, boring, boring” scene from Sid And Nancy pops into my head. Of course, Johnny Rotten goes straight into a Dalek impersonation after saying “boring” to Sid Vicious—and Alexei Sayle (as Billy Balowski, brother of landlord Jerzei Balowsky, also played by Sayle) does his own Dalek impersonation in “Boring.”
- “Cornflakes. Cornflakes. Cornflakes cornflakes cornflakes. Cornflakes cornflakes cornflakes. Cornflakes.” Yup, nine.
- “Lentils are really good, you know? No matter how many times you have them, they never get boring.”
- “Not meat-flavored, because I don’t abuse my body in the world I live in.”
- Vyvyan botches a magic trick and chops off his own finger. Neil nonchalantly picks up and holds the severed digit. For a vegetarian, he doesn’t seem to be all that repulsed by the sight of meat.
- Butter: “Could you ever love a cripple?” Carrot. “No, I don’t think so.”
- The little demon is played by David Rappaport, a.k.a. Randall from Time Bandits. The big demon is played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths, a.k.a. Mace Tyrell from Game Of Thrones. I just geek-gleeked.
- Three actors who will play various future characters throughout the rest of The Young Ones’ run make their debuts in “Boring”: Mark Arden, Stephen Frost, and Jim Barclay, who all play cops in this episode. Arden and Frost also comprised the comedy duo The Oblivion Boys, and their turns as cops in “Boring” is an uncanny premonition of their later BBC police comedy, Lazarus & Dingwall.
- Cop: “Heh, that’s a laugh, ain’t it?” Other cop: “What?” Cop: “That noise you make in the back of your throat when you hear a joke.” Behold The Young Ones’ tribute to the “What is it?” jokes from Airplane!.
- Speaking of those cops: Yikes, the racist jokes. And by “racist jokes” I mean jokes that are at the expense of racists. But in one more example of how jokes like that sometimes just don’t land properly—even when factoring in the cultural-more differential between ’80s U.K. and ’10s U.S.—it’s hard not to cringe when one of the cops lets fly his litany of vile slurs. The gist of the gag, that he’s wearing dark glasses and therefore thinks a white person is black, completely flops. The same goes for the TV news reporter Dan Prick, whose on-the-nose name doesn’t make it any easier to stomach his own string of denigrations. The hearts of The Young Ones’ writers—Ben Elton, Lise Mayer, and Rik Mayall—are clearly in the right place. But along with the abovementioned Arab-terrorist stereotypes, it just goes to show how comedy can sometimes walk the edge with ease, and other times topple right off.
- Dan Prick’s racist newscast preempts Vyvyan’s favorite show, Bastard Squad, whose tantalizing title does not materialize as a bona fide show-within-a-show, one of The Young Ones’ specialties. But we do get a hilarious snippet of Rick’s favorite, Oh, Crikey!, a parody of a bawdy sitcom complete with an adorable bestiality joke that’s kind of smuggled in under the radar.
- In the special features of The Young Ones: Every Stoopid Episode DVD, there’s an excerpt from a 1999 documentary A History Of Alternative Comedy. In that excerpt, Alexei Sayle gives some illuminating insight into his unique role in the cast—the Peter Sellers of The Young Ones, I’ve always thought—only instead of having a chameleon-like quality, he’s glaringly the same actor, over and over, as if he’s lampooning the very notion of versatility. His character Billy Balowski makes his first appearance in “Boring,” and as usual, he mugs and hogs the camera gloriously during his all-too-brief appearance. The best part: his manic, stream-of-consciousness monologue about architects and elephants and home organs and crash helmets that operates on some kind of sugar-rush logic. It’s always a delight to see Sayle uncorked. As he explains in that DVD extra, he told the writers to “Just leave a hole in the script, and I’ll fill it during rehearsals.” That he does, fantastically.
- When it comes to episodes that either mention or fully depict roller-skating, so far we’re three for three.
- “The king is bored shitless with interesting things.”
- “You know what? There are now more tin cans than there are people.”
- “I could pull both your arms off and leave no trace of violence.”
- Rick: “Tell me, Mrs. Vyvyan, why did you give him a girl’s name?” Vyvyan punches Rick. An homage to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”?
- “I don’t think it’s very clever or smart to drink, actually. I want to stay in control.” Rick, original straightedger.
- “That’s funny, I don’t remember ramming a skewer through my head.”
- “Hey guys, tomorrow, why don’t we, just as a suggestion, why don’t we try… going into college?”
- I’ve talked in previous write-ups about how The Young Ones resembles a cartoon—an obvious comparison, true, but one that’s always worth pondering. Artist Scott Derby has taken that idea one step further: Here’s what the cover of a comic-book version of The Young Ones might have looked like, had it ever been made. I’m sold.