25 Nov 2023

Adrian Edmondson: 'The more you hurt yourself, the more people laugh'

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 25 November 2023

Adrian Edmondson Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

British comedian, actor and writer Adrian Edmondson's new memoir traces his journey through life and comedy.

Edmondson found fame in the 1980s, playing anarchic medical student Vyvyan alongside Rik Mayall in The Young Ones. They also starred together in Bottom and in The Comic Strip Presents, along with Dawn French and Edmondson's wife Jennifer Saunders.

Edmondson went on to star in Filthy Rich & Catflap while taking roles in Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous and even Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi.

His new memoir Berserker! traces his journey through life and comedy, from a Methodist, boarding school upbringing to his loving but complicated relationship with Mayall, who died in 2014.

Speaking with Kim Hill on Saturday Morning, Edmondson said the memoir was "the result of a lot of strange factors all happening at once" - in particular, the United Kingdom's first Covid-19 lockdown.

"I'd never had the urge to write, but something happened to me in that first lockdown that we had," he says.

"We were all incarcerated in our homes, luckily I live in a lovely home in Devon, I've got a lovely garden. And I realised, for the first time in my life the noise in my head stopped. I hadn't even realised I had a noise in my head.

"But I felt this intense peace brought on by this forced lack of anything to do, all I was doing was gardening, I grow vegetables - I won prizes."

Photo: Macmillan

Thanks to the lockdown, his garden and a new affinity for birdsong, Edmondson says he finally learned what enlightenment was about.

"I've always thought that enlightenment was something to be found, but actually it's just a nothingness, an emptying," he says.

"And I sort of filled it with scanning all the photographs in the house. I decided in the evenings when I couldn't garden, I'd just make an online archive for the whole family.

"When you look at photos that are 40, 50, 60 years old, and you remember more about what's just off the edge of the photograph than you thought you could."

In Beserker, Edmondson is explicit about the link between pain in comedy - something that he credits his childhood experiences for.

Starting with an emotionally violent father and a mother who "tried to throttle me",  Edmondson experienced more violence when he was separated from his family - who lived in Uganda at the time - and was sent to boarding school in the UK.

"I discovered that the more you hurt yourself, the more people laughed," he says, looking back at his early standup experiences with Rik Mayall at the Comic Strip in London.

"There was a kind of cement wall at the back of the stage, and I found that if I banged my head against it, it would get a laugh, because it was obviously not a fake wall and people could hear it … and the harder I banged my head against the concrete wall, the bigger the laugh. You know, what are you going to do?"

Looking back at his beginnings with Mayall, Edmondson describes the pair as "desperate to laugh, frantic, despairing, distracted, it was like a disease".

The two young comedians both made it to university - "a feat in itself because we both did quite badly" - but study wasn't really on their minds.

"That was the only currency we had, was laughter. We didn't really have anything else. It's not that we were particularly impoverished but there was nothing much else going on. There was no other kind of hope for us.

"I don't think we wanted to destroy ourselves, but there was a disregard for being whole. I don't think we were hellbent on destruction, neither were we hellbent on being wholesome people."

Mayall and Edmonson went their own ways in the early 2000s, after finding themselves not on the same page as much as they once were.

"I think by the time we did the fifth Bottom Live tour, which was 2003, people in the audience probably don't realise but on stage you're always judging it, you're always working out what the response is," he says.

"And I perceived a slight diminution from the previous tour. It doesn't mean the show is any worse, we'd crossed the peak of the mountain. And we're now looking down the other side and I thought, I don't want to go down there."

Looking back at their careers together, Edmondson refers to Sturgeon's Law, an aphorism coined by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon in the 1950s: 'Ninety percent of everything is crap'.

"This is a personal point of view, 90 percent of everything is crap," Edmonson says.

"Ninety percent of television that I watch is, it might not be the same 90 percent as your 90 percent, but we all have our 90 percent and there's only ten percent of anything that's any good.

"We were lucky that Rik and I had the same 10 percent for a good thirty years."