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On May 22 1991, American television saw an unlikely meeting of two great talents. The chat show host David Letterman’s guest was the British comedian Rik Mayall. He may have been a household name in his home country but Mayall was practically unknown, save to MTV viewers familiar with The Young Ones, in the United States. Their encounter made for excruciatingly embarrassing, car-crash television.
Mayall had been invited onto Late Night with David Letterman to promote his new film Drop Dead Fred, his attempt at cracking the American market. Matters soon went awry. Letterman behaved throughout as if Mayall’s presence was a tiresome obligation that he had to suffer through, playing to the audience for incredulous laughs. And an obviously nervous Mayall, introduced incredulously as ‘one of England’s most popular comedians’, barely restrained himself from swearing, made off-colour jokes about fires in orphanages and tampons in red wine and referred to himself as a “blood-drenched sex vampire from the bowels of Hades”.
An increasingly appalled Letterman, shifting about in his chair as if suffering from a bowel complaint, sneered at Mayall’s stories about The Young Ones (“hard to believe they only made a dozen, ladies and gentlemen!”) and, after some stilted badinage about which of them got to kiss Mayall’s co-star Phoebe Cates, showed a clip from the film.
His reaction when it ended, an exaggerated expression of distaste, proved to be an accurate premonition of how it would be treated critically upon its American release two days later. Letterman could not even bring himself to perform his usual encomium of insincere praise about his guest’s film, instead dismissively referring to it as “this thing”. Mayall’s self-deprecating joke that Drop Dead Fred would close the day after it opened seemed an accurate prophecy.
Greeted on release with a mixture of disgust and bewilderment, the film was a modest commercial success thanks to the presence of Cates, then a big star thanks to the Gremlins films. The damning reviews that it garnered, however, saw critics on both sides of the Atlantic vie with one another to come up with hyperbole.
Gene Siskel called it “easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen”, and Empire magazine, aimed at a readership who were interested in Mayall’s work, moaned that “There is scarcely a laugh to be had unless you are six years old or immoderately fond of such wheezes as depositing dog poop on a white carpet.”
Mayall never had another starring role in an American film, and there were no further appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. As he later commented, “Mums complained that I had corrupted their sons and taught them to wipe bogeys on the furniture.”
In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that Ate de Jong’s film was ever made at all. The tale of a depressed and anxious woman who summons up the outrageous Fred, her childhood imaginary friend, it is a strange but oddly effective mixture of outlandish physical humour and disturbing farce, seasoned with an unexpected undercurrent of anguish. It was not what Letterman, or anyone else, might have expected from a mainstream studio comedy.
Three decades on, it is possible to reassess Drop Dead Fred not as an asinine exercise in gross-out stupidity but as a sophisticated and ahead-of-its-time black comic exploration of anxiety and depression. It is anchored by a superb, poignant performance by Cates, but also allows Mayall the opportunity to cut loose with manic energy and invention to spare. And its achievements lie in its director taking what could have been a rote comedy and working with his star to come up with something subversive and memorably offbeat.
Presented with a script by former competitive swimmer Tony Fingleton and his writing partner Carlos Davis, which had been set up at Working Title as a vehicle for Mayall, de Jong was initially blasé about the project. As he says now, “It’s easy to lie and say it touched my heart, or that I saw the psychological depth, or because Rik Mayall was attached. That’s true, for sure. But it was, at the beginning, also an opportunity. I was one of hundreds of gold-diggers in Hollywood, and my God, I struck gold by getting this offer.”
Once approved by Mayall, De Jong began work on the script with the producer Paul Webster, who now recalls that “The script was developed throughout pre-production although the basic structure didn’t change. My memory is that the final film was pretty close to the shooting script. The madcap tone was very much at the heart of the film from the start.”
Yet, as de Jong says, “The deeper layers come later. You can’t avoid those once you start working.” Presented with a superficially goofy comedy, he brought his own experiences of abuse and trauma to the project. “I was molested as a very young child by my older half-brother. I have no memory of it – it was very suppressed – but my body does. The trauma of child abuse goes deep and its claws reach far in time. It was not something ever spoken about on the set, not with Rik or anyone, but for me it existed.”
Although de Jong did not rewrite the script himself, he worked closely with Mayall and the writers to turn the final version into something more sophisticated and darker. His star was an enthusiastic and willing contributor, who eschewed improvisation on set in favour of sticking to the script. Today, Webster says of Mayall that “Rik was an absolute pleasure to work with. He was a gentle and generous man who is still very sadly missed. He was very involved in story, and in the writing of the script.”
Many of the gags were devised by him and much of Fred’s dialogue too. He had a lot of freedom in interpreting the character, and he was the comedic driving force of the film. De Jong echoes this, saying “Rik was beyond a delight. He was very loyal and – of course – very inventive. In my mind there is no question that the impact of Drop Dead Fred is first and foremost his credit. Rik always told me ‘I would follow you all the way from here to Stalingrad’.”
When it came to shooting in Minneapolis, Webster describes production as ‘a very happy shoot’, even if he debunks the long-standing myth that local resident Prince would come and play on the film’s set after shooting was done. De Jong is less diplomatic.
“I have many memories from filming, happy and less happy. I still regret we fired our first director of photography after a week, but the new DoP Peter Deming was fabulous. There were some actors who thought it was all nonsense and borderline vulgar, but you live with that for the few days they’re on set. Several of the American actresses, young and old, were very concerned when I wanted to make shots from a low angle. They were afraid it wouldn’t be flattering. Rik wouldn’t think about that. The American actors tended to distance themselves from the crew, while the Europeans felt more a part of the crew. As a European filmmaker, you’re not that worried about glamour.”
One actress who belied this aloof vanity during her cameo appearance was Carrie Fisher, who played a confidante of Cates’ character. Fisher remained friends with de Jong until her untimely death, and Webster cites the presence of the “very funny, sardonic lady’ as one of the highlights of production, saying “I was very happy that we snared Carrie, who was a legend to me. I think Rik was a little over-awed by her!”
And de Jong cast his mother in a small role as Grandma Bunch, who gets yellow paint thrown on her. As he says, “The entire crew thought it was cruel and that I should just hire an extra. But she wanted to do it, and I said to everyone, this was cheaper than 10 therapy sessions. Of course, when we made the shots and the grips threw the paint, I was in tears.” (Webster comments drily that, if he made the film again today, “I would certainly not encourage our director to cast his own mother as the character who gets a bucket of yellow paint thrown over her.”)
And then it was released, and panned. Today, Webster is philosophical about the damning reviews. “The critical response was awful. The film was slaughtered. It was very hard on all of us, particularly Rik when he did press. When we made the film, we were hoping for commercial success. The intention was to make a film with broad mainstream appeal. I think with hindsight we were naïve in our expectations; I don’t think some American audiences were particularly ready for Rik’s brand of Young Ones anarchic humour.”
De Jong avoided the reviews (“Since my second film I’ve never read reviews anymore – good or bad. It hurts too much”), but could not dodge the bad buzz. Now, he reflects: “I think that the anarchistic mentality was alien to many critics. The film was childish, on purpose of course. It didn’t attempt to be slick and smart. though I think it is both. In a way it glorified bad taste and ignored good behaviour and a polite upbringing. It was anti-intellectual and that’s never a great invitation for film critics.”
Yet now it is celebrated, even beloved. There has been occasional talk about a much-belated sequel or a remake, with a star such as Russell Brand or Jim Carrey taking on the role of Fred, but so far none has materialised. De Jong believes that if such a thing should happen (“no one ever asked me” ), then the casting should be more adventurous, in order to find a fitting successor to the much-missed Mayall. “The film may benefit even more from a musician in the lead role of Fred, a musician who improvises without hesitation, excels in one instrument but is not embarrassed to be a fool with other instruments.”
But Drop Dead Fred remains as inimitable as its star, in all of its deranged, provocative glory. Today, it is a cult film, something that Webster ascribes to its being far ahead of its time. “It still resonates today, 30 years later. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that! But the whole notion of an ‘inner child’ is much more accepted today. As a society we are more comfortable with our feelings and therapy is widely accepted. As time has gone on, those themes in the film that deal with mental illness have come to the surface and contemporary audiences embrace that.”
De Jong agrees. As he says, “I’ve always believed that if you can laugh about your feelings, your feelings can’t hurt. If you can’t laugh about them, they don’t exist. That’s not true, but it’s a great rule to live by.”