Today is Richard Ayoade’s birthday. You might know him as the random British inclusion in The Watch, the filmmaker behind the Jesse Eisenberg doppelganger movie, The Double, and of course, he’s Moss from The IT Crowd – a character that Christopher Campbell once dressed up as for Halloween.
He’s also a great serving of comedic joy.
Ayoade wouldn’t agree. He self-deprecatingly says he’s “just terrible. At talking. With words.” But if Ayoade is not, by his estimation, an actor, he is certainly a man who can banter brilliantly and absurdly in ways that make every manner of words seem natural. Even better: he has his own much-needed spin on nostalgia, one that replicates old styles rather than old toys, and relishes in the remnants of real life rather than computer-crafted graphics, as these 8 examples reveal.
The IT Crowd
Ayoade broke into North American consciousness when he co-starred with Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Parkinson in The IT Crowd, the British antidote to The Big Bang Theory. He plays Moss, the typical super-smart uber-geek who contains all the usual staples from style a la mom, to a severe lack of social skills and yen for boardgaming. But, for all of his endearing obliviousness, Moss could be downright cunning if he so desired (especially when the black box that holds the Internet is involved), and downright dangerous when he desires a seat at the park.
His Moss was so utterly particular that when the show was remade for U.S. audiences, they didn’t bother to find a replacement, they hired Ayoade. The show, however, was a mess of repetition and extra slapstick, and was quickly killed after the pilot episode.
The Weinstein Company
In Ayoade’s directorial debut, he adapts Joe Dunthorne’s “Submarine,” a coming-of-age story about an awkward teen’s first love and his transparent attempts to fix his parents’ struggling relationship. It’s a love story that is, at once, familiar and idiosyncratic as young Oliver Tate enters the world of romance. This isn’t a tale of stolen glances and pop culture banter, but of embracing strangeness, encapsulated when Tate tells his Jordana: “I thought it would be nice to get some mutual interests … now that we’ve had sex … other than spitting and setting things on fire.”
It’s fascinating to watch the many ways Ayoade’s nostalgia can manifest. In Submarine, it’s a mixture of ’80s New Age tackiness, pre-smart phone communication, and Super 8 whimsy that meshes into a fun and cohesive whole.
AD/BC: A Rock Opera
In one of Ayoade’s first parodies, he and The IT Crowd’s Matt Berry collaboratively turned their sights toward 1970s rock operas about Jesus. Sadly, AD/BC isn’t a full musical, but it’s still worthy in all of its comic brevity on a tiny soundstage. It’s also, I’d dare say, more fun than the current religion-themed mega-hit, The Book of Mormon.
The Mighty Boosh
Considering the rock opera, it’s no surprise that Ayoade would collaborate as actor, writer and script editor on a show that sees two Brits cracking into spells, talking to apes, and sharing a flat with a carpet-riding shaman – while occasionally breaking out into song.
Ayoade plays Saboo, a member of the Board of Shaman, occasional DJ, and cohort of the bodiless alien Tony Harrison. Saboo’s generally the self-proclaimed “pretty good” (not awesome) square, if there is such in this absurd world, ranting about “the crunch” and trying to teach Naboo lessons time and time again. Unfortunately, however, he thinks Fleetwood Mac “are bullshit munchers.”
Community: “Critical Film Studies”
Once you get a little familiar with Ayoade’s work, it’s no surprise to learn that he directed one of Community’s best film-centric episodes, “Critical Film Studies.” You know, the one that seems to play out like a super-obvious Pulp Fiction ode, but is really a nod to Louis Malle’s great conversation film, My Dinner with Andre.
Abed seems to have broken from his obsessive love of cinema. Getting the opportunity to visit his beloved Cougar Town, and appear in a scene, changes him. He’s not interested in his PF-themed wallet. All he wants is for Jeff to give him his first real conversation. Or so he says.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
Long before Adult Swim was offering “The Greatest Event in Television History,” Ayoade was relishing in old-school style in a longer format. In Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Matthew Holness’ Marenghi is a prolific pulp horror writer and friendly colleague of Ayoade’s playboy entrepreneur, Dean Learner. In the series, Marenghi is introducing lost episodes of his low-budget 1980s hospital-set horror show called Darkplace, which feels like what Quincy might’ve looked like if Lars von Trier got high, traveled back in time, and took over the set.
Like much of Ayoade’s work, the intertextual messages become real-life missives. “Put conventional logic to one side, and enjoy,” says Marenghi, which is both good advice for the ridiculousness of his self-indulgent show, and also a reminder that Ayoade’s creations challenge the conventional logic, or creativity, we’ve grown accustomed to.
Man to Man with Dean Learner
The Brit system of mini-seasons and one-off journeys might not feed voracious fandom, but it does allow for a reach of creative freedom and character movement. At one moment, Ayoade and Holness can dig into the Darkplace. The next, they can use their old characters to create the six-episode series Man to Man with Dean Learner.
“Bringing refinement to modern television,” Ayoade’s “one-man brand” Lerner is SNL’s continental playboy mixed with a dash of Robin Leach, interviewing Holness’ chameleon mix of characters. Lerner complains that television is so “depraved” and “venal” that he’s “almost ashamed to be associated with it,” thus becoming both the questionable, fictional antidote to television, and the real one that strives to diversify modern fare.
All of the above culminates in his latest feature, The Double. Ayoade’s forays into style and nostalgia perfectly intermingle with the world of Dostoyevsky’s novella about a man (Jesse Eisenberg) whose life is destroyed by his doppelganger. The black comedy is retro-industrial, playing with eras, current talents and older bits of inspiration like Wallace Shawn (who wrote and starred in My Dinner With Andre…).
This, as with most of Ayoade’s work, thrives because it’s not just insularly self-indulgent – it’s idiosyncratic, fun and sometimes even thought-provoking. Mixing styles, realities and levels of humor, Ayoade unintentionally becomes a how-to for nostalgia – how to mix the past and present in a way that resonates because it doesn’t follow the usual, overused roadmap. It’s memory pushing beyond stretching a childhood toy into a feature film franchise; it’s reveling in the texture of the past in new ways.