The early 1980s saw a sea change in terms of comedy.
1970s sitcoms were rather nice, and rather bland. Everybody was comfortably middle class, and with the probable exception of Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, was genuinely likeable. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers were urban farming in the sicky sweet The Good Life, Frank Spencer was earnestly doing his best on Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em, and so forth.
Meanwhile, in the streets, there was considerable unrest. Sid was Vicious, Johnny was Rotten, unemployment skyrocketed and times were grim. Light entertainment and comedy tried to keep a stiff upper and happy lip, but there were rumbles of discontent.
And in the comedy clubs you had a new kind of act: comedy with a punk sensibility. DIY comedy centering mostly around members of the infamous Comedy Strip and groups like 20th Century Coyote. Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson were "The Dangerous Brothers", abusing each other on stage. And so they decided to write a new show: about thoroughly unlikeable people, living in squalor. People for whom the bright uptick of Britain's Thatcher's version of Reaganomics weren't helping.
They wanted something anarchic: though centered around a group of students living in a student ghetto, there was little if any continuity, and sometimes the action would venture into the near-surreal. Rounding out the weirdness (and the memorability) of the show as an early decision to make it a "variety show" rather than comedy. A comedy series would get a certain amount of money from the BBC to make, but a variety show would get more. And as a result the action often segued to the likes of Motorhead or The Damned playing in their living room, also preserving performances from up and coming players who'd be the "who's who" of early 80s music.
The setup was a skewering of the nuclear family. The four main characters were Mike, (full name "Mike Thecoolperson"), who acted as a father figure of sorts. You couldn't help but see moaning, Eeyorish longhaired hippie Neil as the mother (especially since he did all the housework and cooking), and the two bickering students Rik and Vyvyan as the adolescent children rounding out the household.
Mike's character was supposed to be that of a very, very suave ladykiller, the essence of the stage persona of a noted comedian of the time. However, he disagreed and argued with the show's creators and was cut from the cast and replaced with another actor of very short stature who brought an almost oily gangster aspect to the role. The ever-depressed hippie character "Neil" was already the stage persona of a popular comedian of the day whose constant suicidal thoughts and actions, descriptions of things as "heeeee--aaaa---vvvvyyyyyyy" and such made a nice foil. Rik was ostensibly a sociology student but spent much of his time in the role of annoying early 80s socialist, styling himself "the people's poet", a closet cross-dresser with barely-suggested latent homosexuality. Rounding out the cast was punk-haired redhead Vyvyan, whose studded denim jacket read "Very Metal" and was fond of smashing his head through brick walls.
To try to summarize the plot of any episode would be an exercise in futility. Between cutaways to creepy gypsies living in complete darkness next door, to puppets riffing on something (inanimate objects around the house, rats, etc.) to a complete change of venue with no explanation, the show was an exercise in punk aesthetic and anarchy. Apparently "Bambi" is actually a human being running a quiz show after a scandal post-Disney career, in which he was an animated deer? A plane crashes into the house killing everyone, but they're alive the next week? Suddenly the entire house is underwater, or transported to medieval England. A vampire arrives by mail.
The way to enjoy it is to roll with it and not ask questions, such as why for example in one scene there's an audience member clearly joining the cast on the couch in the background (the comedians wanted a corpse, but that was nixed).
Adding even more to the insanity was a recurring role for Alexei Sayle as their landlord, vaguely eastern European "Jerzei Belovski", and/or other characters, such as the lead singer of a protest band who does a benefit concert in their living room at one point. Throwing up their hands, the script writers simply wrote "Alexei does something here" unless he was a part of the plot, in one episode consuming a Chekov's Gun potion that turns someone into an axe murderer. And Alexei turns in some brilliant stream-of-consciousness stuff, including a rant about various socialist revolutionaries actually being British guys who made it big, even ranting at one point that ABBA used to be a clog dancing troupe. None of it made any sense, but none of it was supposed to.
In addition to bringing back really violent slapstick, including people getting crowned with paddle bats and biting exploding bricks (don't ask) or at one point Vyvyan vomiting profusely with a pickaxe stuck in his forehead (best line ever: Rik gets hit in the privates with the paddle bat and yells out "Ha! Missed both my legs!") they managed to skewer everything and anything they could. Male sexuality, the delusion of a nice middle class Britain, the irrelevance of the bland and formulaic comedy they were protesting, student life, punk, alternative cultures of all kinds. It was an exercise in childhood energy and arrested adolescent development with no idea what it wanted, but it knew how to get it. Cue Madness singing "Our House" as people in the streets start a violent brawl.
It was very much the spirit of the times, as England hadn't yet had a future so bright it had to wear shades, and it was still feeling the malaise of the late 1970s. There was an angry energy with nowhere to go, and it found an outlet in four bright young male leads, and the guest stars who would become famous in their own right. From that series, Edmonson and Mayall would go on to "Bottom", Mike would end up playing a Sontaran warrior on "Doctor Who", the whole troup turned out a couple of movies, and Dawn French became "The Vicar of Dibley". Edmonson's wife, also a guest star, would have fantastic success as "Absolutely Fabulous" and a generation of young, poor and hungry comedians would eventually settle down, get complacently upper middle class, and become the new establishment.
But this series was the one that put a lot of household names on the map, and rewrote the rules of British comedy. Unpleasant, screaming, unlikeable, and thoroughly obnoxious, the four characters blazed a new trial.