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Simply put, Gregory House, M.D. and the Master of Laketown from the Hobbit movies were perhaps the funniest comedy twosome ever to hit the small screen.
Okay, not those characters, specifically, but the people who played them: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Following a 23-episode run reinterpreting the famed P.G. Wodehouse novels (with Fry playing the long-suffering butler Jeeves and Laurie the addle-pated “gentleman” Bertie Wooster, respectively), the duo took their inimitable chemistry to an entirely new level in the BBC series A Bit of Fry & Laurie.
Well, maybe “new” isn’t precisely the right word. Britain has proven to be a font of comedy duos (or “double acts,” as they call them), for seven decades at least, starting with Morecambe and Wise through Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (aka Derek and Clive) in the ’60s, the Two Ronnies and French and Saunders in the ’70s and ’80s, and continuing post-Fry and Laurie with Mitchell and Webb in the new millennium.
While American duos (think Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Lewis) tended to rely on pratfalls, the Brits—many emerging from the Oxbridge smarty-pants Richie Rich crucible—often took an elitist and intellectual bent. As a for instance, check this clip, with Fry as a precious, scholarly pedant being interviewed by an increasingly perplexed Laurie.
It wasn’t as though they were above slapstick; they just used it as a sort of piquant spice in a surrealist bouillabaisse, rather than as an end unto itself. In this sketch, a simple interaction between a policeman and a man reporting a crime takes a sudden left turn into the Twilight Zone.
Depending on who you ask, the most important element in comedy is either surprise or timing. [My personal theory is that they can’t really be separated, a sort of Siamese twin foundation upon which hilarity necessarily rests.] In this sketch, the element of surprise is introduced early on, followed by some banter carefully crafted to lull you into complacency, followed by an enter-stage-left punchline that smacks you in the face like a cold herring.
In addition to being a consummate funnyman, Hugh Laurie’s musical talents often featured in the program, both as pianist and guitarist. His sendup of American jingoism in “Kickin’ Ass” is just about deadpan enough to be covered unironically by the likes of a Toby Keith, but for the couplet in the chorus: “We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone / We just stand in front of a mirror, and try and kick our own.”
As long as we’re on the subject of Laurie’s music, check out this hilarious—and short—Springsteen-esque paean to all things American. It’s yet another terrific example of how, much like their forebears in Monty Python, they know how to get out of a sketch pronto after they’ve made their point. And now for something completely different, indeed.
And just when you think you’ve wrapped your brain around their comedic stylings, the duo goes all meta on you, taking what appears to be a simple sketch and breaking the fourth wall, warping its shape into a commentary on the nature of comedy itself.
While the series ran for only four “seasons,” a total of 26 episodes between 1989 and 1995, it remains jaw-droppingly fresh, no mean feat for comedy, which often has the shelf life of a banana. But much like the aforementioned banana, it certainly has—wait for it—appeal.
To exit on a high note after that heinous pun, let’s conclude our recap of the series the way Fry and Laurie frequently concluded their show: with a little music and a cocktail recipe. This one is called “Everything in the Till and No Sudden Moves.” As Stephen Fry so correctly notes, “You’ll have fun asking for that in your local bar.”