Channel: BBC One
Recurring Cast: Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie
I imagine it would be delightful fun to take an American fan of House M.D and take him to this sketch show aired in 1989 and see where the great Hugh Laurie started out.
Yes, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are giants of the acting world. Laurie has veered into the more serious roles as of late, most famously the incredible Gregory House and most recently in the Night Manager, and Stephen Fry, while sticking to comedy, is one of the godfathers of wit. It is never anything less than enjoyable to return to their duo sketch show and see their humour in its early days. And the beauty of A Bit of Fry and Laurie is that it really does come across as two funny friends knocking their heads together and coming up with something entertaining to make us laugh. There is a real underdog charm to the whole set-up, Fry and Laurie working up some deliciously inventive sketches and performing them with the youthful exuberance of two people who really love what they do. And their fun is infectious enough to make this sketch show, even its early days here in Season One, really quite special. The pair of them enjoy turning the usual staple of the sketch show on its head quite often, so each entry to the series can manipulate itself in amusing ways. The fourth wall is less a wall and more of an open window. Whole sketches consist of the actors actually being themselves and addressing a live audience. Sometimes, they will be halfway through a sketch and break character, in order to come out with a punchline we would never have guessed occurring. It is a very cheeky delivery of comedy, playing with the audience and with less talented actors it might not have worked. But both Fry and Laurie are precise in their delivery. Right from the pilot episode, one sketch in particular where Laurie announces he is blind, they are charming, witty and able to carry a sketch show, quite often, with little more than themselves, an empty stage and their own writing. As the sketch show sadly devolved into nonsense parodies and grotesque caricatures (yes, I am looking at Little Britain), A Bit Of Fry and Laurie focuses on the jokes and timing first, the set-pieces second, if they are even needed at all.
A lot of the sketches are based on simple word play. Fry, especially, is a comedian in love with the use of language. A lot of the time he is either parodying the terminology used by critics, scholars or conservatives or perhaps turning a common phrase on its head. Some of the jokes are so simple they will go right over your head, but the delivery is so smooth and comfortable that the gags land nonetheless. It takes confidence when your entire sketch is built upon a few language tricks, but the comedians are so confident in their work from the writing to the delivery that we buy into what they are trying to do. Take their secret service jokes for example. While Fry and Laurie aren’t prone to recurring sketches, they do occasionally allow themselves a few characters the audience can relate to. In Season One, their main source of comedy is Control and Tony, two well-spoken Brits working for MI5. I won’t spoil the sketch for you, but it is a prime example about just how controlled both actors are. The sketch is rib-achingly funny and, in a way, no one even tells a joke. But the core idea is so strong and the performances flow so well, it is the highlight of the series. It is a sure-fire way each episode to have me in fits of laughter. A lot of the time though the sketches are stand-alone, Fry and Laurie knowing restraint is crucial in shows like these. It doesn’t matter how funny the cop characters are in this sketch if the core jokes aren’t working, then they might as well be left back on the drawing board. And perhaps this is the one weak point of the show. As with all sketches, you are only as good as your last sketch, and this early on in the career of Fry and Laurie, there are certain beats that ring false. Maybe the fourth wall is broken one too many times, an excuse to end a sketch early, when they only have half an idea. One episode sees half the sketches being interrupted by an audience member claiming the sketch is copyrighted. The first time, it was funny, but after that, it feels that we have hit the point in the season where the actors are scrapping the barrel. But, on the whole, it is a promising start. Besides, what other sketch show would end with a sword fight just because of reasons…
Final Verdict: It is good to see that clever writing trumps visual gags, especially coming from two of Britain’s great comedy doubles.