|A Bit of Fry & Laurie: The Complete Collection (1987-1995)
Starring: Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie
When it comes to British comedy on TV, mainstream American audiences tend to only be aware of two names: Benny Hill and Monty Python. While there’s something to be said for the fact that they’re at least from completely opposite ends of the comedic spectrum, it seems a bit unfair that so few folks stateside remain blissfully unaware of the existence of “The Goon Show,” “Vic and Bob,” or “The Comic Strip,” to name but three. It’s statistically probable that you have no idea that Hugh Laurie ever had a television comedy career prior to taking on the title role in Fox’s high-rated medical drama, “House.”
Actually, come to think of it, if we’re speaking statistics, then most Americans probably don’t even know that Laurie’s British!
British Laurie is, however, and when it comes to comedy, he’s practically a household name in the UK, having appeared in three major television series: “Blackadder,” “Jeeves & Wooster,” and, most important for the purposes of this review, the sketch comedy series, “A Bit of Fry & Laurie.” And now that you know who the “Laurie” in “A Bit of Fry & Laurie” is, you may be interested to learn that the “Fry” in question -- Stephen Fry -- has also been working for the Fox network in recent months. He took on a recurring role on “Bones” last season, as psychiatrist Dr. Gordon Wyatt. Fry, too, has been a staple of British television for many years, having appeared in the same trio of comedies, plus several others, including “Baddiel’s Syndrome,” “Absolute Power,” and, most recently, “Kingdom.”
“A Bit of Fry and Laurie” is, as noted, a sketch comedy series, and, well, you hate to keep bringing up the old standby, but it must be said: if you’re going to make a stylistic comparison, there is a certain similarity to Monty Python here, not least of which because both Fry and Laurie find themselves in drag on a semi-regular basis. They also enjoy a good non-sequitur, as well as a tendency to end sketches abruptly for one reason or another. It’s also a regular occurrence for them to break through the fourth wall into the studio audience. Ultimately, though, the humor of Fry and Laurie is even more British than that of the Pythons, with many punchlines around the state of affairs in England and jokes and sketches that require a reasonable knowledge of UK television to appreciate fully. Additionally, it’s generally more intellectual in nature, often focusing on gags based in vocabulary or pronunciation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (At all.)
Some sketches find their way into most of the series’ four seasons, including the adventures of Tony Murchison, the nicest secret agent Britain has to offer; there’s also Tony Inchpractice, a chat-show host whose topics always seem to be rather out there. (My favorite: Photocopying My Genitals with Tony Inchpractice.) Laurie’s musical abilities pop up on a regular basis, finding him sitting at a piano, making light of some general style of music, be it a pop ballad or a classical work. There’s also a great recurring sketch called The Bishop and the Warlord, a so-called “light metal” band fronted by an actual bishop, complete with all his appropriate vestments. The fourth season is often considered the weakest of the bunch, because the BBC apparently steered the duo toward having celebrity guests on a regular basis. But they didn’t need to have done so -- Fry and Laurie together is clearly all the comedic genius anyone should need.
Before closing, it’s worth noting that I had the opportunity to speak to Laurie very briefly at the Summer 2007 TCA Press Tour, where we discussed the seeming unlikelihood of he and Fry ending up on the same American television network, lo these many years later. After describing it as “an absolutely fantastic experience, for both of us,” he admitted that, “yes, we looked back at some happy days and did actually talk about it, as we always do, in a very vague kind of way, we talk about reconvening and carrying on where we left off. I don’t know in what form, but I hope one day we will. Possibly on a stage, actually. That’s our next thought.”
Nice one, eh? Fingers crossed for us all. And, now, please, Mr. Music, will you play?
Special Features: Disappointingly, there’s only one special feature on the set and, worse, it’s not even the one that’s advertised! The back of Disc 2 indicates that it contains “Footlights: 100 Years of Comedy,” described as a “56-minute documentary featuring early Fry and Laurie material.” What’s actually included, however, is a 45-minute 1982 special entitled “The Cambridge University Footlights Review:” it’s extremely funny and well worth watching, especially given that it contains the first-ever TV appearance of Emma Thompson, as well as a rare opportunity to see Tony Slattery outside of “Whose Line Is It, Anyway,” but it’s certainly not the history of the Footlights Review that the set was purported to contain.