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Case Number 10073: Small Claims Court

Buy A Bit Of Fry And Laurie: Seasons One And Two at Amazon

A Bit Of Fry And Laurie: Seasons One And Two

A Bit Of Fry And Laurie
1987 // 212 Minutes // Not Rated
A Bit Of Fry And Laurie
1990 // 177 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by BBC Video
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 27th, 2006

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• Buy the Season One DVD at Amazon
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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky has been told repeatedly not to show any of his own bits. How come these two guys got a show for doing it?

Editor's Note

Our reviews of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie: Season Three (published September 26th, 2007) and A Bit Of Fry And Laurie: Season Four (published October 17th, 2007) are also available.

The Charge

"I think what started out as quite an interesting statement on our susceptibility to received ideas, has just turned into a rambling, vague, ill thought out piece of drivel, frankly. And I think you ought to end it now."—Hugh Laurie

The Case

The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who loves House, the medical mystery show starring Hugh Laurie as an acidic, egotistical doctor. I mentioned just having rewatched Laurie's work in the Blackadder series and that he was one of my favorite British comic actors, especially in his turn as Bertie Wooster. My friend seemed puzzled. Hugh Laurie is British? He's a comedian? Then she remembered: oh, she had seen those other shows. She never made the connection before that it was the same guy.

Yeah, it is the same guy. Laurie and his comedy partner Stephen Fry have been staples in British television and movies for two decades now. In the mid-'80s, they started turning up in British situation comedies like Blackadder. They also debuted their own sketch show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which ran intermittently in four series over the next decade (from a 1987 pilot to the final episode in 1995). BBC Video, cashing in no doubt on America's fascination with Laurie as Dr. House, has started releasing A Bit of Fry and Laurie one series at a time, single disc sets with a half dozen or so episodes each.

A Bit of Fry and Laurie: Season One includes the 1987 pilot episode and the first six episodes of the series which aired in early 1989. What strikes you first about the pilot is the bad acting. Fry and Laurie probably wrote these sketches for the Footlights stage, and they tend to overplay to the studio audience. They are not yet inhabiting their strange characters yet; rather they are more clearly working through scripted material. The Python influence is apparent when a sketch about a man trying to report his stolen car to the police (now corporate owned) segues into a mock talk show analyzing the sketch—then another mock talk show trying to analyze the analysis. Then we cut to a long sequence (by artist William Wegman) of a guy spraying his armpit with deodorant. But a lot can be forgiven here: this is quite obviously a pilot, rough and disconnected, with flashes of quick and witty banter. Witness a sketch comedy tradition: the restaurant bit. "Why did the chef put cyanide in the soup?" pleads Stephen Fry as the confused diner. Laurie doesn't miss a beat: "He has a club foot." It tumbles out like poetry. Even a phrase like "genital fungus" seems calculated as much for sound as sense.

Fry and Laurie met and developed their partnership at Cambridge, where, like writing partners John Cleese and Graham Chapman before them, they were prominent members of the Footlights ensemble. And like Cleese and Chapman, their sketches favor wordplay and a more cerebral skewering of Britain's class politics. By the advent of their actual series in 1989, they were more polished—and they clearly have more of a budget to work with for things like makeup, costuming, and locations.

Highlights from the first series include:
• A bad psychic (who sounds like Uri Geller) who bends spoons—with his hands and not his mind
• A recurring bit about weak-chinned secret agent Tony (Laurie) and his clueless boss Control (Fry), the most boring spies in Britain
• Two police detectives question a woman about a husband she doesn't have—then try and interrogate a baby
• An enterprising drug dealer tries to get a bank loan
• The 19th century drawing room version of "Who's On First," as two rich country gentlemen try to discuss a riding accident
• A waiter prepares chicken lacroix at a diner's table—with a live chicken

Series Two brightens things up a bit with a peppier opening theme and more apparent physical energy. Fry and Laurie come out to speak directly to the audience before launching into the usual sketches. Highlights from the second series include:
• Fry impersonates pop star Michael Jackson—without make-up. Wait until you see him perform his latest single.
• More spy talk from the insipid Tony and Control, for whom the most exciting adventure is having a cup of coffee
• More "damn" venom from angry, potty-mouthed businessmen John and Peter
• Fry and Laurie climbing into the audience to prove conclusively that some people do get sick and die from not having their bottoms fondled
• A man copes with losing his genitals after a car accident, in spite of the fact that the doctor has offered him a Doberman and a sports watch to compensate

The situations are standard sketch stuff: man goes to a police station, man goes to a restaurant, man goes to a barber. Fry and Laurie do have their own territory though. They like routines about language: Laurie reads bad poetry for travelers, Fry rants about the wonders of wordplay ("Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my check-out girl…"), Fry plays an erudite novelist trying to get a word in edgewise with an obnoxious talk show host. Usually, Stephen Fry handles the more complex verbiage in these sketches. What do you expect from a guy whose memoir has the tongue-twisting title Moab Is My Washpot? But Hugh Laurie also is remarkably adept at wrapping his nimble tongue around dialogue that would frighten most actors. Indeed, he is a performer who does his best work with his expressive face.

While the routines are never as flat-out weird as some other sketch shows, there are a few times when Fry and Laurie cut loose. A routine about a schoolboy called in to the headmaster revolves around interpreting a very naughty poem and its freaky metaphors ("unhappy bubbles of anal wind?"). Sketches that deliberately "fall apart" or break the fourth wall allow Fry and Laurie to reflect openly on the structure of their sketches and language itself. For example, a bit about a doctor who gives very bad advice (improve your health by smoking 40 cigarettes a day!) turns into a comment on sketch comedy itself (including the line noted above in "The Charge"). Very pomo, even if the Pythons did it already. Often the jokes are more witty than full-on hysterical, but I must admit that, as a literature teacher, this stuff appeals to me. And nobody plays supercilious twits like Fry and Laurie.

Extra features for these two sets are minimal. The first season disc has no extras at all, although the packaging seems to imply that the pilot episode is a special feature. The second disc includes a 1982 television program on the Cambridge Footlights ensemble, the famous university comedy review. Noted members have included half of Monty Python, Douglas Adams, Peter Cook, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Although the packaging implies that this will be a documentary on the century-long history of Footlights (and claims it runs 10 minutes longer than it actually does), the show is really a showcase for the 1981 ensemble: Fry, Laurie, Penny Dwyer, Paul Shearer, Whose Line Is It Anyway? regular Tony Slattery, and Emma Thompson. Yes, that Emma Thompson. Bet you didn't know she cut her teeth on sketch comedy. The bits are very much college-educated humor: a Shakespearean acting class, Fry reads a parody of Dracula's thickly descriptive opening chapters ("Of all the hideously disfigured spectacles I have ever beheld, those perched on the end of this man's nose remain forever pasted into the album of my memory), a hymn by the ensemble celebrating British neo-fascism. Fry and Laurie are clearly the stand-outs in the group (and even their writing credit highlights their partnership), and you can see how their chemistry landed them a long career on television.

While A Bit of Fry and Laurie never produced any individual sketches as indispensable to British team comedy as, say, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's "One Leg Too Few" (a one-legged actor auditions to play Tarzan) or—well, take your pick of Monty Python routines—it does show the chemistry between these two actors that would lead them eventually to their most fruitful partnership, the brilliantly brittle Jeeves and Wooster. It would lead Stephen Fry—actor, novelist, raconteur—to his current position as the new Noel Coward. It would lead Hugh Laurie to his position as popular character actor (Stuart Little) and, of course, House. But seeing how well these guys work together, it would be a pity to think that their individual successes might deprive us of future bits of Fry and Laurie.

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• Comedy
• Television

Scales of Justice, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie

Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie

Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 212 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie

• None

Scales of Justice, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie

Judgment: 87

Perp Profile, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie

Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 177 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie

• "The Cambridge University Footlights Revue"

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