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rare female film critic | by maryann johanson

some bits of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie

If you know the brilliant Hugh Laurie only from House, which was the introduction the majority of American audiences had to the British actor, then you probably don’t know that before taking on the role of the cranky doctor, Laurie was celebrated primarily as a comic actor. Oh, it’s true that there are aspect of Gregory House that are funny, but his is a bitter, mean humor. The Laurie that I’d been a fan of for more than a decade prior to House has a bright, cheery, sprightly screen presence; he made magic out of humor, managed to be both intellectually droll and bouncy and goofy at the same time. I love House, and Laurie is amazing in the role, but when I watch the show I find myself constantly surprised that this vicious misanthrope is Hugh Laurie.
All this has been prompted by the news that Season 3 of House is coming to DVD in August, and by this week’s DVD release of the final two seasons of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, the sketch comedy show Laurie created, wrote, and starred in with his longtime partner in comic crime, Stephen Fry. I haven’t seen the show again since it aired on PBS in the 90s, and I am looking forward to diving into the DVDs. (All four seasons, which aired on the BBC between 1989 and 1995, are now available in a complete set, as well.) Sort of a two-man Monty Python’s Flying Circus, this show was full of absurb observations on modern life, clever wordplay, hilarious non sequiturs, and funny musical numbers. (Laurie is an accomplished musician on several instruments, most notable the piano.)

Anticipating Fry & Laurie makes me want to devour all over again their other grand collaboration, Jeeves and Wooster, also available on DVD. Adapted from the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, this is 23 episodes of stylish silliness about rich buffoon Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. Set in the 1920s and 30s in England (with a few side trips to New York), this 1990-1993 series from Britain’s ITV is an impossible combination of Edwardian elegance and sharp, literate farce that pulls off every element absolutely perfectly. Laurie’s Bertie is ridiculously charming, an especial accomplishment because Bertie is such a twit, and Fry’s Jeeves, the perfect manservant, is a wonder of actorly economy: Fry stands still and does nothing, and you laugh yourself silly. This is one of the best adaptations from literature I’ve ever seen, and I can’t imagine anyone doing Wodehouse better.

You don’t need me to tell you to should be watching Black Adder if you’re a Fry and Laurie fan, do you? Hugh Laurie as mad, dim Prince George in Blackadder the Third — the best incarnation of the show — is by itself reason enough to check this out. As is Stephen Fry’s General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. What are you waiting for?

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