Among her many marvels—the Sense and Sensibility screenplay, the Hillary Rodham interpretation in Primary Colors, almost making me want to see a Harry Potter movie— Emma Thompson once transformed herself into a fabulous ampersand. In 1980, the actress, then a student at Cambridge, brought about an introduction that led, immediately, to the creation of one of history’s great comedy teams—a double act to rank with Laurel & Hardy, Nichols & May, French & Saunders. One October evening, Thompson led one male Cantabrigian (tall, beefy, a chin like a plinth, someday to become a jolly polymath) around to the rooms of another (tall, reedy, eyes like ping-pong balls, someday to Ahab around Fox as Dr. House). Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie started writing together that night.
The rest is hysteria. In time, this would mean Jeeves and Wooster, with twitchy Laurie as the twit and Fry as the heroic valet, but the purest expression of Fry-&-Laurieness is now available for your ravenous consumption in the form of A Bit of Fry & Laurie—The Complete Collection … Every Bit!, which gathers every superlatively clever, terrifically asinine, and absolutely inexplicable moment from the four seasons of their BBC sketch show. Its 13 hours are a monument to the comedians’ moment of love at first sight—of discovering someone else who took silliness very seriously. Just look at the facial hair they glued on to inhabit their hundreds of clowns over the years.
The sketches of the 1986 pilot lay the groundwork for all that follows. In the first, jumpy Laurie is talking plummy Fry through a bottomless stack of vacation pictures. “This is one of the, uh, the Hertz girls, Tanya, with the car,” he says with grating energy. “Here’s another one of the lunch tray … ” Fry endures this with an absolute minimum of civility: “I’ve been sucked into the deepest pit of hell,” and gagging, and flipping the photos aside with careful disdain and so on. The humor being only in the tone, you spend a mildly amused minute unable to see where this is going, or why. Then Fry screams, “Go away!” and begins weeping into his sweater; Laurie turns to ice, licks his lip with the beginnings of satisfaction, and executes the reveal: “Right. Well, you touch my daughter again and it’ll be a slide show. You understand?” Despite its number of running characters and elaborate setups, Fry & Laurie specializes in the quick hit, the sudden turn, the absurdist blitz.
Many of the sketches depict interactions that should be power struggles but soon slither off that plane of reality into pure nonsense. Often, Fry is the alpha—the pompous shopkeeper or puffed-up boss or preening cleric—and Laurie the supplicant or underling. This casting is partly rooted in physiology—Fry is taller and wider—and partly in the good old British class system. Laurie may have gone to Eton, but Fry had a somewhat posher background, and it showed in everything from his carriage to his way of wearing checked jackets.
Thus, Fry is the man to slip into pinstripes and behind a podium for a blustering address on the topic of education: “Basically, the plain and simple purpose of education must be to teach children, young people, not—I repeat, not—to break into my car. … Of course, I am concerned that young people shouldn’t break into other people’s cars too, but I think that’s more of an ethical question and not really the province of government.” Just as naturally, he will play the barber and Laurie the customer in a bit about an abortive haircut. Unfurling a jabberwocky of fake-pretentious wordplay, Fry wonders which one of Laurie’s hairs he desires trimmed: “Which of the manifold hairs upon sir’s crisp and twinkling headage would sir like to place in my professional care for the purposes of securing an encutment?”
Laurie, meanwhile, is strong with Americans, especially American rock stars. Which is a more trenchant joke? The aspiring Springsteen sitting at a piano and singing a song called “America” (which goes “America/ America/ America/ A-merrrr-i-ca“) or the country-western kid who twangs that the solution to all the world’s ills, AIDS to ozone, is “kickin’ ass“? Whereas lusty Fry specializes in rolling perorations, Laurie has greater snap with one-liners. Check him out in a 10-second bit in Season 3 as a bobby who must also report to the ministry of silly walks. He squiggles his legs around like fettuccini and then faces the camera: “Yeah, it’s mostly legwork this job.” The joke owes a debt to Monty Python, yes—and none of A Bit of Fry & Laurie would be imaginable without that troupe’s example—but Stephen and Hugh rework the symphonic madness of Python as chamber music, performing a classic kind of pas de doo-doo.