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Puff Piece: Hugh Laurie

So. Over the last few months, I've been watching DVDs of a couple of television shows featuring the great Hugh Laurie. They are somewhat different. The first is an American drama/soap opera in which Mr. Laurie plays a brilliant and irascible diagnostician (oh, and crazy dope friend); the second is a sketch comedy series he co-wrote and co-starred in with Stephen Fry. Watching the two of them over a shortish period has put me rather in awe of Mr. Laurie as an actor.

House, the medical thing, is an annoyingly terrible show with annoyingly brilliant bits. Mr. Laurie's character is wonderful, mostly wonderfully written, and almost always wonderful to watch. The rest of the characters range from annoying to uninteresting, with occasional good bits for most of them. The show revolves, or ought to, around two kinds of scenes: Doctor House giving snap diagnoses of common conditions based on offhand observations of minute symptoms, and Doctor House coming up with possible diagnoses of extraordinarily rare conditions (or combinations of conditions) based on a whole slew of conflicting and usually disgusting symptoms. I prefer the former, particularly as Mr. Laurie and Doctor House deliver the diagnoses in very funny, terribly rude, and often unexpected ways. The writing and performance mesh perfectly, and his exasperation, misanthropy and arrogance are entertaining to watch, as long as you are not the poor sap in the walk-in clinic who has the doctor glance at your left wrist and tell you that you have glaucoma and besides, your boss is sleeping with your husband. Or whatever. It's a hoot. The other ones are less amusing but are actually engrossing (in addition to being out-grossing) and if they are implausible, they are entertaining enough that I don't mind.

Sadly, the rest of the show is a soap opera about a handful of unpleasant hospital administrators and doctors, who waste my time with their interactions as if I care about them and their fictional futures. La. In addition, the implausibility that works in the show's favor when it turns out that the patient has leprosy (the father, you see, was not actually on secret missions so much as he was tramping around the undeveloped world having indiscriminate sex with whoever he met) works against the show when I am supposed to care whether the ludicrous hospital CEO will be vanquished by the risible chief of surgery. There is an important difference between implausible and fun, and implausible and lame. I surmise that these bits are there to provide opportunities for Dr. House to be inventively and wittily abrasive, except that the setups take up time that could be spent showing Dr. House actually being inventively and wittily abrasive. Ah, well. I am nearly at the end of the first season, something like twenty-'leven episodes, and I don't plan to watch season two.

I was so impressed by Mr. Laurie's performance as Dr. House, though, that I decided to seek out A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which I had known about and never bothered to find and watch. I've seen six episodes of the first series, and they are amateurish, inconsistent, self-indulgent, and very very funny. I was surprised to see that Stephen Fry, for all that he is a very funny man and clearly a terrific writer, is not much of an actor. He plays a very narrow range of characters extraordinarily well, and when he goes outside that range, it's usually a disaster, or at least his performance is. Mr. Laurie, on the other hand, successfully embodies a much wider variety of characters, changing voices, physical habits, classes and rhythms as well as any sketch comedian I've seen (with the exception, I suppose, of Michael Palin, who somehow was always more persuasive in his lower-class characters and madmen than the other Pythons). That doesn't mean that Mr. Laurie is funnier than Mr. Fry, even in my perception. Most of the best bits of Fry and Laurie (so far) have hinged on Mr. Fry, when he is either playing Stephen Fry or one of the overeducated professionals he does so well. Or, particularly, when he is doing both, since the whole show is predicated on an enjoyment of meta-humor, of part of the joke being that Mr. Fry and Mr. Laurie are doing the whole absurd skit comedy thing. They particularly like beginning a skit with an elaborate set-up only to stop the whole thing three or five lines in. There's a classic bit where they apologize for having to leave out a particular skit that was one of their favorites, but it does have a lot of sex and violence in it, such as the bit where Mr. Fry hits Mr. Laurie with a golf club, which wouldn't be so bad, but he does it very sexily. And so on.

One thing that struck me, watching these old shows, was that Mr. Laurie does seem to give Mr. Fry the business quite a bit about being homosexual. Mr. Fry is, as I now know, homosexual, or perhaps (I don't recall, although I have read an essay by him about it) bisexual with a long-term boyfriend. I don't think Mr. Fry was Out when these were broadcast in the mid-eighties, nor do I know if he was out to Mr. Laurie. Still, when Mr. Laurie's character calls Mr. Fry's character a great nancy or a bumboy, it's hard not to read into it a sort of needling that I think they both might have found very funny. Or not. It's hard to read.

Anyway, of the two, I vastly prefer the earlier, funnier works. I have also seen Mr. Laurie in Blackadder (he is a regular in III and IV), Jeeves and Wooster (with Mr. Fry again), Ben Elton's excruciating snoozefest Maybe Baby, Peter's Friends, and small parts in half-a-dozen movies and television shows. He was certainly good in them, funny in many of them, but not startlingly good of the go-out-and-see-what-else-the-man-has-done sort. He is that sort of good in House, which is good, because it got me to the Bits.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus:,


Laurie is also, while we're puffing, the author of a terrific novel: The Gun Seller.

It's a comedy/thriller, I guess. My recommendation: read the first couple paragraphs at Amazon. If you find the style charming, you will love the book. If you find the style annoying (it's so arch its head touches the floor), perhaps not so much.
I note with pleasure that he has another novel scheduled to come out in September.

(Stephen Fry has written a bunch of good books, too -- my favorite is his memoir, Moab Is My Washpot.)

(Are there any American actors who are also good writers? I've heard that Ethan Hawke's novels are not so good. Steve Martin is good, I guess. Does Woody Allen count?)

I like Steve Martin's writing, personally, although not in huge doses. Fortunately, he mostly writes the prose equivalent of sketch comedy, so that works well for me.

Curiously, I think of Woody Allen as a writer who is also an actor/director. I suspect, also, that he's primarily an actor/director to serve his writing - that no one else really plays Woody Allen as well as him, and he writes himself into a lot of his stuff.

(I say that "he's primarily an actor/director to serve his writing," where in reality I think he's primarily an actor/director to serve his ego. But I think ONCE UPON A TIME, he was primarily an actor/director to serve his writing.)

Anyway, back in the day, I read some essay/short story/one-act stuff that he wrote and found it great. Of course, I was in high school at the time, so grain of salt, all that.

All that said, I thought he was hilarious (and Scarlet Johanson (add Ts and Ss where necessary to actually spell her name correctly) and Hugh Jackman were unexpectedly fantastic) in Scoop, but that may just be me.

I also like Sam Shepard's writing. But again, writer first, actor second, I think.


Carrie Fisher is another actor/novelist. Tim Robbins has written a play or two, but the playwriting thing is far more common: in addition to Sam Shepard, there's Wallace Shawn and Mel Brooks that I can think of off the top of my head. Like Woody Allen (and Mel Brooks for that matter), Steve Martin was a writer before he was an actor, so writing short pieces and plays is not too surprising. It's going to the novella that was a surprise, and even that's a ways from a novel. Craig Ferguson has written a novel, but we were talking about Americans.

Actually, I wasn't all that crazy about The Gun Seller, but it's been a while since I read it. As for Stephen Fry's novels, I disliked The Liar and the Monte Cristo one, was ambivalent about the alternate-nazi one, and quite liked The Hippopotamus. Again, if I remember correctly. I haven't felt compelled to reread any of them.

Antony Sher is a published novelist, now that I think about it, although he is even less American than Craig Ferguson. Eric Idle wrote a novel, as did Michael Palin, I believe. Can you count Robert Benchley as an actor? Steve Allen wrote (if I remember correctly) a couple of murder mysteries; was he an actor? Has Rick Moranis turned out a novel yet?


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