The more you workshop pieces as a comedy performer, the more you realize that nothing you work on is ever truly finished. That being said, there are some sketches that come damn near close to perfection, and this one, from the very first episode of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” from 1987, is a great example of using every single second of a piece to its fullest potential.
The Fry and Laurie of the title are writer/scholar/gay icon/general force for good Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, known to most as House but also a musician and adorable scruffball in his own right. The two have instantly recognizable chemistry together and put their own spin on the classic “straight guy/goofball” dynamic that seems inescapable to any pair of people who tries to do jokes together.
Unlike most double-act bits, though, this sketch is a game of agreement. Dressed in matching trenchcoats and apparently playing older men (although there’s no real attempt to portray this) the two of them lament the fact that “gay” no longer means what it used to mean. It used to be such a lovely word! And so, it turns out, were several other words, before they were overtaken by same sex hedonists, including “pouffy”, “arse bandit” and even “homosexual”. The punchline, that the two men are about to go meet some “screaming benders” for gay sex, is inevitable but not overly predictable, and everything leading up to it opens like a trapdoor from one escalation to the other.
There’s so much to unpack here. Despite the fact that each character is basically the same, there are so many moments where delivery makes a line sing (Laurie’s dramatic love for “the GREAT BRITISH SENTENCE” or Fry’s “it’s one of the great words!”). The very first joke doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the bit (and doesn’t get much of a laugh) but sets up the interplay. It’s filled with lots of ideas, too, from the notion that language is constantly evolving (something Fry in particular seems to be obsessed with) to the always-relevant parody of those people pining for an innocence that never existed. “If only I didn’t have to think about all these people who aren’t like me” may have well been the rallying cry for the people who voted a certain terrifying demagogue into the White House last year. The punchline also points at the rank hypocrisy that especially seems to crop up among those who target homosexual people as long as their own lives don’t have to change.
One of the things that fascinates me about comedy is the way it appears in different places around the world. In my amateur research, it feels like every culture has some variety of this setup: two people playing off each other. You can see the joy of performing immediately here, and it becomes more evident as the two of them get to switch voices and inflections to give examples of different sentences “My word, Jane, the garden’s looking quite homohsexual this morning”) throughout their rant. The whole thing starts at a ten as far as energy levels go and only gets bigger, louder and crazier from ther
Sketches like this are almost inspiring in a way, and capture so much of what comedic inversions of logic can do. Fry & Laurie would go on to create all sorts of work that challenges or departs from standard duo setups. This bit shows that old structures can still work in a modern setting. And keep the change.