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I Knew Hugh Laurie Before House!

Updated on April 7, 2011

Hugh Laurie...

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The British actor's fame has exploded ever since his appearance on American television as the grumpy Dr. Gregory House in the unusual medical drama "House", so named after his character.

Oh, or did you always think he was a nobody that shot to fame with House? Or worst, that he was American and you had no idea he was funny before House?

Before he was House, Hugh Laurie was Laurie already. Hugh Laurie was rather popular as a British comedian, dishing out humour that was essentially British since the 1980s. This field of pre-House work Hugh Laurie was involved in enjoyed a revival in recent years as well, as fans of "Dr House" (note not Laurie though) sought to satisfy their growing addiction to the dark, misanthropic humour the former exhibited. Rather a surprise that they got, I'd say.

I did, too, because for me it was the reverse. I knew Hugh Laurie before House. And it was really quite different. From the words of his old chum Stephen Fry:

"Some people'd have been surprised to see, because he's so often played (some) sort of a blue-eyed, rather idiotic, upper-class Englishman, and people are astonished to see him playing some unshaven, fierce, kind of haunted, drunk, raddled, vicious doctor."

The same holds true for those who had been used to "see him playing some unshaven, fierce, kind of haunted, drunk, raddled, vicious doctor", to see him play some "sort of a blue-eyed, rather idiotic, upper-class Englishman".

This article will pick some highlights on Hugh Laurie's career prior to House for those unacquainted to get a rough idea of what to  go and watch, to get a sampling of his comedic genius and truly understand his career as a whole.

The Dim-Witted Upper-Class Twit

Like many before and after him, Hugh Laurie was a member of the Cambridge Footlights, an amateur club for stand-up and sketch comedians. It was from this exposure which aided his later crossover to television.

Some notable mentions, along other works, in Hugh's Laurie's pre-House legacy would include perhaps be his performance as a supporting actor in the last two seasons of the britcom Blackadder.

In Blackadder the Third (1987), young Hugh Laurie portrays the Prince of Wales, but is incompetent and dim-witted. Rather, he is constantly being manipulated by his butler, Edmund Blackadder (cast by Rowan Atkinson i.e. "Mr Bean") for the latter's personal gains. This is perhaps the most direct antithesis to Hugh Laurie's later role in House, where he is independent, intelligent and strong-willed. Watch this for an interesting contrast between the roles thus he now plays and he once played. Besides that, the entire Blackadder production is considered a staple of classic British comedy so it is worthy of being an introduction to the British sense of humour. Mind you though, some references within are quite high-brow, you might need to know British history and culture better to get the full joke.

In Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), the final series, Hugh Laurie plays a young, idealistic lieutenant stuck in the trenches of the Great War. Still playing the "dim-witted upper-class twit" though, this impression of Hugh Laurie does do what Stephen Fry said justice still. In fact, it is in such roles that Hugh Laurie first gained popular acclaim from the British public, and is still embedded in their consciousness as such. Stephen Fry holds speaking roles in the Blackadder saga as well. There is no mistake how great a friendship and influence Fry and Laurie has had on each other in the British comedy days of Hugh Laurie, even up till now.

Hugh Laurie's popularity, I would argue, allowed him and good friend Stephen Fry to feature themselves as a double act in the sketch show "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" (1989 - 1995), which in my opinion incidentally helped Fry to show off his verbal comedy delivery skills like never before. Although Fry and Laurie alternated roles as the funny and straight man, or did away with the conventions, Hugh Laurie was more often the straight man. Still, the excellent scriptwriting on the sketches won the pair more fans and admirers, and allowed them a lot of creative space to flaunt their original, genuine ingenuity at comedy. Look out for Hugh Laurie's versatility, though as much similar praise should also go to his partner Stephen Fry (who is a big name in British comedy today as well), as he cross-dresses, sings, behave American and plays foul-mouthed businessmen and a variety of roles in the show, though no role I remember ever comes close to what Dr House would be years later on.

Their mutual success brought them castings in a television adaptation of "Jeeves and Wooster" (1990 - 1993), based upon the work of American author P. G. Wodehouse. Well, there is almost no question of who plays what - naturally, Stephen Fry, the linguistic genius, as witnessed from "A Bit of Fry and Laurie", gets to play the smart valet Jeeves. Our Wooster is of course Hugh Laurie, cast as the "dim-witted upper-class twit" once again, the intelligent Jeeves saving him out of nasty spots again and again. Here again it is quite a departure from Dr House - or rather, more accurately, it must be noted that Dr House was the exception in Hugh Laurie's career. American or "House" fans ought to realize this fact. Hugh Laurie's heritage's British, though I wouldn't want to put too fine a point on it - it's not like it's a "British VS American" article I'm writing.

A Return To British Roots?

There are still many out there who wish for Hugh Laurie to perhaps return to something a little more British than House (for a start, that means speaking in character with a British accent), or work with Stephen Fry again to produce some kind of "reunion hit". Previously in 2004, there was talk of the two coming together to produce a television movie adaptation of "Sherlock Holmes", but nothing came out of it in the end.

Good news, I suppose, this is for those who enjoy the antics of Hugh Laurie as House M.D. - it means that he will have more time to commit towards the American side of his work. In all, though, I do think that that means when he moves back to his British work, hohoho, his influence on American audiences will hopefully bring in new converts for British comedy, just as there should be some now from the viewers to be exposed to his earlier work. Heh-heh, humour imperialism.

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