Can you believe that there’s never been a book on the genius of the Fry & Laurie comedy duo? Sure, many of us have read Stephen Fry’s memoirs, but they aren’t really about his creative partnership with Hugh Laurie. Jem Roberts, author of definitive, authorized tomes on Douglas Adams, Black Adder, and I Sorry I Haven’t Got a Clue, Jem Roberts seeks to rectify this gap in the bookshelf with a forthcoming book called Soupy Twists: The full official story of the sophisticated silliness of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, which you can pre-order through Unbound. When you make your “pledge,” you can also purchase bonus goodies like a first edition signed by the author or a facsimile hardcopy of bonus rare Fry & Laurie material.
But first, let’s meet the author, Jem Roberts.
What is your favorite Fry & Laurie sketch?
It’s so hard to pick out just one sketch, but in terms of flavour of sketches, it has to be the Dalliard saga, from Hugh’s first visit to the barber in series 1, through to the unperformed Piano Shop sketch Stephen Fry gave me in the archives! I know it’s just Hugh being bamboozled by Stephen in his most facetious manner possible, but they could have done 20 more and I’d still love them. I do so miss Fry in free-tongue-connected-to-whizzing brain silliness mode, as he always was in these sketches.
How do you think Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have become so recognizable in America, whereas the influence of many other British comedy duos never really jumped the pond?
I think there’s really only a single one-word answer: House. Famously, the show never quite hit here in Hugh’s homeland (it was shown on Channel 5 for a while, but it was never broadcast in any regular way to attract a following), but without doubt the legions of new fans Hugh made playing Dr House has led to a very pleasing backtracking fanbase for A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and his other early work. Hopefully many House fans realise that this was his best work!
Do you have an amusing anecdote from writing this book?
I suppose many might find it amusing that when I met Stephen back in February to shake hands on the project, he kindly performed a small speech about how awesome I am for the book trailer, but I was so overcome I pressed the Photo option on my iPhone instead of the Video one. As he walked away from a wonderful meeting, I saw that all I had was a photo, and basically tried to eat myself there and then. Not terribly amusing for me, then or now. Thankfully, he was kind enough to film a replacement the next day.
You say in your video that, “I wasn’t really seeking, immediately, to write about more rich, white men.” Do you think it’s important that we still have sitcoms and satires about the rich, such as P G Wodehouse?
I felt it was important to address the elephant in the room right away—in this barely precedented time of austerity and suffering and growing inequality, I’d be an idiot not to be aware that I’m celebrating patriarchal privilege! But that’s part of what the Fry & Laurie story is all about – how these two chaps used their positions for good, and avoided letting their self-awareness about their privilege stop them from getting out there to make us laugh. I’ll be pouring particular scorn on the miserable concept of ‘champagne socialism’: of course those with power should use it for good! F&L certainly spent a lot of time taking the piss out of their own—particularly the yuppies of the 1980s, who are part of the reason we’re all in such a mess.
What changes to Footlights do you perceive, or at least a change in connotation? Is it still the place to be?
Well, comedy stars continue to come via Footlights, as sporadically as ever they did. The heyday is well and truly gone, but we forget how many Footlights generations disappeared into obscurity. The main difference now is just how little cachet Footlights has, and how members tend to feel they have to play the association down more than they used to. I don’t think there’ll ever be a successful Footlights show like Cambridge Circus or The Cellar Tapes, but as long as the University continues to attract highly intelligent funny people, there will always be Oxbridge comedians.
Jem Roberts’ Ultimate Recommendation List:
This is by no mean a list of favorites—Blackadder would be Number 1 if so—but I’ll use the opportunity to make a Top 3 UK comedies even Anglophile US comedy fans may not have heard of, but they should…
Absolutely – A celtic (4 Scottish, 2 Welsh, 2 Cornish) sketch team who made four series in the early 90s on Channel 4, who easily hold their own with Python and Fry & Laurie. The spin-off sitcom Mr Don & Mr George is also sublime.
Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer – About as much popularity in the USA as ISIS, but they’re two of the greatest comedians of all time. Think Tim & Eric, but weirder, with a thousand times more jokes. If you’re a Boosh fan, those guys basically cribbed everything from Vic & Bob, but not as well. But some comics just don’t travel. (Although, comedy geek fact, Timon & Pumbaa in The Lion King were designed for them!)
I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue – BBC Radio Comedy never travels, with the exception of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but my first book was about one of the funniest shows ever created: an anarchic pisstake of panel games which has now been running for 44 years. If you get into ISIHAC, you have DECADES of laughs awaiting you.