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Following the relative success of the first series, the boys returned for a second effort. Having completed a pilot episode and one complete series, it's clear that the pair now have a better idea of what works on TV and what doesn't and the whole series is a lot more polished.
The format of the show remains the same - a series of short sketches interspersed with "Vox Pop" segments, which feature Fry & Laurie dressed up as member of the public voicing their opinions on a wide range of odd subjects.
As before, this format works well on TV. Each episode features plenty of variety and gives Fry and Laurie the chance to develop some of the characters they introduced in the earlier series, as well as to create new ones. The short sketch format means that the viewer doesn't get bored and if a sketch features characters that the viewer is not too keen on, or just doesn't quite work it doesn't matter too much, since a new one will be along very shortly.
The humour is exactly the same as before, based on clever wordplay, deliberate misunderstandings, stupid or naive characters and banter between the two leads. Both prove to be very likeable and whilst in many sketches they only really play slightly different versions of their standard TV persona (Fry is the suave, verbose one, Laurie the slightly thick, loud one) it works well. The simple fact is that Fry & Laurie have found the style of comedy which suits them and stick to it. It gives the whole thing a rather comfortable feel. Fry & Laurie themselves appear a lot more at ease in this second series, whilst the viewer knows exactly what to expect and is not disappointed.
Just because the pair are generally playing a variation on a theme doesn't mean that the sketches are all the same. Working within the boundaries of their humour, Fry and Laurie dream up some very varied and completely ridiculous situations. Their particular genius lies in taking pretty mundane situations (shopping for example) and giving them an absurd spin. When this works, it produces some laugh out loud moments thanks to Fry's gift with words and Laurie's endearing ability to look and sound terminally bewildered.
Of course, as with any sketch show, not everything works and there are some characters which feel a little half-baked or over-used. The Tony/Control spies sketches, for example are initially quite amusing, gently lampooning the idea of Brit spies being perfect gentlemen. However, it is essentially a one-joke sketch and although Fry & Laurie strive mightily to put them in new situations, it quickly becomes stale.
Some of the humour has also dated quite badly. Fry & Laurie's style was very much a product of the late 80s/early 90s and whilst they aren't as overtly political as many other comedians of the time, their humour does still rely heavily on the 80s as a cultural reference point. As such, some of the sketches might be meaningless to younger viewers and dated even to those who do remember the events.
This is particularly true of the two Uttoxeter businessmen (DAMN!) and their unhealthy obsession with Marjorie and the Uttoxeter leisure industry. I never found these sketches that funny first time around. They were pretty straightforward, lazy caricatures of Tory yuppies and didn't really feature anything that other comedians hadn't already done (and done better.) Over 20 years after their original release, they look even more tired and dated.
In many ways, Fry & Laurie is quite reminiscent of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Although not as ground-breaking or innovative, it contains that same blend of the surreal and the mundane to create absurd situations that make the viewer laugh. Just like Python, however, this results in problems. A few sketches are just a bit too experimental and end up not really being funny at all; there are more than a few that contain good ideas, but which are far too drawn out; there are sketches which show initial promise but it quickly becomes clear that the writers don't really know what to do with them or where to take them. Such sketches become rather rambling and long-winded and almost inevitably fizzle out, having been dragged long past the point where they should have ended. This is another of Fry and Laurie's weaknesses (although it has improved in this series) - they often drag a sketch on for too long.
Many of the sketches succeed almost against the odds. Fry & Laurie are a deeply likeable pair and each plays to their strengths, writing sketches which suit their style. They work very well as a double act, demonstrating excellent timing that serves to make relatively unfunny lines amusing. The same is true of their acting. As noted above, Fry is generally all suave, smarmy and sophisticated(a role he slips into effortlessly), whilst Laurie is relies on bluster, belligerence and bewilderment for many of this characters. Whilst there is a certain rawness to the acting (particularly form Laurie who still comes across like a sixth former acting in his first school play), it nevertheless works well and between them, the pair manage to overcome their relative inexperience and make most sketches at least watchable.
Whilst there are some parts of Fry & Laurie that have dated quite badly and some parts that were never funny to begin with, there is still enough here to keep you entertained. When it gets it right, Fry & Laurie can be very funny indeed; funny enough to allow you to overlook any mis-steps. For a while, getting hold of this series cost a fortune (it received only a limited video release). Thankfully, it's now pretty widely available on DVD. Whilst a new copy will still set you back a rather steep £15, decent second hand copies can be picked up for around £3 and at that price, there are definitely enough laughs to offer you reasonable value for money.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012