‘I don’t trust dramas that aren’t funny’: Hugh Laurie’s varied career is a testament to why humour and serious TV go hand-in-hand
Thirty-eight years after collecting the first Perrier Comedy Award (now known as the Edinburgh Comedy Awards) as a member of Fringe sketch troupe Cambridge Footlights, Hugh Laurie returned to Scotland’s capital to pick up a rather different prize.
Accepting the Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival, the 60 year old actor made a rare live appearance yesterday (Thu 22 Aug), in conversation with broadcaster, Mariella Frostrup.
‘I’m very self-conscious’
Cringing as clips of his past TV appearances were played to the audience, it quickly became clear that Laurie is not a fan of watching his own work back. This has proven to be a problem in the past, particularly when it comes to being cast in programmes he has previously enjoyed, such as political satire series, Veep.
“I loved watching Veep. I just thought Veep was the most glorious world that Armando [Iannucci] had created,” said Laurie, who played Senator Tom James in the show between 2015 and 2019.
“The problem that I hadn’t thought through was that, as soon as I was in it, I couldn’t watch it anymore.
“I’m very self-conscious, which I know is odd,” he admitted. In fact, according to Frostrup, self-deprecation is what friend and longtime collaborator in comedy, Stephen Fry, calls Laurie’s “only flaw”.
Laurie blames his reluctance to celebrate his own success on his strict presbyterian upbringing, calling his inability to congratulate himself for his own work “a habit”.
“We’re all struggling to overcome these ridiculous habits we’ve gathered about ourselves. And this is one I haven’t actually managed to conquer,” he admitted.
Toeing the line between comedy and drama
Despite his protests to the contrary, Laurie’s achievements as an actor - not to mention a musician and novelist - are undeniable. As well as receiving an OBE in 2007, a CBE in 2018 and multiple Golden Globes, he was one of the highest paid actors in a TV drama in 2011, according to Guinness World Records. The House star reportedly earned $409,000 (£250,000) per episode of the medical drama.
A stalwart of TV comedy for the first two decades of his career, many will know the actor best from the likes of Blackadder, A Bit of Fry & Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster. His switch to drama came later. House, The Night Manager and Chance are just some of the more serious programmes that proved Laurie had more to offer audiences than a plummy accent and a talent for slapstick.
The change in tack wasn’t intentional, though, according to the actor, who calls his career progression “a succession of mistakes”.
“I think of [my career] all as one thing. It’s only other people’s lives that look preordained. Your own life doesn’t unfold that way,” he added.
However, for Laurie, the worlds of comedy and drama aren’t as far apart as others might believe them to be.
“I tend not to believe drama that doesn’t have some wit to it. I don’t trust dramas that aren’t funny,” he admitted.
“I always thought House was very funny. I may be alone in thinking that. There were episodes of House that I thought were funnier than any sitcom I was in.”
And, of course, Laurie strayed back to comedy in Veep.
“There is an enormous, visceral pleasure in making people laugh. It is an incredibly satisfying thing, for probably terrible psychological reasons,” he said.
“There are very few things like it, in terms of connecting one person and another, than to share a joke.”
Laurie’s list of upcoming projects suggests that he will continue his varied approach to acting for the foreseeable future. Two more Iannucci collaborations - sci-fi comedy, Avenue 5, and film The Personal History of David Copperfield - are already in the can, and the actor is about to start work on a new BBC thriller called Roadkill, by David Hare.
He has no roadmap for the rest of his career, although he says he would like to “solve problems” in whatever he does next. The representation of mental illness and suicide in TV is a problem for Laurie.
“One of the obstacles to telling those kinds of stories is this phenomenon that you cannot do drama about suicide - you’re not allowed to do it. Because it’s an inimitable behaviour,” he said.
“The fact that it’s such a problem doesn’t mean we should necessarily shy away from it.”
Perhaps it’s an issue that the actor-cum-director will tackle himself in the future - he certainly has the power to change minds, despite his unwillingness to believe it.
Although it’s clear to the rest of us that the world is Laurie’s oyster at this stage in his life, he refuses to allow himself to become complacent.
“It could all be taken away at a moment’s notice,” he said.
“I don’t know if it is insecure, I think it’s realistic.”