Actor's roots in humor informs role on 'House'

A continent, a generation and a genre away, the roots of Dr. Gregory House lie in the voice of a fake pop singer and his power ballad, “I don’t care if people laugh — I’m in love with Steffi Graf.”

It was the late ’80s-early ’90s in England, a time and place in which you could find a ridiculously buttoned-up Hugh Laurie railing at partner Stephen Fry’s school principal: “Sexual intercourse can bring about pregnancy in the adult female? It’s nothing more than a disgusting rumor put out by trendy young people in the ’60s.”

Today, Laurie brings wicked grit to the title character on Fox’s “House,” but despite his popularity, most American viewers would still be surprised to find that the actor first became beloved in the U.K. for indulging in various forms of lovable loons.

“Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” — these comedic gems are the shows that made Laurie famous.

“You see him as House and fall in love with the character — this very intense, dramatic character — and then you go see what a clown he is in his previous work in England,” says co-star Peter Jacobson. “But it all makes perfect sense, because I think the soul of House and what’s so appealing about him is what’s really percolating underneath all that pain and misery. … You feel from Hugh Laurie that at any second he could break out in any direction.”

Laurie asserts he was a man with no direction other than the one he was rowing toward when he enrolled at Cambridge as a competitive oarsman. Sidelined for a season with mononucleosis, he fell in with his university’s comedy troupe, the Cambridge Footlights, alongside friend Emma Thompson.

Thompson later introduced Laurie to another of her school chums, Fry — a meeting that, according to Fry, was “in comedic terms, love at first sight.

“People remembered he was very funny,” Fry says. “When he was onstage, he always looked as if he shouldn’t be onstage, and yet you couldn’t look at anybody else.

“I thought he was astounding. Funny enough, one of the sketches he did he played an American, and I thought, ‘God, he does a good American accent.’ ”

For the better part of two decades, Laurie braised his laff chops, but, true to his nature, he drifted into drama rather than make a concerted effort at it.

“I left sketch comedy behind a little bit,” he says. “Both Stephen and I did that. We both felt that’s a young man’s game, because the whole nature of it … young people mocking old people.

“But I don’t think I ever sort of set out to look for anything in particular except good stuff. It’s the only genre that really means anything. A thing is either well-written or it isn’t — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Western or science fiction or it’s a comedy. It doesn’t really matter.”

Laurie appeared as Mr. Palmer in “Sense and Sensibility” and as Vincente Minnelli in TV’s “Life With Judy Garland,” but by the time “House” and executive producer David Shore were casting for a leading man, they still initially viewed Laurie mainly as a diversion.

“I was excited about it not because I thought he was right for the part, I have to confess, but because I was a fan of his comedy,” Shore recalls. “I didn’t think he would be right for House, but I wanted to meet the guy. I thought he was brilliant.”

After sending in an audition tape from the Africa set of “Flight of the Phoenix,” Laurie proved to be that and more.

“We had met a lot of people,” Shore says, “and we weren’t really finding what we were looking for. (Then) it happened kind of quickly: Once we saw him on tape, there was kind of universal agreement that he was the guy.

“The character has a sense of humor, and it was important that the actor be able to deliver that. And that was part of the problem. We would have some actors who would come in who would be flat-out funny, but we were losing something. And we had actors who had this incredible intensity … but the humor wasn’t coming through. Hugh still has a way of delivering funny lines in really dark scenes.”

Much of that ability came thanks to Laurie’s experience playing the goofball.

“I was commonly cast as a stupid person, in ‘Blackadder’ and in ‘Jeeves and Wooster,’ and I frequently played stupid people in sketches,” he says. “And it is one of the techniques that House uses: In mocking the stupidity of others, he will affect stupidity, and he will do it in such a way as to wound or at least to illustrate something. And I suppose that was something I found myself: ‘I’m actually doing the same thing here; it’s just that I’m doing that with an extra layer of irony.’”

Though “House” has given Laurie unprecedented fame, his oldest fans ardently hope he and Fry will reteam for another comedic effort. Fry, who remains keenly close to Laurie and watched his friend’s December appearance on “Saturday Night Live” from the green room, says they would “love to” have an onscreen reunion and talk about it a great deal.

But as Laurie’s history tells us, it will happen when it happens.

“I’ve never been much of a planner,” Laurie says. “I’ve never really had a big calendar on the wall with ‘Invade Poland — August, Paris by Christmas.’ You just sort of stumble from one thing to the next.”

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