If you love words, then you are probably familiar with Stephen Fry, and if you’re familiar with Stephen Fry, then you are damn certain familiar with A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s sketch comedy show featured a number of sketches on language, with special emphasis on subtle but masterfully done profanity. (Video-heavy post follows.)
One sketch from their first program set the tone for the next three seasons: it revolves around an objection to the planned sketch, which supposedly contained too much sex and violence, and its replacement.
They later did a sketch that reads like example sentences from the dictionary entry for ass:
But the most notable for our purposes, perhaps, were a series of sketches they did parodying the prime-time soap opera. Here in America, the juggernauts of the genre were Dallas and Dynasty–Joan Collins in enormous shoulder pads, JR Ewing and big oilman hats, murder, intrigue, and a fair number of hells and damns.
Though the soaps thrived on outsized dialogue, the content of that dialogue was regulated. In 1978, the Supreme Court decided, in the landmark FCC vs. Pacifica case inspired by a daytime airing of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words” routine, that the FCC was allowed to reprimand or fine broadcast stations that aired profanity. By the time Dallas and Dynasty were running, profanity on prime-time television was restricted to a handful of hells, damns, and every once in a great while, a bastard. (Thank you, Alexis, for your fine contribution.)
Fry & Laurie wasn’t bound by the same rules that Dallas and Dynasty were–it aired in Britain and so was well out of reach of the long, fine-happy arm of the FCC. Nonetheless, their parodies managed to stick to the hell-damn-bastard formula fairly well, while adding their own special flair:
How exactly to communicate the heightened drama of a soap in three minutes? Just expand on the damns:
While the way Fry & Laurie handles it is unique, the compounding of cusswords isn’t unique at all. Consider:
- damn it to hell
- don’t give a goddamned fuck/shit/rat’s ass
- hasn’t done a shittin’-ass thing
- almost any of Peter Capaldi’s dialogue from The Thick of It.
Nonetheless, Fry & Laurie leads the charge with masterfully using the mildest of profanities to their best effect. You can watch all six “Damn” episodes here. Damn, blast, with an amuse-bouche of blast and an ice-cold aperitif of damn: lovely.
 What might be their most explicit sketch contains no profanity whatsoever. Take that, FCC.