The multiple characters and series of Chris Lilley, Australian comedian
March 8, 2014 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Chris Lilley is an Australian comedian, television producer, actor, musician and writer, who got his major start as the drama teacher, Mr. G., in the sketch comedy series Big Bite. The series ended after one season, and Lilley went on to create four subsequent mocumentary-style series, We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, Summer Heights High, Angry Boys, and most recently Ja'mie: Private School Girl. Each show consists of primary characters all played by Lilley, ranging from a 47 year old woman with skeletal dysplasia, a 13-year-old school boy with a Tongan accent (NSFW language), a 24 year-old African American rap artist from Los Angeles (NSFW language), and a 16 year old girl from a grammar school, to name a few.

Chris Lilley's portrayals of diverse characters goes back before he was a teenager, starting with pretending to be an American girl at the age of 8 to fool some new neighbors. Lilley takes his comedy seriously, spending time with the sorts of people he portrays, making his play with genders and races more natural than other recent cringe-inducing attempts at humor that have flopped horribly.

We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year focuses on five Australians who hope to represent their respective states as the Australian of the Year. From Western Australia, 47 year old Pat Mullins; South Australia is represented by 17-year-old Daniel Sims; Queensland, Ja'mie King, the prep school girl who represents New South Wales, Ricky Wong is a 23-year-old from Victoria; and Phil Olivetti is from Queensland.
The full series on YouTube: episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4, episode 5, and episode 6.
Ja'mie returned, along with Mr. G., at Summer Heights High, where they were joined by Jonah Takalua, a schoolboy of Tongan descent who acts out quite a bit.
The full series: playlist; episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4, episode 5, episode 6, episode 7, and episode 8.
Angry Boys expands the number of characters portrayed in a series by Lilley: identical twins Daniel and Nathan Sims, their grandmother, Ruth Sims, an African American rapper S.mouse, the soft-spoken Japanese wife Jen Okazaki, and Blake Oakfield, a 38 year-old former champion surfer.
The first two episodes: episode 1 on Dailymotion, episode 2 on YouTube.
Ja'mie returned for her own series, and the first episode is on YouTube.
posted by filthy light thief (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

Multiple characters, multiple series - but only one joke.
posted by Pinback at 8:40 PM on March 8 [15 favorites]

I was teaching high school when Summer Heights High came out. I couldn't watch it — it was blisteringly accurate.
posted by Wolof at 8:45 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]

The first three series are all fantastic. The characters, even when they're being hateful, all have tender spots and you find yourself rooting for them.

Except for Ja'mie. She has no redeeming traits. She worked when there were likeable characters to compare her with, but the newest series recycled the same jokes over and over and I gave up halfway through. I may have missed some redemption on her part but I doubt it. His next project is a whole series on Jonah, and I hope it's better. Jonah was rough around the edges but was ultimately a good person.

My favorites will always be the twins. Probably the most accurate depiction of teenage brothers I've seen.
posted by edeezy at 8:49 PM on March 8

Summer Heights and an episode or two of Angry Boys is about as far as I've gone with Mr. Lilley. Brilliant as he is, it does become a bit much after a while. For me anyway.

But that drama teacher he plays in Summer Heights (Mr. G again) remains one of my all-time fave horrible/hilarious characters. "She's a naughty girl ... with a bad habit ..."
posted by philip-random at 9:53 PM on March 8

He's a genius, mind boggling searing comedy. That said, I've never actually made it all the way through any of the 3 series. It becomes too painful or something.

"She's a bad girl with a bad habit... A bad habit for drugs"
posted by chaz at 10:00 PM on March 8

We can be heroes was pretty clever but beyond that it's been the same schtick.
posted by mattoxic at 10:19 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

I'd be keen to hear how any of this is received by non-Australians. The 'Gran' character, for example, seems so real; I can imagine someone like her is working right now in a juvenile detention facility not that far from where I sitting.
posted by evil_esto at 10:50 PM on March 8

I absolutely love Ja'mie. I don't care that she's got no redeeming qualities. She's a perfect study in what happens when life hands you all the cards. The great thing about the recent series was seeing how she turned out like she did - basically by being massively indulged by her family, school and society at large.
posted by Summer at 11:30 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed the first series, but for me this dudes career has been a steady downward descent. The blackface in angry boys was terrible, the accent was even worse.

A lot of his humor falls under racist/sexist/whatever jokes still racist/sexist/whatever. He works best when trying to make his characters three dimensional but seems to be steadily moving away from that.
posted by smoke at 12:20 AM on March 9 [5 favorites]

Mr G remains my favorite and i think owes a bit to Christopher Guest's Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman. A favorite Mr G moment (an outtake).
posted by fallacy of the beard at 12:58 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

smoke articulates exactly why I am not fond of Chris Lilley - We Can Be Heroes was one stereotype after another, and I could live without one more White guy trying to make himself some other race for the lulz.
posted by divabat at 1:01 AM on March 9 [4 favorites]

Reminds me of Ricky Gervais, an obviously very bright and very talented man whose work makes me want to kick in the TV after about 7 seconds.
posted by fallingbadgers at 1:18 AM on March 9 [3 favorites]

I loved Summer Heights High - Jonah's storyline in particular neatly points out how exactly is a angry, disruptive kid going to succeed in a system that ignores the times he's a victim of racism and focuses only on his angry responses to that racism. Combine with him being cheeky and he's done. Then compare with Ja'mie, and how she is treated. And it's really funny.

"Puck you, Miss"
posted by eyeofthetiger at 1:36 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

[One comment deleted; hey, no problem discussing your viewpoint of the performer or material here, but if you want to discuss if this should be a post, that needs to happen in Metatalk.]
posted by taz at 3:32 AM on March 9

I despise Chris Lilly, but this is a very nicely put together post, so props for that.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:38 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I could live without one more White guy trying to make himself some other race for the lulz.

Well, that was entirely predictable.
I'm not having a go, but as any conversation on Chris Lilly is launched two things are assured:
1. People find him hilarious, or not so.
2. Someone always points out that he dresses up as other races.

I gave his shows a look after people raved about We Can Be Heroes, but Mr G aside, I don't think he is especially cutting, insightful or funny (the bit with the "maining" in Angry Boys was, however, hilarious if you've lived in a small town).

I don't think race-bending or gender-bending is always the sin people in the US or elsewhere seem to knee-jerk it as, and as essentially a one-person show showing difference slices of life, Lilly probably should be able to get away with it if anyone can. And he can't.

The 'lil rapper character from Angry Boys or the tiger mother really wouldn't work well if anyone else of the "proper" race played them, and so that's why I really don't bother defending his work. He rarely goes too far beyond stereotype.

Jonah, however, did kind of work from what I remember.

I didn't even bother with the last show, and the bits I saw channel-hopping were abysmal.
posted by Mezentian at 3:56 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

...making his play with genders and races more natural than other recent cringe-inducing attempts at humor

Still cringe-inducing though. Being a talented mimic isn't really enough to make for interesting entertainment, you also need some imagination and the ability to reach beyond easy stereotypes. (And some actual humor would help too.)

Being a semi-talented mimic (what alternate universe did that LA rapper come from?) just makes everything even more embarrassing.
posted by Umami Dearest at 4:29 AM on March 9 [4 favorites]

Nick Kroll on the other hand, actually seems to like the characters he plays. And there's a lot more to his bits than just creating a character. (And it helps that he's very imaginative and funny.)
posted by Umami Dearest at 4:37 AM on March 9

Wolof: I was teaching high school when Summer Heights High came out. I couldn't watch it — it was blisteringly accurate.

I feel like it's the school equivalent of The Office in that regard, though in some ways more biting than over-the-top, which makes it all the more uncomfortable in certain situations. You can't laugh at it, because it's too true. A co-worker recommended that series specifically, and said my wife would enjoy it, as a high school teacher. I told my wife about the series, and she said she experiences enough of school at school, without having to watch it in her off time.

Pinback: Multiple characters, multiple series - but only one joke.

I feel like the series are less comedic than other mockumentaries. They don't seem focused on jokes as they are on characterizations and characters. At least, that's my take.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:22 AM on March 9

I'm a racial minority that lived in Australia for 6 years. Australian culture can be really fucking racially insensitive - and part of it is the dismissal of people who speak out against racial appropriation (not j"racebending", which is more about casting POC in roles that went to white people by default) as predictable killjoys.

This kind of shit gets used against me. I can't represent my own culture my way (i do performance art and was in burlesque for a while) - I either had to conform to stereotypes or act White. Other POC artists, particularly the most political, get "unAustralian!".

One time an Australian TV station invited me to a panel about whether racism in the media was still a problem (i think it was sparked by another case of racial appropriation). The other people on the panel? White comedians. (i declined - I'd moved to the Bay Area at the time, and didn't fancy being a token.)

Meanwhile Chris Lilley's black/yellowface and ableist schitck gets him accolades.

If I'm "predictable" then so be it - racism, sadly, is not innovative nor groundbreaking.
posted by divabat at 9:03 AM on March 9 [13 favorites]

I dunno. Being from L.A., "S.Mouse" just seems like a particularly lazy attempt at the standard issue condescending white send-up of hip hop culture. "Motherfucker, shit shit, bitches, 'La Squisha" and 'Danthony'" and the premise that rap music is shit and takes no talent. Maybe there's some Key & Peele like twist at the end, but I didn't make it that far because I'd rather watch Key & Peele. Or old Ali G and Chappelle episodes, for that matter.
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:55 PM on March 9

I feel like it's the school equivalent of The Office in that regard, though in some ways more biting than over-the-top, which makes it all the more uncomfortable in certain situations.

Yes. This! My boyfriend introduced me to Ja.Mie and I lovehated it. In exactly the same way I lovehated the (British) Office. So much of it was just so painfully accurate and horrible.

I'm not familiar with Lilley's other work, only Ja'Mie, but I'm not honestly sure Ja'Mie is really a comedy. If it's satire, it's scathing; in a lot of ways it seems to me to be a really furious critique of a certain kind of materialist aspirational lifestyle and the personality traits that go along with it. In some ways I see it as a direct response to shit like Real Housewives. It's saying "Look! This is what you look like!" It's criticizing the whole idea that such enormous parts of society look up to vacuous, shallow, horrible people--and how those same people really do think they deserve everything life hands to them. Yeah, it made me laugh at parts, but it was the laughter of the damned, you know? (Admittedly, watching my better half compulsively if absentmindedly check his Facebook and Instagram feeds on his cell phone during an episode with the line "Oh my god, have you checked Facebook in the last five minutes?" left me giggling like an idiot).

In this specific case (and again I cannot speak to other work Lilley has done, I am only talking about Ja'Mie), I don't think the racist (and other -ist and -ic) statements and actions in the series are being played for laughs. I think it's really part of what I was saying above: "Look! You are this awful"; it's not laughing with or laughing at, it's scorn for the entire attitude.

(Then again I'm a white dude, so it's entirely possible what I see as outright anger and scorn for racist attitudes comes across to POC as playing into them, so maybe my opinion is less important here.)

Plate of beans: totally overthought.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:55 PM on March 9

But the problem, fffm, is that a lot of the racist stuff (and other stuff for that matter) is mining rather than undermining stories, e.g. the Asian tiger mother, the "faggy" drama teacher, etc. We laugh when it's the rich white school girl but he uses it with minorities, too.
posted by smoke at 3:30 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

I was interpreting that as "this is what you idiots think people are like," but hey, as I said it's just my opinion and if POC are having a different experience their voices need to be listened to before mine. I'm queer and I viewed the queer stereotyping in the same way, and the hypocrisy laid savagely bare by Ja'Mie's ultra-queeny best friend vs Ja'Mie thinking she's insulting a girl by calling her a lesbian.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:38 PM on March 9

I suppose my interpretation has been colored by his reception here in Australia, especially amongst teenagers (his core audience) - they definitely are not picking up on an subtleties like that, and again, it reminds me when people on mefi say something really racist/homphobic etc with a sarcasm tag for the purposes of mocking people who hold that belief; it's still racist etc - to me, at least, anyway.
posted by smoke at 5:04 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

Oh I'm agreed with you on the sarcastic racism thing. That's not how I see this being presented though; I see the various -isms being presented as straight up observation; "Look how fucking wretched you awfulist people are, you think this behaviour is okay." Perhaps that's a semantic difference, I don't know.

And yeah, I'm sure the teenagers watching aren't getting anything deep out of it. Alas.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:21 PM on March 9

The guy's obviously talented but his characters are very hit or miss. Tracey Ullman does it much better.
posted by Devils Slide at 6:29 PM on March 9

Yeah but you could say that about so many things.


MetaFilter: Tracey Ullman does it much better.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:34 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

To be more specific, Ullman has a supernatural gift for mimicry and also manages to capture her characters' humanity, something Lilley often fails at.
posted by Devils Slide at 6:36 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I have only ever seen Summer Heights High, and yeah this might be down to cultural difference, I am american, but I had a hard time with a lot of the a lot of the humor, there seemed to be a whole lot of just, straight white guy doing bland, sort of offensive stereotypes, of gays, and other races, and ladies. I did feel like there was some real depth to his characters, and the satire often hit its mark pretty well, and my dad loved it. So I honestly don't know what I feel about his stuff, not for me a guess.

But while we are talking about Australian sitcoms. can I just mention Josh Thomas' Please Like Me, an incredibly sweet and charming and sad show about the young people and their young people problems, with the sort of really great non-stereotyped, non-tokenized gay character in the lead, that you just don't get on american TV, and just a whole buttload of empathy and pathos and darkish humor.

So, everyone go watch that show, it is nice. Although I am not really sure how an american would manage to that without resorting to some sort of unethical internet activity.

after a moment of research I guess it is on "Pivot", and I think that is some sort of actual tv channel that you get on your tv.
posted by St. Sorryass at 10:14 PM on March 9

straight white guy

Straight? I'd been under the distinct impression Lilley was queer as a three dollar bill.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:31 AM on March 10

Nope, he's not gay (according to this article).
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:50 PM on March 10

Nope, he's not gay (according to this article).

I don't know where that article is getting its information, but I'm pretty sure his sexuality is an unanswered question.
posted by crossoverman at 10:08 PM on March 11

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