The uncanny genius of Chris Lilley

Feature Louisa Mellor 8 May 2014 - 07:00

As Jonah From Tonga arrives on BBC Three, we salute the meticulously observed characters of Australian comic Chris Lilley…

A sixteen year old Queen Bee, a disruptive Tongan teen, a juvenile offenders’ officer in her sixties, feckless teenage twins, a flamboyant drama teacher, a pushy Japanese mother… Chris Lilley puts on a wig, an outfit (and sometimes, a controversial bit of face paint) and becomes them all.

Watch him in costume and there’s no sense that Lilley is anyone but the character he’s playing. Other comedy drag acts - Little Britain’s Emily and Florence, for instance -  might trade on the physical disconnect between the actor and persona, but Lilley is no pantomime dame. In his glossy brunette wig and school dress, the thirty-nine year old man disappears and he simply is hair-flicking, doe-eyed teen Ja’mie King. Change the wig, accent and mannerisms, and he becomes a naughty, crude fourteen year old, not just an actor ‘doing a bit’.

The transformations are all the more impressive for their minimal use of make-up or prosthetics; Lilley’s performances are all about voice and mannerism. In character (usually as deluded individuals who consider themselves legends while everyone else considers them dickheads) he’s convincing, engrossing, and very funny. He’s been called an exceptional student of human nature, a comedy genius and, by some, a racist. As his latest series, Jonah From Tonga, starts on BBC Three, we look back over Chris Lilley’s uncanny and often contentious comedy.

“Welcome to the magical world of drama!”

Lilley has been dressing up as other people since his school days. Decades before he introduced the world to Summer Heights High’s delusional drama teacher Mr G, Lilley would impersonate the teachers at his all-boys private school, turning up in a wig, costume and alter-ego whenever he was required to give a speech or perform in class. Surprisingly, given his skills in composition, Lilley wasn’t a stage school brat, but as he tells it, an authority-avoiding low-achiever often taken out of class for one-on-one attention.

Teaching was set to be Lilley’s profession before he left university to start a stand-up career. That led to some competition wins, and eventually to Lilley sending a tape to Australian sketch comedy Big Bite, a short-lived show that invited him to perform characters that went on to include an early incarnation of Mr G and dim-witted stuntman Extreme Darren. After Big Bite was cancelled in 2004, Lilley successfully pitched We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian Of The Year to ABC, a six-part mockumentary following the lives of five fictional Australians (all played by Lilley) nominated for the real-life award.

That 2005 series garnered awards of its own, and introduced recurring Lilley characters Daniel and Nathan Sims, rural twins one of whom is deaf, and Ja’mie King, a toxic, bigoted Queen Bee at an expensive private school girl. Lilley put the Ja’mie wig back on two years later for 2007’s Summer Heights High, another faux-documentary, this time set in a Sydney state school.

Summer Heights High featured three characters played by Lilley: Ja’mie, Mr G, and disruptive 14-year-old Jonah Takalua, the motherless son of Tongan immigrants and, as his teachers and father would call him, a bit of a pain in the arse. Though the title would have suited him, Jonah Takalua didn’t appear in 2011’s mockumentary series Angry Boys, but both Ja’mie and Jonah are now the subject of their own six-part spin-offs, co-produced by HBO and the BBC.

“This is where I come up with my ideas for my musicals. I seek inspiration, I look around, I take things in.”

“A master of human observation” is Australian comedian Steve Vizard’s description of Lilley, and it’s one that's hard to argue with. To create his characters, observe is exactly what Lilley did, and he started close to home.

Though she's unlikely to take it as a compliment, Lilley says his sister and her friends were part of his inspiration for Ja’mie, as well as the Sydney girls he grew up amongst once his private school went co-ed. He tells interviewers that his sixteen-year-old niece and her circle provided more up-to-date inspiration for the character, from their self-choreographed (and self-important) contemporary dance pieces to their teenage parties, at which he made a point of being a fly on the wall. Friends’ teenage daughters were also a resource for pinning down detail, according to Lilley.

To make sure he had the teen girl terminology for Ja’mie down pat, he went to two places: Facebook and reality TV. Anyone who’s seen MTV’s monstrous My Super Sweet Sixteen, a reality show in which super-wealthy teens bully their parents into spending the GDP of a small nation on their birthday parties and throw tantrums when Beyoncé isn’t available and the brand new Mercedes they’ve been given isn’t the right shade of cream, will recognise Ja’mie King. As for Lilley's use of Facebook, it explains Ja’mie’s unrelenting chorus of ILYs, FMLs and YOLOs. It’s about finding “the rhythm of reality”, according to Lilley.

Creating Jonah Takalua also took a great deal of first-hand research. Lilley spoke to Pacific Islander families and interviewed groups of Tongan and Fijian school-age boys, as well as to their teachers. The way he tells it, he’s never experienced anything but warmth and good humour from the Pacific Islander communities about his representation of Jonah and his family. He's had more stick from redheads, he says, for breathing new life into Aussie insult 'Ranga' (short for Orangutan).

All Lilley’s research aims to place his ridiculous characters in a real world, which is why he uses supporting characters who aren’t actors, but the real thing. Ja’mie’s gang, Jonah’s family, the milling crowds of Summer Heights High… none of them are professionals, not even the people who play Ja’mie’s mother and father (he’s “just a South African man living in Melbourne”, she’s “just a lady we found working in a shop one day”). Funnily enough, Elida Brereton, the woman who plays Summer Heights High principal Margaret Murray, was still working as a school principal while the series was filmed and broadcast, and remembers her real-life students spouting the show’s lines back to her the day after it aired. 

Lilley has spoken about the awkwardness of finally meeting his supporting casts in civvies at wrap parties. After spending weeks filming with Ja’mie or Jonah, being presented with Lilley himself must be unsettling. It’s uncanny enough for us to watch him, a man whose face and voice are simultaneously so many characters, interviewed as himself. Call it the Barry Humphreys effect.

“Play hard, Muc hard”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his own experiences at school, authority figures and the kids who struggle with them recur often in Lilley’s comedy. It's not all ballbag jokes and crude language, 2011’s Angry Boys and this year’s Jonah From Tonga also have something to say about masculine identity and the importance of male friendship and ersatz family groups.

Like Angry Boys' ‘Mucca Mad Boy' Blake Oldfield, leader of a surfer gang complete with exclusive tattoo, hand signal and local rivalry, Jonah is a serial gang member who prizes territoriality, loyalty and naïve estimations of toughness bravery over rule-following. In particular, Jonah’s identity as a Pacific Islander, or ‘Fob’ (re-appropriated racist slang for ‘fresh off the boat’) and the prejudice for it he suffers at the hands of other students is a key part of the series. He's not prejudiced in a vacuum, but part of a world where racist epithets are flung around in all directions, even, or especially, by teachers and prison guards.

Jonah’s love for younger brother Moses, pride at his Tongan tattoo signifying manhood and belief in the unbreakable ‘Takalua link’ (in which two family boys link elbows behind their backs) are all key to understanding his character. He’s not only an ADHD pain in the arse, he’s also a product of a particular society, as is privileged, naive Ja’mie. Without getting too ‘After-School Special’ on it, confronting audiences with the issues Jonah and Ja’mie create and face isn't solely to outrage, but also to educate.

It’s also often affecting. Lilley seems reluctant to talk about the social commentary in his shows, calling it “accidental” in a recent BBC radio interview. What's accidental though, about juvie officer Gran’s relationship with her ‘bad boys’ and later, her encroaching Alzheimer’s, or motherless Jonah’s attachment to maternal figures at school and beyond, or Daniel and Nate talking to the shrine at the tree their dad died crashing his car into, or even Mr G’s honest friendship with Toby, a Summer Heights High pupil with Down Syndrome? These and more are heartrending moments designed by Lilley, not just by-products of fart gags.

“There’s a difference between bullying and joking around, he just doesn’t get it, Sir”

As a writer (Lilley’s one of these Louis CK-style control freak writer-performer-director-producer-composer polymaths) he has a keen way with pathos. Viewers might tune in to laugh at his characters’ bad language and puerile behaviour, but more often than not, they’ll end up ambushed by Lilley’s storytelling. Few comedies are able to move so deftly between making people laugh with knob gags and prompting them to feel, and even fewer are able to depict marginalised characters with such a ballsy, compassionate social conscience.

The latter’s why I find it hard to concede accusations that Lilley’s Jonah Takalua, the teenage son of Tongan immigrants, is a racist portrayal. Of course blackface and its variants are and have historically been abusive towards the people they debase by so-called imitation, but that’s not Lilley’s game.

It rests on whether or not you see Lilley’s portrayals of race and gender other than his own as dehumanising and jeering. I don’t. Deluded, immature Ja’mie King and Jonah Takalua aren't flattering representations of their sex or nationality but they’re not intended as ambassadors or paragons, nor - I believe - were they created to denigrate young women or Tongan boys. They’re comic characters Lilley gets underneath the skin of and makes you feel for. When I laugh at Vicky Pollard or Catherine Tate’s Lauren Cooper, that’s all I’m doing, nothing is prompting me to consider what made those characters who they are or how society treats them. Lilley constantly prompts this kind of interrogation. His portrayals of Jonah and even monstrous egotist Ja’mie are ultimately humanising. It’s a question of empathy, something Lilley must have in spades to perform so seamlessly as so many different kinds of people.

That said, Lilley’s clearly a comic unafraid to make people feel uncomfortable. He appears to relish it. Why else would he say that S.Mouse’s anti-paedophile rap ‘Hot Children’ was his favourite self-penned song? His characters’ easy use of racist and homophobic language (Ja’mie’s basically Alf Garnett with a pair of GHDs, Gran is a PC nightmare) is deliberately provocative, but that’s not the half of it.

Step out of the story for a moment and remind yourself you’re watching a man nearing his forties flirting with teenage boys, draping himself over teen girls and touching their thighs to explain his character’s eating disorder aspirations, it’s impossible not to feel unsettled. Where, for instance, are we supposed to stand on Lilley’s pouting glamour shoot in character as schoolgirl Ja’mie for Zoo magazine? Or ‘her’ CGI-assisted topless scene in the final episode? How about the wordless shot of Tim Okasaki’s six-year-old sister doing her colouring in next to a pink dildo supposedly modelled on her brother’s penis? Lilley answers complaints of stepping over the mark by saying that his mark is simply in a different place to other people’s, but it's not an answer likely to satisfy those he’s offended.

"It's such a random thing for me to do, but I'm always doing things that push outside the boundaries."

Lilley very seldom gives TV interviews (a trend that could now be on the turn as his global reputation grows) instead making in-character appearances including a presenting stint as teen queen Ja’mie King at the 2005 ARIAs. The approach has earned him a reputation, whether accurate or not, for being shy. Keeping himself out of the spotlight certainly makes it easier for audiences to accept Lilley as whichever character he’s playing, making his reluctance to self-promote a savvy move.

Thanks to ABC, HBO and BBC Three, Lilley's characters are now reaching a wide audience. Angry Boys has been dubbed into several languages (Lilley was particularly tickled by the Hungarian version). Paris Hilton and the Australian Prime Minister have reportedly adopted "quiche", Ja'mie's adjective for "like, a level above hot", into their Twitter vocabularies. Singer Katy Perry is apparently a huge fan, and recently made the fairly terrifying statement that Ja’mie King was “the true reflection of our teenagers in society”.

What next for Lilley? He’s said he doesn’t do ‘part twos’, but instead each series evolves out of the previous one. He's thought about bringing all twelve characters together in a movie, and is also keen to follow in the footsteps of his countryman Tim Minchin by writing a musical. Whatever Lilley's characters do or say next, he's earned such a loyal catchphrase-quoting audience that even if you're not a fan, chances are you're going to hear about it.

Jonah From Tonga starts tonight, Thursday the 8th of May, on BBC Three.

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