I know I’m in the minority when I write that I don’t find Chris Lilley – and his comedy series We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High – funny. But if popularity is the measure of a comedy’s success Chris Lilley must be doing something right: millions of Australians find him hilarious.
This is usually where the discussion surrounding the mechanisms of comedy ends. The impasse lies, of course, in the structure of comedy criticism, which is polarised into the categories of ‘It made me laugh’ and ‘I didn’t find it funny’. These are the two open graves of the genre’s criticism, beyond which – unless you’re some kind of comedy obsessive, dedicated to killing jokes to see what makes them tick – there’s nothing more to say. If you don’t find a comedy funny, don’t bother trying to figure out why that is – why would you watch a comedy that didn’t make you laugh? Forget performances, script, camerawork, design, mood, or anything else that comes into play with just about every other form of scripted entertainment. Either you laugh or you don’t. And if people are tuning in to it week after week, it must be funny, right?
But I can’t write that Chris Lilley’s recent work is bad simply because it’s popular. Why wouldn’t large numbers of viewers like it?
Lilley is a talented performer, and both series are carefully crafted to play to his strengths. He performs a range of broadly drawn characters in both series (We Can Be Heroes looks at a collection of nominees for Australian of the Year; Summer Heights High follows two students and a teacher at a state high school), while specialising in the kind of social clumsiness and crass comments in a mockumentary format that made the UK version of The Office such a success.
Whether a television series in Australia is widely viewed has nothing to do with quality – you only need to see the viewer statistics for Australia’s Funniest Home Videos to know this. So how do we measure quality, if not in laughs and viewer numbers? Though declaring my dislike of Lilley’s work, there is much to admire in the man, and his success: as of 2010, he’s the only person in Australian television doing regular character-based comedy, and with the steady reduction in the range of local sketch shows and sitcoms over the last decade, he deserves some credit simply for keeping the genre alive.
Perhaps this is why press coverage of comedy has such a lag to it, as everyone waits to see if a performer or series is a hit before talking it up. That this becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy (without publicity a show will struggle to find an audience; a comedy doesn’t get publicity until it’s found an audience. ..) means that it’s only really the government networks who can afford to give shows time to find viewers. Commercial television networks rarely air comedy, and when they do the programs – like Channel Seven’s The White Room and The Bounce, for recent examples – are often yanked off air for poor ratings after only a few weeks.
In this environment, Lilley’s shift from commercial television to the ABC worked out well for both parties. In much the same way that Kath & Kim arose out of the short-lived Big Girl’s Blouse sketch series in the 1990s, Lilley’s first ABC series in 2005, We Can Be Heroes, built on his early sketch work from the ill-fated Big Bite and The Hamish & Andy Show on Channel Seven. On a recent revisit (Big Bite is now available on DVD; The Hamish & Andy Show was repeated on Seven’s digital channel in 2009), Lilley’s charm and skill clearly put him well ahead of the pack. With charisma to spare, an ability to create characters that seemed to have real depth (even at this early stage, Mr G felt like he had an entire off-camera life), and a sense of humour that occasionally went beyond the broad and obvious, he displayed more than enough talent to hold his own in a solo show.
In We Can Be Heroes, Lilley played five potential Australians of the Year: a self-obsessed, fundraising private schoolgirl, Ja’ime; a housewife who wants to roll around Australia; a former policeman; a country teen donating an eardrum to his deaf brother (also played by Lilley); and an Asian university student. Expanding to six half-hour episodes, Lilley continued to display a sharp eye for his characters’ foibles.
With Kath & Kim on a break from the ABC, We Can Be Heroes slipped easily into their timeslot, offering audiences the opportunity to once again laugh at suburban stereotypes. (Being given the timeslot following the popular Spicks & Specks didn’t hurt when it came to building an audience, either.) More than this, Lilley’s use of the mockumentary format was seen as a fresh angle on the traditional sitcom. But this, as we know, wasn’t all that new: many readers will remember that earlier Australian comedy greats Frontline and The Games used this device to great effect. But where these programs satirised current affairs and reporting, Lilley, like Garry MacDonald as Norman Gunston, took social awkwardness as his motif, and turned up political incorrectness.
Irony, too, is a key to Lilley’s approach: most characters in We Can Be Heroes are self-absorbed, despite their claims to selflessness. And while some of the laughs come from this recognition, more often the lengthy pauses get nervous laughs, simply by playing on the audience’s desire to break a painful silence. It’s better known as cringe-comedy, the kind of thing you have to watch through your fingers.
This comedy type worked so well in The Office because there was a large and varied cast around Ricky Gervais’s ‘crap boss’, David Brent. When he did something appalling, support characters were there to joke about his behaviour. In We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, the focus is almost entirely on Lilley himself, and there is none of this self-awareness. While the characters played by Lilley interact with the support characters, they in turn almost never get a funny line. It’s like they are there to reflect how we, the audience, are supposed to respond – usually brow-beaten or appalled. This single-minded focus on the star turns Lilley’s shows from comedies about self-absorbed characters into shows that are simply self-absorbed. And that, to me, doesn’t make for great comedy.
Ingrained in this ‘awkwardness’ are large doses of political incorrectness. But rather than stirring negative controversy (The Chaser saw the damaging effects of their ‘Make a Realistic Wish Foundation’ sketch, which generated front-page hate rants from the tabloid press, had the show pulled for two weeks and the sketch removed from the DVD release), Lilley managed to benignly incorporate these elements into his publicity campaign, receiving write-ups addressing the problematic content. This quote from a Good Weekend article, written by Janet Hawley, is typical: ‘His is a face that could get away with blue murder. Indeed, many conservative types think he already has, as there’s no sensitive subject that he hasn’t prodded with his gasp-inducing humour […] Try racism, class, political correctness, disabilities, homosexuality, pedophilia, incest, drugs, eating disorders.’
Breaking taboos is, of course, an important part of comedy. But Lilley’s approach to these matters is more about laughing at the characters for saying horrible things than actually dealing with any of the issues raised. When Mr G in Summer Heights High is conducting a game of Thank God You’re Here with his students, and comes in with the line ‘Thank God you’re here, Grandma’s been raped’, we’re not supposed to laugh at rape per se but at the way the grotesquely insensitive Mr G executes this shocking line. It’s lowest common denominator sort of stuff – the same viewers will no doubt laugh at Jonah tagging ‘Dicktation’ all over the school, and at Mr G putting excrement in a special-needs classroom and blaming it on the students.
It’s the characterisations that aren’t played for direct laughs that trouble me the most, and amuse me the least. Both Ricky Wong (a brainy Asian) and Jonah (an underachieving Tongan with a thuggish father) are stereotypes to the grossest extreme – a fact not disguised by Lilley, a white man, playing them: it only adds to the absurdity. In Summer Heights High, private schoolgirl Ja’ime goes on exchange to the titular state school, spends the series describing her fellow students as ‘povvo bogans’, and drives off at the end in a limousine, throwing her state school jumper away – making her cry of ‘State schools rock’ more than a little ironic.
Lilley’s lack of imagination extends to his reliance on repeated plot devices. On the sketch show Big Bite, Lilley had Mr G making an ill-considered high-school musical about the Vietnam War called Viet Wow; in We Can Be Heroes, Ricky Wong plays an Aborigine called Walkabout Man in a university drama musical titled Indidgeridoo. In Summer Heights High, the musical theme continues, with Mr G staging a performance about a student who died from a drug overdose, featuring songs like ‘She’s a slut and she knows it’. (Incidentally, this did spark minor outrage in the tabloid news, when a schoolgirl died of a drug overdose around the time of the episode’s broadcast. By sheer coincidence, she shared the same name as the schoolgirl ‘celebrated’ in the Summer Heights High musical, but when it was calculated that the series had been filmed before the tragedy, the story was quickly forgotten.)
For fans of Lilley’s work, the constant repetition – of jokes, of characters, of situations – is part of the appeal. Audiences love the familiar, and comedy is full of characters that stopped being funny long before the audience stopped demanding them. It doesn’t help that as Lilley’s fame has grown, his style has moved toward finding the character through performance. Mr G’s first appearances on Big Bite were minute-long joke-based sketches; Lilley reportedly shot a hundred hours of footage while making Summer Heights High before editing it down to a four-hour series. This sounds less like genuine improvisation and more like throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Worse, it seems to have resulted in a dumbing down of his comedy. In relying more on broad one-liners (presumably because they’re easier to think up on the spot), the character-based comedy of his early work often ends up replaced by basic dick and poo jokes.
It is in this that Summer Heights High begins to distinguish itself from We Can Be Heroes. In We Can Be Heroes, for example, Ja’ime was constantly part of a double-act (either with her mother or her adopted foster child), which provided some context to her bitchy outpourings. In Summer Heights High, by contrast, she’s surrounded by a gaggle of girls just like her. In We Can Be Heroes, a group of Aborigines watched Indidgeridoo, and left the theatre offended. In Summer Heights High, Mr G’s tasteless musical is a triumph.
Moreover, Lilley’s love for his own characters (and his own performance) sometimes sees him leaving comedy behind entirely. Having a dramatic scene or two towards the end of a comedy series is far from unheard of (there’s the end of series two of the UK version of The Office where a tearful David Brent is sacked, for starters), but the drama in Jonah’s storyline completely overwhelms the comedy long before the final episode. Exploring cultural integration and the certain challenges in state education systems is a worthy goal, but is a comedy series based around a white man playing a teenager half his age the best venue for it? And if you can’t find the humour in these issues, why address them in a comedy at all?
To me, the irony is that this shoddy, hit-and-miss approach to comedy is one of Lilley’s strengths. If his shows were slicker – more tightly scripted, with more distinct jokes and themes – they wouldn’t work so well. Being slipshod and joke-lite makes his series more convincing as documentaries (real people don’t always have great oneliners, after all). How many times have we heard of cases where people actually thought Ja’ime was a real schoolgirl on an actual documentary series? For a show trying on some level to pass itself off as a slice of life, there can be no higher praise, right?