Not for the first time, we’ve realised we’ve been going about this comedy thing all wrong. For years we’ve been watching sitcoms while shouting “be more funny” and “where’s the jokes” and “are they ever going to get out of the bloody car”, when what we should have been focusing on was the most important question of all: do we want these guys to be our friends?
The ABC’s new back-to-back Wednesday night sitcom line-up of the returning Rosehaven and the all-new Retrograde are a firm reminder – if one was needed, which it clearly was in our case – that your modern sitcom is all about hanging out with your virtual friends for a perfectly pleasant half hour or so. The more friends a show offers, the greater the chance you might find one abrasive (that is to say, funny) – but don’t worry, the overall effect remains roughly the same as a glass of warm milk.
Nobody expect sitcoms to have big dramatic story developments or anything, but the dueling plotlines in this week’s Rosehaven‘s involving a): a mystery package and b): Emma (Celia Pacquola) being worried that Daniel (Luke McGregor) isn’t properly handling his breakup – AKA his “decoupling” – with his now-in-Japan-but coming-back-soon-ex seem lightweight even by Australian standards. Yes, they get the job done, in that Daniel eventually starts flopping limply onto beds and tables because he has feelings while Emma wanders around meeting all the show’s background regulars (hey, where’s Anthony Morgan?) as she tries to get someone to open the slightly mysterious package. The final scene of Seven this ain’t.
Emma and Daniel are a mildly charming duo with pleasant comedy chemistry acting giggly in a nicely quirky setting, which is great for a glorified tourism promo for the wonders of Tasmania, the island you currently can’t visit. But calling it a comedy? Maybe by process of elimination – it’s not a drama, or a game show, or a talent show, or true crime, or… you get the idea. But it is a show that it’s hard to imagine people actively sitting down to watch and then giving it their whole attention; it’s just so lightweight that it feels better suited as a backdrop for… literally anything else. Most likely a nap.
On the up side, photocopier jokes! Thank god Rosehaven is back otherwise we’d have to wait until the next Working Dog sitcom to get some of that sweet, sweet “does it have enough paper” comedy.
As for Retrograde, it features “young people”, which is to say people in their early 30s acting like they’re teenagers, which helps to differentiate themselves from the characters in Rosehaven, who are people in their mid 30s acting like they’re teenagers. The gimmick here is that it was filmed during lockdown, so everyone is on screen in their own little worlds in a group video chat like a less amusing episode of Have You Been Paying Attention? only the role of Tom Gleisner is played by you at home and everyone else is having an off night.
The good news is, it’s a perfectly decent show on a basic level and didn’t we just say that about Rosehaven? Performances are good, dialogue flows well, the online format doesn’t get in the way, the actual story – our heroine is about to start a new life in Korea so is chatting to her friends online while she packs, only it all turns to shit thanks to COVID19 and she ends up with no job and no home (unless she moves in with the boyfriend she was hoping to ditch) – is decent, and generally speaking it feels mostly like a half hour of proper television and not whatever that collection of At Home Alone Together sketches was that aired afterwards.
(sidebar: while it was interesting to see the sketches AHAT rejected, it seemed like most of them were rejected for either being “too edgy” in an undergraduate way – coating yourself in oil guy was creepy, Chinese guy was political, destroying that My Kitchen Rules‘ guy’s books was probably too much for an ABC board member who’s mates with him – or just being not very good (hey look, it’s Heath Franklin!). But if DVD releases and the deleted scenes they featured are now a thing of the past, we’re not going to fault the ABC for giving us the chance to see the stuff that really wasn’t good enough to go to air)
The problem with Retrograde is that, in the first episode at least, its actual comedy was pissweak. It’s a show set during lockdown, so it featured such hilarious insights as “toilet paper is hard to find”, “small children will interrupt you during a video call”, and of course, “people will make a video call wearing the top half of a suit then stand up to reveal they’re wearing no pants”. There was also a tarot card reading that was supposed to reassure someone so of course the first card drawn was Death. At least the show was trying to be funny?
As we may have mentioned earlier, sitcoms now are really just about providing the audience with fake virtual friends for a half hour or so. Being funny – as in, actually funny, not someone with “banter” – is a drawback, because while everyone wants friends, not everyone wants funny friends and mainstream television can’t afford to alienate anyone in 2020. So while it might seem like we’re being negative about both shows – because we are – judged by the shows’ own standards, calling them bland exercises in virtual friendship is giving them both a big thumbs up.
Then again, all our favourite older, funnier sitcoms have been #cancelled for having blackface episodes, so maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.
Most Australian television comedy of the past couple of decades has been made at the ABC. In fact, if it weren’t for the ABC, there’d barely be any locally made comedies at all. So, on the one hand, we have a lot to thank the ABC for – even if they’ve made a lot of duds. On the other hand, most comedy made at the ABC tends to appeal to a certain demographic. And compared to the comedies made by commercial networks, ABC comedy tends to be cooler, more left-leaning and more satirical.
Comedy which looks at more everyday matters, the sort of situations and topics which shape the lives of mainstream Australia, tend to be on the commercial networks. Comedy panel shows about sport like The Front Bar, for example. Or Kinne Tonight.
Troy Kinne’s comedy focuses on the sort of things a lot of people can relate to: dating, marriage, sexual politics, having kids, being middle-aged, the ins and outs of social media…topics which the average ABC sketch show almost never covers. Even At Home Alone Together, a show driven by a global pandemic that affected everyone managed to place a hipper spin on topics like friendship, dating and parenthood than a COVID-inspired Kinne Tonight would have.
Kinne Tonight isn’t the greatest sketch show ever made, but it’s a solid half-hour, week-in week-out. And Kinne’s take on the world is relatable in a way that a lot of the more surreal or intellectual comedians probably aren’t. He’s got the feel of a Shane Jacobson, a Paul Hogan, or a Russell Gilbert – he’s an average, everyday bloke.
He’s maybe a bit too obsessed with the differences between men and women – and after eight episodes we really don’t need to watch any more sketches which are basically “Women, eh? What’s up with them?” – but it’s difficult not to laugh at a sketch which is about the trials and tribulations of a fart. Or the one where personifications of various apps annoy a couple having a first date in a restaurant.
And let’s face it, no one else is doing these kind of left-field takes on everyday situations. What you’re more likely to see in Australian sketch comedy is a crap take on whichever government policy has fucked over the young and vulnerable this week. Which is valid and important, but possibly not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as a man pretending to be a fart.
In the end, At Home Alone Together turned out to be pretty average. It’s also exactly the kind of show the ABC should be making more of.
Not just because it’s an increasingly rare example of ABC comedy output featuring comedy either, though with Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery currently interviewing tech bros and Hard Quiz and Rosehaven just around the corner, our sides will be remaining unsplit for the forseeable future. No, At Home Alone Together finally managed to do something that the ABC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on over the last few years with zero success: put some fresh talent on in prime time.
It’s a bit grim to realise that it took the threat of a global pandemic for the ABC to realise that if something happened to Charlie Pickering or Luke McGregor or Tom Gleeson their entire comedy department would fall apart. Throw Shaun Micallef, Julia Zemiro and Celia Pacquola into permanent lockdown and there’d be pretty much nothing left. So even if At Home Alone Together was fairly hit-and-miss on a good day – and it was – it’s still pretty impressive that it somehow managed to figure out a way to put a few fresh faces into the comedy roster.
But hang on a minute: hasn’t the ABC been running online talent competitions for years? What about all those Fresh Blood stars in the making? Well, it seems that those “competitions” were really just ways to get people to make sketches the ABC could put online and then just… forget about. The ABC still hasn’t found a way to give Aunty Donna a regular gig; their interest in new talent that isn’t already established talent is pretty minimal at best.
So for that reason alone – and at times, only for that reason alone – At Home Alone Together has been a success. There was almost always a decent laugh or two each week, sometimes from the regular characters (not Birgit Oestengardt), sometimes from the new crew (that “Four Corners” expose on the secret handshake toilet in the final episode wasn’t a great idea, but the extremely blunt questioner made it work). It was more the start of something decent than a finished product: in an ideal world it would have run for twenty weeks and by week ten they’d have started to focus on the reliable new guys and had a break out character or two. But you take what you can get in 2020.
Adding insult to close to a decade’s worth of injury, this was a last minute project thrown together to take advantage of a lot of people being in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Imagine if the ABC had actually wanted to really develop new talent back when people could move around freely; they might have created the framework for something that could have become really worthwhile rather than an excuse for a bunch of stilted Ray Martin jokes. Though to be fair, at least they figured out before the series ended that the only real joke you could do with Ray was that he was shithouse at line readings (that “Deadline” fake drama series in the final episode was probably the best thing he did).
What all this really proved is that a formula that’s at least thirty years old is still good. Find a host who’s a bit of a draw, bring in a few regulars who can provide the spine of the show, then open the doors to new talent and see who’s got one good joke and who’s got a dozen. It’s not like Australia doesn’t have a bunch of dickheads out there trying to be funny on YouTube. At Home Alone Together was an experiment that should be seen as a win, if only because it showed that a thrown together show featuring a bunch of unknowns could deliver more laughs than… do we really have to list the usual ABC suspects?
After all, most of them will be back in the next few weeks.
Press release time!
ABC, Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation are delighted to announce that pre-production has resumed on ABC’s newest comedy series – Aftertaste (working title).
Erik Thomson (Packed to the Rafters, The Luminaries), stars as Easton West, an internationally renowned yet volatile celebrity chef whose spectacular fall from grace sees him return to his home town in the Adelaide Hills, where he endeavours to rebuild his career and restore his reputation, with the help of his talented, young, pastry-chef niece.
After their unplanned Covid hiatus, the team at Closer Productions (The Hunting, In My Blood it Runs) are excited to be back to work. Closer Productions producer Rebecca Summerton says “It’s great to be back in production. I am delighted to be working with the Aftertaste (w/t) team and our production partners to bring this exciting new comedy to audiences.”
ABC Head of Scripted Production Sally Riley says “We’re thrilled to welcome Erik back to the ABC, in a role created for him by Julie de Fina and one that is very different to his usual characters. I can’t wait for the talented team at Closer Productions to bring this irreverent and laugh-out-loud series to the screen”
Head of Content at Screen Australia, Sally Caplan says “Closer Productions have an impressive track record of creating compelling and edgy comedy-dramas and we are delighted this series is back in pre-production and can’t wait for the ABC serve up this high cuisine drama.”
Aftertaste (w/t), will film in Adelaide and the Adelaide Hills in the coming months and premiere next year on ABC.
We mention this not because it’s breaking news or anything – they haven’t even locked down the title yet – but as a reminder that the deepest, hardest to remove tradition in ABC comedy is the comedy series made by people who you wouldn’t really think of as comedy people. You know, the kind of sitcom where everyone is a serious actor taking a break from the stage or proper drama to show everyone else how it’s done.
That’s not to say this won’t work – stranger things have happened. But these kind of series are almost always the product of a mindset that the most important things in comedy are looking good and having “proper” performances, not the being funny part. They’re also a thrilling reminder that the pathway to getting a show made at the ABC is a lot easier* (*still basically impossible) if you have big names up front and a chunk of change from local funding bodies than it is if all you have is a proven comedy track record or just a funny script.
We’d love to say at this point that Julie de Fina is someone whose career we’ve been following for a while now, but it seems her only prior comedy credit is a series called Lemons, which was funded back in 2017 and was supposedly filmed last year, but has yet to appear anywhere. That said, she was also the publisher of this.
Meanwhile, the Adelaide-based Closer Productions seem best known for their documentary work. They did produce Hannah Gadsby’s Oz and Fucking Adelaide though, the latter of which got the thumbs up from us – though not so much for being funny.
But hey, when your lead character is named Easton West the comedy writes itself.
A few commentators have remarked recently that at this point in lockdown they’re running out of things to do. They’ve got through all those shows they’d planned to watch on Netflix, they’ve cleared out the spare room, they’ve re-painted the shed, read most of the books they’ve been meaning to read…now what?
So, we find ourselves scrolling through the depths of iView looking for a comedy we haven’t reviewed yet, and we come across the 2017 web series 600 Bottles of Wine. It’s been sold to the BBC and TVNZ, so it must be okay, right?
Claire (Grace Rouvrey) has recently split-up with long-time partner Nick (Ryan Madden) and is trying to move on. On one of her regular, wine-fuelled nights out in the pub with friends Nat (Nerida Bronwen), Timmie (Nancy Denis) and Harriet (Stephanie Baine), she decides to have a one-night stand. She selects a target, a guy at the bar called Liam (Adam Franklin), and the two hit it off. In fact, it seems like maybe this will go further than one night. But no.
Later, Claire gets into a relationship with Pat, a charming man, who also likes wine, and makes her cocktails at his home (earning himself the nickname “Negroni”). But, eventually, his busy career in advertising and regular fitness sessions with a female colleague make Claire nervous. Plus, there’s a pregnancy scare, Nick returns, Claire receives a bunch of relationship advice, and a hot guy called Huw (Andrew Shaw) starts working at her office. Is it bye-bye Negroni?
If you’re looking for a satisfying ending or social commentary beyond “relationships are fraught and well-meaning advice isn’t always helpful”, you won’t get that from 600 Bottles of Wine. And if you’re looking for a feminist take on heterosexual relationships, one that involves the female protagonist not nearing breakdown because of the crap men in her life, this may also not be for you.
You also won’t get a huge number of laughs. The sex scene with Liam has its moments, and it’s always good to see a sex scene from the female perspective, but, as so often, Fleabag did it better.
What 600 Bottles of Wine does do well, is to document a certain type of millennial female friendship group, and the men they date. It’s maybe not that different from what previous generations of women have experienced, but at least this is from an all-female team: writer Grace Rouvrey, director Ainslie Clouston and producer Bec Bignell.
This week saw the final episode of the current season of How to Stay Married, a sitcom that revolved around the hilarious idea that a marriage could somehow survive a wife writing a book titled My Shit Husband. It’s funny because it’s true! Or it’s true that it’s not funny, one or the other.
The real news here is that the end of How To Stay Married has knocked Ten off its perch as Australia’s number one comedy network, though it’s hard to say that the ABC is back on top what with The Weekly barely counting as comedy no matter how many times Charlie Pickering does that ABC HR sketch. Remember those magical days when there was enough Australian comedy on television that we could afford to be picky? Oh wait, that was last week.
Now the latest round of ABC cuts has forced the national broadcaster to re-re-brand ABC Comedy as something we care about even less, which you’d think would be hard to achieve but welcome to 2020. ABC Comedy was a bad idea from the beginning, became an even worse idea once they announced they didn’t have a budget, and by the time it became obvious their flagship show was going to be Tonightly – which wasn’t a bad show in itself, but giving the cream of Australia’s #auspol gagsters a chance to double their twitter followings on TV was never going to bring in the kind of crowd it needed to – it was already over.
This would be the perfect time for the ABC to point to all those crowd-pleasing comedies they’ve been airing over the last decade or so to build some public support, only… and you know where we’re going with this. But why has ABC comedy been so deliberately shit? Comedy hasn’t been a consistently viable product on Australian commercial television for a long time; any kind of rationale for the ABC’s decision to focus on alternative comedy rather than going after mainstream laughs vanished long ago. Not that it ever made sense, what with the golden age of ABC comedy being almost entirely built around shows that people wanted to watch whether they were Good News Week or Spicks & Specks.
It’s certainly possible to argue that the ABC has tried to chase down a wider audience with their comedy programming. The Weekly is a knockoff of a whole bunch of more popular US shows (and The Project), only with no money: Rosehaven is a knockoff of a whole bunch of more popular shows, only with no murders. The problem with that argument is over the last few years Network Ten (and to a lesser extent Nine) have also tried comedy, and as networks with actual experience in trying to grab a wider audience the difference between their programming and the ABC’s has been informative, to say the least.
Comedy should be the area where the ABC connects to the Australian public. People like comedy: the commercial networks aren’t doing much of it. But over the last decade or so they’ve messed it up so consistently that if someone said they were being pressured by the government to actively focus on shit comedy we couldn’t dismiss that theory out of hand.
This isn’t a situation like drama, where the commercial networks make enough local product that it’s reasonable for the ABC to claim their attempts are offering an alternative. Ten will have one sitcom and one sketch show in 2020, plus a highly successful comedy gameshow. Gameshows aside, the ABC will air well over double that, even with their current budget woes. But where Ten has stuck to the basics and not completely disgraced themselves, the ABC just can’t resist zany high concepts that never quite disguise the fact that the substance isn’t there.
Maybe once upon a time, the ABC’s job was to nurture new comedy talent that would then move on to the commercial networks. How to Stay Married is a spin-off from a segment from Peter Helliar’s It’s A Date, which he made for the ABC and which definitely seemed like the work of somebody new to comedy. Those days are over: the vast majority of comedy the ABC airs simply doesn’t have anything in common with what commercial television – or its viewers – are interested in.
Every time there’s budget cuts the ABC goes on and on about their award-winning news and they’re right to do so. But the news is everywhere these days, and while the ABC might be serving up the good stuff most people are happy with car crashes and bag snatchers. Comedy should be a point of difference for the ABC, something the general public likes that they can point to and say “this is what we do for you and you can’t get it anywhere else”.
ABC comedy should provide Australians with a solid reason why they should support the network. Good luck managing that after two series of Squinters.
Last One Laughing (the first two episodes of which are now streaming on Amazon Prime) answers a question no one was asking: what happens when comedians play to absolute silence?
Now, to be fair to the makers of this show, it’s important to remember that Last One Laughing was conceived and shot well before lockdown. You remember before lockdown – when no one imagined that live comedy would become comedians in their homes performing to their laptop cameras for an audience they can’t really see or hear or react to.
So, given that our live comedy future will increasingly feature small, distant or quiet audiences, Last One Laughing is, perhaps, of the moment. A TV iteration of live comedy without an instant reaction.
The concept of Last One Laughing is this: Rebel Wilson oversees a sort of Big Brother house in which ten comedians are locked for six hours. During the six hours, the comedians have to try and make each other laugh, but if anyone does laugh – and Rebel can see if they do because she’s got an elaborate control room-type thing – they’re kicked out. The last one left, i.e. the one who hasn’t laughed gets $100,000.
So, let’s just say our ten comedians pull out all the stops to get that $100,000. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the more surreal and surprising the comedian, the wackier they go and the more laughs they get.
Anne Edmonds is the first to make one of the ten laugh, with a cutting and beautifully-timed comment that most would struggle to keep a straight face at. Sam Simmons brings his A-game too, wearing some bizarre costumes (including a Home & Away school dress and a jacket covered in floppy penises) before he decides to dispense with the silly outfits and strip down nude and sit in a paddling pool, encouraging the other comedians to pour Fanta on him. This turns out to be the least funny of his routines.
Frank Woodley also busts out a few wacky props and costumes, although Simmons consistently outdoes him simply by being more bizarre.
Others on the show – Nazeem Hussain, Joel Creasey, Dilruk Jayasinha, Ed Kavalee, Becky Lucas, Nick Cody and Susie Youssef – take more of a backseat in the first couple of episodes, focusing on getting laughs in lower-key ways. And, of course, desperately trying not to laugh at all the crazy stuff happening around them.
As for who will be the last one laughing, it’s hard to tell. Sam Simmons looks incredibly difficult to crack up and hasn’t come close once, but some of the quieter comics also seem to be brilliant deadpanners. Ed Kavalee was tipped as one-to-watch, and based on his performance so far, he’s definitely a contender.
The element of surprise or sudden shock will probably be the winning weapon, though, and if Simmons, Edmonds or Woodley make it to the end, they’ll be tough competitors.
We still can’t help but think this is ultimately a bad way to do comedy, though. In a pre-COVID world, what was the point of making comedy seem less funny by forcing the live audience not to react to it? And even in a post-COVID world, why wouldn’t you want comedy to be as funny as possible? It’s certainly possible to make an audience you can’t hear or see laugh – comedians on TV and radio have been doing that for years – but live comedy often gets its spark because it responds to the audience.
And that’s what’s missing here: spark. There are some individual funny moments but no sustained laughs. The comedian-audience are distracted from being funny because they need to stop themselves from laughing in order to win the cash. So, their eyes aren’t on what should be their real job, here: making us at home laugh.
Press release time!
To b(ooz)e or not to b(ooz)e? That is the question Shaun Micallef asks in July
ABC and Screen Australia are pleased to announce the eagerly awaited Shaun Micallef’s On The Sauce, a 3-part documentary series about Australia’s drinking culture, premieres Tuesday 21 July at 8:30pm on ABC and iview.
There are many facets to Shaun Micallef – comedian, actor, writer, hugely popular TV presenter. Perhaps less known, he’s also a dedicated teetotaller. So, when his sons hit drinking age, it got him thinking. What kind of drinking scene are they about to dive into?
Revealing a rarely seen personal side, Shaun shares all sorts of intimate stories, from his self-combusting grandfather to the reason he chose to stop drinking. He meets a variety of everyday Australians, from those who love to drink to those who’ve sworn off it. Along the way, he’s joined by experts who share some eye-opening facts about the “demon drink”.
In this thought-provoking series, Shaun attends an all-girl pub crawl, an alcohol-fuelled B&S ball and an 18th birthday celebration, to gain a better understanding of Australia’s long held love affair with booze.
Shaun also catches up with young abstainers and those recovering from addiction, which makes him question whether Aussie attitudes to alcohol are changing, and how this will impact his own three sons?
Shaun is confronted by the highs and lows of alcohol consumption and witnesses the changing shape of our national pastime. Where are we heading as a nation? And how does Shaun feel after getting drunk for the first time in three decades?
Hungover? There, we saved you three hours.
Much as we like Micallef, this could go either way. Anyone who’s read a Fairfax paper on the weekend over the last decade or so knows there’s a fairly consistent element of hand-wringing wowserism on the subject of alcohol coming from the more “enlightened” side of the Australian media, not to mention the semi-regular appearances down your local bookstore of memoirs from women under 40 going on about how they spent their 20s drinking and It Was Bad.
On the other hand, a lot of people do seriously feel that Australia has a culture of getting on the turps – especially experts with “eye-opening facts”, those who’ve sworn off the grog, young abstainers and those recovering from addiction. It’ll be a tricky needle to thread… especially if it’s going to stay entertaining and amusing while basically saying “drinking is bad”, which it’s obviously going to have to do.
(we all know that drinking is bad – it’s just that sobriety for some is worse, and the ABC is hardly going to do a series about why we drink when the answer is partly going to be “because western liberal society is pretty shit for many people and they have to have a cheap escape somehow”)
One things for sure: the ABC will be crossing all available fingers and toes that we don’t have a second wave of coronavirus between now and July 21st, because nothing’s going to seem more irrelevant if we’re all back in lockdown than a series about pub crawls and B&S balls.
The ABC’s really been going for it in terms of podcasts lately, with CrossBread, a mockumentary about a Christian rap band, the latest audio comedy to be released.
This kind of show used to be a rarity – those with long memories may remember 2010’s The Blow Parade – but now, thanks to the rise of podcasting, there are heaps of them. In fact, we should probably expect even more of this kind of comedy with budgets shrinking and COVID-19 making TV production harder. Audio comedy is the future! Hooray?
CrossBread is a documentary about the Christian rap band CrossBread, who first appeared on the Christian music circuit back in 2015. Fronted by Josh (Chris Ryan) and Joan (Megan Washington), a brother and sister from Melbourne’s outer suburbs, the band gained fame at the Hillsong-esque Firebrand Ministries, a mega-church fronted by cool priest “The Rev” (John Waters). CrossBread is told from the perspective of Ken Lim (Aaron Chen) the church’s social media manager, who recorded many of CrossBread’s rehearsal sessions and became their biggest fan.
In the first two episodes (released last Monday – there are four more episodes to come), we learn about the series of lies and financial difficulties which led to the formation of CrossBread and how the band shaped its act, adding sound man Pradeep (Sami Shah) on decks. We also hear a lot of their music (written by Ryan and Washington) which neatly parodies both Christian and mainstream pop music styles.
CrossBread (the mockumentary) isn’t super hilarious but it has some good moments and the origin story of Josh and Joan forming band together is particularly funny. Aaron Chen’s trademark deadpan comedic style also brings a lot to the narration and works particularly well when his character unintentionally parodies some of the presentation styles associated with American podcast documentaries (“I didn’t know what to believe”).
With four more episodes to come, it’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. But scriptwriter Declan Fay (Ronnie Chieng: International Student) is always reliable and Kate McLennan (Get Krack!n) is coming up in future episodes, so it should be worth a listen.
Who knew Chris Lilley still had the power to make us laugh?
In the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement, Deadline can reveal that Netflix has removed four shows from controversial Australian comedian Chris Lilley from its services in Australia and New Zealand.
Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, and Jonah From Tonga have all been taken down after featuring characters that have in the past sparked questions over racial discrimination. The shows were originally made by Australian producer Princess Pictures for the ABC.
Remember when people took Chris Lilley seriously? Bet there’s a lot of critics around the world working hard to scrub their many, many glowing reviews of his “work” from their resumes. And if they’re not, they really should be, because it’s not like nobody noticed at the time that his blackface shit was offensive – they just thought that was part of the joke.
This 2011 interview in The Atlantic is particularly awkward to read in 2020 – maybe not as awkward as this 2008 story in The Age (or even this Age review from 2014) – but this bit is worth quoting in full in case it mysteriously vanishes:
With S.mouse, you’ve been criticized for “exploiting the history of race relations for a cheap laugh.” Is that a common reaction to your portrayal of S.mouse, who appears in blackface, or Jen?
Well, Australia has a thing where apparently it’s fine for me to dress up as an Asian woman. No one has questioned that. But there was—which I totally expected—there was a bit of an outcry about me playing a black person. And also, my shows are meant to be a bit provocative and I like that kind of television that shocks you. But the thing is, I think a lot of people just saw the trailer and then they started writing about it but they didn’t sit down and watch the episodes. When you get to know S.mouse, it very quickly becomes not about a guy wearing blackface. It’s a character. It’s sort of irrelevant that I’m black. It’s about him being home on house arrest and lost in the commercial music industry. There’s a lot more heart to the character by the end of the series. Yeah, but that stuff just sort of came and went in Australia. It’s completely predictable and obvious. And then funnily enough, in the UK there was no issue at all. They just completely got it.
Better dump a few more statues into the harbour quick.
Being the humourless scolds that we are, we jumped on the “Chris Lilley isn’t funny” bandwagon before there even was one.* Because there isn’t really one now: keen-eyed readers will have noticed that nobody’s saying Lilley wasn’t funny, they’re just saying that the blackface (and yellowface) antics he based his entire career on are currently offensive. Obviously blackface was just as offensive fifteen years ago, but at the time his fans just thought that was part of the joke. Safe to say that view has not held up.
Unlike just about every other comedian currently in trouble over their past blackface antics, Lilley was never trying to say or do anything with or around the idea of blackface. To his defenders (presumably he still has some), he was never doing blackface at all – just playing a range of comedy characters that happened to be black, or Islander, or Asian, or female, or (stereotypically) gay, or socially disadvantaged, or… anyone else starting to see a pattern?
Chris Lilley’s entire “comedy” act – and we’d argue his interest in comedy was marginal at best; he just liked pretending to be minorities and comedy was the only way he could do that – was based on the idea that seeing a white male pretending to be a minority was intrinsically funny. And if that wasn’t the case, then was exactly was the joke?
Time and time again Lilley was praised by critics for the “realism” of his performance. But if realism was what people were tuning in for, why wasn’t Jonah played by an actual Islander kid? Were there literally no black actors available who could capture the subtle nuances of S.mouse? You can’t read an article about Ja’mie without someone praising Lilley’s accurate portrayal of a teen bitch; if the joke there isn’t that a teen bitch is being played by a mid-30s man, what is it?
Most of the time, most of the comedy that gets slated for blackface was at least somewhat aware that blackface is offensive. Sometimes they were trying to say something about a character that would willingly don blackface; sometimes they were just trying to use it for shock value. But Lilley was (hopefully) the last comedian we’ll see who used blackface completely unironically; he was a white man who wanted to pretend he was black, and people laughed because that was funny to them.
Those critics who were quick to praise his work (“The sort of comedy he wrote in Summer Heights High was dangerous and provocative and raw”, for fucks sake) better scrub a little harder.
*just look at anything here with a “Chris Lilley” tag – they’re pretty much all negative**
**that said, this is probably the best one to read if you’re in a hurry