Gilding the Lilley

Look what turned up in our inbox at the end of business Friday – okay, you probably already know all this, but it’s always fun to check out the original press release so you can see just how little work is involved in journalism today:

CHRIS LILLEY GETS ‘ANGRY’ WITH ABC TV

In the most hotly-awaited news in television, ABC TV and the USA’s HBO jointly today announces a new 12-part, half-hour series from multi-award winning writer and performer, Chris Lilley.

Angry Boys is a co-production between the team of Chris Lilley and Princess Pictures, creators of the enormously popular Summer Heights High and We Can Be Heroes, ABC TV and HBO.

In an Australian first, the series will be co-produced with HBO, a broadcaster which has built its reputation by offering some of television’s most creative and edgy programming, and in association with the UK’s BBC, the home of British comedy.

Shooting in a mock documentary style, Angry Boys explores what it means to be a 21st century boy by putting the male of the species under the microscope. It will be shot in Australia and overseas locations and goes into pre-production on Monday October 5.

Chris Lilley says he’s been writing the new show for a long time. “There will be new characters and lots of surprises for the audience, and I’m really excited about having a longer-running series to work with.”

Laura Waters, Princess Pictures, says “Angry Boys will be the biggest challenge and most fun we’ve ever had making a television show.”

ABC TV Executive Head of Content Creation, Courtney Gibson says “The scripts are absolutely terrific: Once again Chris is pushing comedy and character somewhere really challenging and ambitious. Moving forward with HBO and the BBC as partners means the series will play on the world stage right after we premiere it here in Australia.”

Sue Naegle, President, HBO Entertainment. said “Chris Lilley combines a wicked sense of humour with fearless insights into human nature, which gives his comedy a universal appeal. We were thrilled to share Summer Heights High with the U.S. audience and are sure that Angry Boys will connect with our subscribers and the media.”

In 2007, Summer Heights High screened in Australia to phenomenal success, with a peak audience of 1.48 million and a 33.5% share (5 cities).

Summer Heights High has not only been a success in Australia but has been seen in dozens of countries around the world including on HBO in the USA and on the BBC in the UK.

It’s the highest-selling Australian comedy TV series DVD. In 2008 it won the Most Outstanding Comedy Series and most Popular Actor Logies and the AFI Award for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor in a Comedy Series.

We Can Be Heroes was also seen in dozens of countries including the US (Sundance Channel) and UK (FXUK), and won the Most Outstanding Comedy Series Logie in 2006.

Chris won the Logies’ inaugural Graham Kennedy Award in 2006 and the AFI’s the Byron Kennedy Award in 2008

Far be it for anyone here to slag off a show before it’s gone to air – or in this case, before it’s even begun filming – but for anyone with even the slightest hope that the clearly somewhat talented Chris Lilley would eventually figure out a way to put that talent to good use, this is pretty much a procession of bad news. Such as:

*”Angry Boys”. What more needs to be said?  It’s going to be a collection of character studies where Lilley acts like various “angry boys” – that is to say, like various shades of rip-offs of David Brent yet again. It might be an all-new cast, but unless Lilley’s been hit on the head with a comedy pot plant and completely changed his personality, the fact that all his characters since Extreme Darren on Big Bite – a character imposed on him by some accounts – have basically been minor variations on passive-aggressive jerks does not leave much scope for optimism there.

* “12 part”. Lilley’s best work to date remains the short sketches he did for Big Bite.  Don’t believe it?  Track down the DVD and check them out for yourself.  Who knew that Mr. G could be funny, or that parodies of crap high school musicals could raise a smile? Of course, that’s largely because there the joke was on Lilley: once he started making his own series he stated to become protective of his characters, to the extent that by the end of Summer Heights High he had hell-bitch Ja’ime shout “State schools rock!”. Out of character? Totally.  A reminder that deep down this monster is a sweet kid at heart? Sure. Comedy fans will note that neither of those things are how you get laughs.

With each project Lilley attempts, the episode length gets longer: We Can Be Heroes: six episodes. Summer Heights High: eight episodes. And now twelve episodes of Angry Boys: War and Peace didn’t take as long to tell, and that wasn’t just some guy in a wig talking to camera. And it’s not like the extended length comes about because of a grander scope or wider range of topics covered: Does anyone really think there was anything more to say about the SHH cast after episode three? The series itself only had enough plot for five or so episodes, with the middle of the series feeling heavily drawn-out. In fact, SHH had less story than We Can Be Heroes, and two more episodes to tell it in. Why? Lilley likes the improv. Just check out the massive amount of deleted scenes on his DVDs.

So it’s fair to say that with twelve episodes, we can expect even less story than SHH – seriously, does it sound like anything more than just a run of character studies – and a lot more scenes that go nowhere. Could this be too much of a good thing? At this stage, who knows? Eight episodes of SHH seemed like a nightmare at the time but there’s no denying its success, at least in Australia (the rest of the globe, not so much). Maybe if Lilley was actually trying something new, but… well, that brings us to the next point:

* “Shooting in a mock documentary style”.  Jesus Christ, where to begin.  Mockumentary has been old news for years now, its cliches milked completely dry of comedy potential long before The Office came along, but Lilley isn’t going to let it go.  Why?  Because in mockumentary, he can talk to the camera as much as he likes.  It’s great for him, because it means he doesn’t have to interact with other actors and share the spotlight – something Lilley’s been loathe to do throughout his career.

His refusal to allow anyone else to get a laugh in his various series is his biggest weakness as a comedian. It limits his work to basically him (no matter who he’s playing) saying something offensive or shocking while everyone else reacts. Even with Jonah in SHH, the various teachers were one-dimensional authority figures he could crack wise against: letting someone else get a laugh simply wasn’t an option. Good news if you want to watch six hours of Lilley wearing various wigs; not so good if you want a bit of comedic back-and-forth.

Going mockumentary also means he doesn’t actually have to do much acting.  He can simply get his characters to explain themselves to camera instead.  Okay, often they’ll say one thing and mean another, but that’s hardly great acting. It is, however, a great way to allow stupid people to think they’re watching great acting: “wow, I thought Ja’ime was a complete bitch but she’s really emotionally affected by what that kid said to her” “You’re just repeating what the character just said YOU TOTAL TOOL!”

For all the talk of how amazing and chameleon-like Lilley is, the fact remains that a lot of his work consists of him dressing up and then telling us he’s someone else. “Show, don’t tell” is how the saying goes when it comes to great writing and acting. Someone might want to remind Lilley of that. Of course, then he might have to live up to the hype, which at this stage would be impossible even if you cloned Graham Kennedy and gave him four extra sets of arms. Even in this press release – press releases not being a genre designed for subtlety – it’s already out of hand:

“Once again Chris is pushing comedy and character somewhere really challenging and ambitious.” What, you mean like with SHH, where he was either a): a man in a dress, b): a bitchy drama teacher or c): a surly teenager making dick jokes? I suppose Lilley did set himself one challenge there: to take these well-worn comedy cliches and get no laughs whatsoever out of them. Mission accomplished.

“Chris Lilley combines a wicked sense of humour with fearless insights into human nature, which gives his comedy a universal appeal.” Fearless insights into human nature? That would be “teenage girls are superficial and bitchy”, correct?  Or were you think more along the lines of “drama teachers are bitchy and self-obsessed”? Perhaps “smart-arse kids are poorly served by a rigid educational system” was what you were thinking of? Once again, maybe it’s time to re-write the dictionary, because mine doesn’t seem to have a definition of “fearless” that means “predictable and superficial”.

The good news in all of this is that, going by the blown deadlines for SHH, there’s very little chance of seeing Angry Boys until 2011 at the earliest. Reportedly Lilley filmed over a hundred hours of footage for the eight-hour SHH: even if he doesn’t go past that ratio here (and as SHH was a big step up in footage shot from We Can Be Heroes, I wouldn’t count on that), that’s at least one hundred and fifty hours of footage he’s got to shoot.  And two out of three SHH characters were ones Lilley had already developed, so if he has to feel his way into a bunch of new wigs – uh, I mean characters – by performing as / in them for a while until he “knows who they are”… well, even 2011 could be a bit on the optimistic side…

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