So, episode 1 of the much-hyped Angry Boys has finally made it to air. For a show so keen to get laughs through realism it’s sure done a great job of proving that the exact opposite technique might have been the way to go. The more absurd moments in the show are the closest it gets to funny, and with so few of them on offer Angry Boys is just scene after boring, unfunny scene. But if you believe our nation’s TV critics this is a good thing, and makes Lilley a Barry Humphries-esque genius.
On the surface the Humphries/Lilley comparison isn’t a bad one: both are male comedians from Melbourne who play multiple characters, often improvise and like to include music in their shows. But beyond that the comparison falls apart, and it’s worth examining why.
Despite his reputation for being a great improviser, Barry Humphries scripts his shows, and when appearing on, say, a TV chat show, he draws on a series of pre-written gags. When he does genuine improvisation or hasn’t planned an appearance well, Humphries can often be pretty unfunny. Humphries also employs co-writers, for both his stage shows and TV series, and works with them to develop a good solid script which he can improvise around if he so chooses.
Chris Lilley on the other hand seems wedded to the idea that improvising is the be all and end all, building his TV shows from the best moments of take after take of on-set improvisation – a technique which usually results in a scattily-plotted storyline which the documentary style barely conceals. Humphries, as some of his film ventures in particular have demonstrated, isn’t necessarily a great plotter either, but at least he’s going somewhere with his stories. With Lilley’s past work, such as Summer Heights High, it often felt like he didn’t know how to end things so he just kept droning on.
It’s a bit early to guess whether there’ll be a grand conclusion to Angry Boys, as the first few episodes just seem to add another character to the mix each time, but it’s hard to imagine that there’ll be a satisfactory end to the stories of Nathan, Daniel, Gran, S.mouse, Blake and that Japanese skateboarder beyond Lilley establishing over and over again that they’re self-absorbed, bullying, dickheads. It’s even more unlikely that any of them will ever get the comeuppance they so richly deserve, or that there’ll end up being any real point to their existence. Which is kind of a shame, because if there’s a sure fire way to justify a racist character or a bunch of dick jokes it’s to inject some satirical intent. Just ask Barry Humphries.
Lilley, clearly, is not a Barry Humphries-esque genius. He’s too in love with his characters, and quite possibly too in love with himself, to do anything much beyond show-boating. Hey look! How edgy is he? One of his characters goes around yelling racist insults at the kids in her care. Is there meant to be a point in there somewhere? Only 11 more episodes to go before we’ll know for sure.