Woah Woah Woah, The Tide Is Turning

From Rowan Dean, on the ABC website The Drum:

…the new Chis Lilley show (zzz zzz zzz go the teeth of my saw slicing into the flesh of the branch) called Angry Boys (zzz zzzzz zzzz – I can feel the bough starting to give way under my weight already) which screened for the second time last night on the ABC (zzzzz zzzzz oh shit – here I go!)… well, sorry folks, but it simply isn’t funny.

SNAP! There! I’ve said it. Somebody had to. I know it’s not the politically correct thing to do. And I know there’s a legion of crazed fans just waiting with baseball bats raised high over their heads to club me to a pulp for even daring to suggest it, but I can’t help myself. Angry Boys just isn’t funny. Not even remotely.

Sure, the “somebody had to” is kind of insulting, considering we’ve been saying it for months – welcome aboard the bandwagon Rowan, might still be some room up the back – and come to think of it, the assumption that finding Angry Boys not funny is somehow swimming against the tide is more than a little out of date these days. Take Darren Devlyn, writing in The Herald-Sun over a week ago:

The first episode of Angry Boys had flashes of artistic brilliance, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that there weren’t more laughs.

Maybe as the series progresses it will gain comedic momentum and a sense of energy that wasn’t quite there in the opener. But maybe not.

Or Karl Quinn, writing for Fairfax online:

Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys is bold, aggressive, unafraid to trample on some very shaky ground. But on the basis of last night’s opening episode, it’s hard to conclude that it’s especially funny. Yet.

Quinn continues:

Clearly, Lilley is unafraid to stomp all over notions of what is acceptable in comedy, and to a large degree that is to be applauded. But breaking taboos, if that is what they are (or have become; let’s not forget that in many respects Benny Hill and Dick Emery were here decades before, albeit to different ends), is not much of an ambition in itself. It needs to go somewhere, to have some point, or at least to be really bloody funny, if it’s to count as great comedy.

It’s way too soon to judge if that’s what Angry Boys is, or if it is just a tired reiteration of the now-familiar tropes of Lilley’s ouvre.

[A swearing racist granny and some surly bogans are “stomp[ing] all over notions of what is acceptable in comedy”? Please. Acceptable on the set of Hey Dad..! perhaps.]

Anyway, even the video review on this Fairfax page is a wary one, and we all know how much Fairfax loves Chris Lilley – as the article itself shows:

Our comic controversies (for instance, the infamous Hey Hey It’s Saturday! blackface moment) usually aren’t edgy in the manner of Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks. They don’t send a confronting social message. They aren’t speaking truth to power. To the extent mainstream Australian comedy enters genuine controversy, it tends to do so by accident and in ignorance. It’s not about breathing comic fire at the socially privileged on behalf of the alienated.

Does Chris Lilley take us there? Certainly not in an American manner. He’s no angry Aboriginal comic or explicit champion of any underclass. But perhaps he’s doing something similar in an understated way. His work is close to the edge, not because it presents us with characters that swear a lot, or indulge in deeply ingrained, casual racism and homophobia, but because it’s not immediately clear what attitude towards them he wishes to evoke in us.

This is about as close to a willful misreading of Lilley’s work as you can get. Lilley’s attitude towards his characters is plain to see from the moment they appear on screen: he loves them, and he wants you to love them too – warts and all. It’s not a matter of creating complex comedy characters, because that’s not what he’s doing: seriously, a swearing granny? A “street” rapper from a pampered background? A pair of boring, frustrated bogans? Lilley deals in stereotypes: the “conflict” is that while he loves them and wants us to warm to them, audiences are used to laughing at characters in a comedy. Because, you know, it’s a comedy.

If Lilley wanted to leave us to make up our own minds about his characters, would Gran have given her little speech about an inmate who hanged himself, then followed it up with her boring-as-hell-but-meant-to-be-touching care of the “dog-wanker” in episode two? Would Daniel & Nathan’s hurt and frustration at their dead-end situation be so screamingly obvious?

Sure, S.mouse currently seems like a jerk, but the pattern’s been set with Gran and the twins: the first time we meet a new character they seem like a dick, then as we get to know them their troubled, sympathetic side emerges. It’s a sensible way to pace a series like this – the new character gets laughs while the more established ones are revealed to be a lot less funny – but with only five characters and twelve episodes, that’s a whole lot of unfunny coming up ahead.

But enough critical analysis from us. For every reviewer that gives it the thumbs down for being unfunny, there’s someone who seems to think being unfunny is a plus when it comes to comedy. Take this review in The Australian:

It was brilliant, but to my mind, not because it was hilarious. There were funny lines. But Angry Boys was also terribly sad.

Then there’s this gem from the BBC, wording up the world on what they can expect:

Chris Lilley is so good because he is so deadly accurate. And like most really good satire, it operates just beyond the borders of most viewers’ comfort zone. It dares you to laugh, and it becomes almost a guilty pleasure to do so.

“Dares you to laugh”? If true – and it’s not – then it’s a dare that viewers are increasingly failing to take up. Considering how the coverage of Angry Boys has gone from “Lilley is a comedy genius” to “It’s not all that funny, is it?” in the space of a few weeks, it’ll be interesting to see how long before “boot this tedious drivel to a midnight timeslot” comes around.

That might seem a little harsh (and highly unlikely, even to us) but don’t forget, there’s two and a half months more of this to go…

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1 Comment

  • Dave says:

    I loved Lilley’s first two series – particularly Summer Heights High.

    But Angry Boys…. it is utter utter crud. I got through 4 episodes and then called it quits. Wow – what a disappointment. Terrible characters, no laughs and an extremely lame ‘mockumentary’ – can someone please illuminate me as to the reason WHY there’s a camera following S.Mouse & Gran??? I don’t get why there’s a mockumentary crew following these people around…. Simply put, one of the biggest disappointments of Australian TV in the last few years. This will be the end of Lilley as far as HBO goes.