Hating Angry Boys: A Beginner’s Guide

With Angry Boys debuting in the UK this week, the usual gushing waves of praise re: the genius of Chris Lilley have broken on a new shore. In Australia too, the fans have been fighting back against the dwindling ratings and general feel that this time out Lilley’s gone off the boil. Even the Melbourne Herald-Sun recently said “the jury’s still out” on Lilley’s latest series, which-

hang on a second, how the hell can the “jury” still be out on a series that’s into its’ fifth week? Most Australian sitcoms only go for six weeks! This isn’t so much a case of the jury being out as eleven members calling for the death sentence while the twelfth sticks their fingers in their ears and shouts “not listening”.

Anyway, suffice to say that currently we’re in the best of all possible worlds when it comes to the world of Chris Lilley: there’s no clear-cut consensus as to how we’re all supposed to be thinking. Gone – for now at least – is the universal agreement in the press that he’s the second coming of a whole bunch of people who aren’t dead yet, including Barry Humphries and Ricky Gervais. Gone is the automatic assumption that simply by putting on a wig or a dress or a bunch of dark make-up he becomes a character with more intrinsic depth and substance than The Guru from the NRL Footy Show. Gone is… well, a whole bunch of things. Including, hopefully, the image of him as some kind of reclusive genius:

“I think the press have to have an angle on someone and the boring angle they have on me is that I’m this crazy, reclusive person who is media shy and makes these shows that are really shocking and controversial,” Lilley told Digital Spy.

(it’s true he’s not reclusive – we’ve seen him at a Shaun Micallef performance and at a preview of The Dark Knight!)

Unfortunately for Lilley, once you take away that media angle, all you’re left with is a show that isn’t all that funny. Which is why the media – who, by every possible objective reading of the situation, has gone out of their way to built Lilley up as the Great White Hope In Blackface of Australian Comedy – play up the “shocking and controversial” angle regarding his shows.

Lilley does have a point in that piece though: the media’s hyping of him as a controversial figure has next to no real substance behind it. If you’ve been here before, you know how the story goes. But it’s really the only angle the press can take as far as hyping up his shows. What else is there to say? He’s not all that insightful when it comes to wider social issues (unlike Kath & Kim, which at least sparked a “should we be laughing at the lower orders?” debate), he’s not mocking insitutions (like Frontline and The Games did), he’s not a funny guy outside of his characters (there go the panel show appearances) and he doesn’t provide any other obvious hooks to work with. He’s a theatre nerd who likes playing dress-ups and writing dubious parody songs: good luck marketing that.

That’s not to say people aren’t bravely trying to talk up Angry Boys the show rather than the controversy. Sadly for them, when you’re talking about a comedy, trying to claim this sort of crap as a positive just won’t wash:

It’s not pandering to the masses. No laugh track. No obvious gags

You know what? Obvious gags are good. Don’t believe us? Just watch, oh, every single classic comedy ever made. To be fair, the impression you might be left with after the fact is one of subtle character work and sly references, but at the time you’re watching it? The stuff that makes you laugh time and time again? That’d be what we call “jokes”. Name a comedy, we’ll point out the gags: a comedy without “obvious gags” isn’t a comedy at all, it’s a limp, aimless, not-quite-drama. Just like Angry Boys.

[laughs tracks are also perfectly fine, just not all the time in every show. If you’re a comedy reviewer and you suggest that laugh tracks are always bad – or that the lack of one is an automatic good – you’re not really much of a reviewer. C’mon, both Fawlty Towers and Seinfeld had a laugh track.]

Angry Boys is far from a disaster – at least by the standards of Australian television comedy in 2011 – but praising it constantly isn’t doing anyone a service. It’s this kind of relentless boosting that turned a once-promising young character comedian (yes, we’re talking about Lilley) back in his Big Bite days into a screen-hogging, self-obsessed, one-note bore.

If you want a reason to hate Angry Boys, don’t hate it because it’s “controversial” (it isn’t) or it’s “shocking” (it’s not) or it’s “pandering to the US market” (really? S.mouse seems pretty much on par with Ricky Wong race-wise, and his clear purpose isn’t to suck up to the States – it’s to allow Lilley to churn out more of his much-loved-by-him tasteless songs): hate it because it’s obvious that if Lilley actually had to stretch himself beyond the occasional dick joke and arsehole character, he could come up with something that was really worth all the hype.

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  • SteveMolk says:

    You seem to have taken my article out of context. I like Angry Boys. I never said obvious gags weren’t good – I will say they aren’t good *all* the time. I find your article interesting – thanks for writing, & thanks for referencing my article.

  • killerspud says:

    Amen and hallelujah – somebody has seen the emporer in his new clothes and it is one big dick joke

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Hi Steve – sorry if you feel we’ve misrepresented you with our use of your “no obvious gags” line. Upon re-reading your piece, it’s true you didn’t say anything against obvious gags (though it does seem like you were saying the lack of obvious gags is a positive – it’s almost the same thing, but clearly not exactly the same). Consider this an apology for twisting your words. Promise to do better next time.

    Your line “It’s true that with Angry Boys Lilley is delivering some of his most edgy characters yet.” would have been a much better fit for our trademark cheap shots, as – S.mouse’s dubious songs aside – it’s difficult to see how anyone here is more edgy than Ricky Wong with his musical antics, or Jonah’s indictment of the state school system.

    Then again, reading your “It’s a really clumsy article too. All over the place.” comment about this post on Twitter does take away a little from your kind words above. Of course, it did prompt Ben Pobjie to reply “my pet hate: people who tell you: if you like this show, you’re wrong”, which is hilarious considering he’s used the “people who don’t like the same shows as me are wrong” joke at least once in his Saturday Age column. So comedy’s the big winner here tonight.