Jonah Week 2: Slip Sliding Away

Wow, Jonah really is stirring up some serious shit:

A new Australian television comedy about a rebellious Tongan teenager has been condemned as “self indulgent” and “deeply offensive” to Pacific Islanders.

Chris Lilley’s six-part ABC TV comedy series Jonah From Tonga follows the life of a 14-year-old schoolboy and his run-ins with family, friends and teachers.

Professor Helen Lee, head of La Trobe University’s department of sociology and anthropology, has told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat she was horrified by the show’s portrayal of Pacific youth.

“I just think it’s dreadful. It’s just awful. It’s creating a terrible stereotype that’s just deeply offensive to Tongans,” she said.

It’s a wonder there haven’t been riots by now – especially as those outraged have been forced to resort to quoting New Zealand hip-hop to make their point:

Australia has a comedy problem if a guy who dresses in blackface, brownface and yellowface is considered a ‘genius’. In what other country could a comedian earn a pass, let alone praise, for resurrecting minstrelsy? Not many, if any.

That’s what Chris Lilley does: racial cross-dressing. In Jonah from Tonga, Lilley’s latest mockumentary, he wears brown makeup, fake curls, a phoney tatatau, and uses a fob accent and Polynesian mannerisms. Lilley appropriates the Polynesian appearance and experience to make an obvious point about racism in Australia: Polynesians are marginalised.

Oh wait, we forgot: no-one in the real world gives a shit about any of this stuff, because no-one in the real world is watching Jonah from Tonga:

Chris Lilley, once a homegrown critical and audience success story for the ABC, is now a ratings failure.

Week two of the 39-year-old comedian’s latest ABC1 television series, Jonah from Tonga, fell from a modest start of 441,000 viewers to just 287,000.

This put Jonah in 37th spot in Wednesday’s ratings, below standard afternoon fare such as The Bold and The Beautiful on Ten.

That’s a long way from the success of the 2007 series Summer Heights High, which catapulted him to fame and regularly attracted more than 1.2 million viewers. It was the ABC’s bestselling comedy DVD.

The disappointing figures come on the back of an equally poor reception for Jonah’s predecessor Ja’mie: Private School Girl, also on ABC1.

The figures suggest Australian audiences have grown tired of Lilley, who once attracted a three-country deal with HBO and the BBC on the strength of Summer Heights High.

Okay, all snark aside for the moment, that really is an astonishingly poor result only two weeks in. Perhaps someone should have told Lilley that the first episode of Jonah shouldn’t have been all about hitting the reset button on a character who’s story had already been wrapped up back in 2007. At the time – was it really only last week? – it seemed like a reasonable decision to return Jonah to a place where Lilley could move forward from. Now it seems like a massive mistake: whatever people might actually want from Lilley in 2014, “more of the same” is certainly not it.

But wait – surely we can expect a press release from the ABC any minute now touting the series’ “massive” iView figures because no real Chris Lilley fan would be caught dead watching it on a television which they don’t even own anyway because it’s the future? Oh right: the ABC already shot their iView load with that “whole series over one weekend” deal. Plus – and this is something we can never say enough because it’s what happens every time with Lilley’s shows – the show’s television ratings dropped; did 150,000 people lose their television sets between weeks one and two? No? Guess they tried the show and didn’t like it.

The sad thing about all this is that, on the whole, Jonah from Tonga is a step up from Ja’mie: Private School Girl. That’s not hard to do: three hours staring at a photo of Rove McManus would be a step up from Ja’mie. But still, Jonah features a lead character who, while as one-note and unchanging as everything else Lilley does, at least has a gimmick funnier than just “treat everyone else like shit”.

We’re not going to go as far as Fairfax has yet again

We’re half way through this six-parter following the life and times of Jonah Takalua and the show is shaping up as possibly Chris Lilley’s best work yet. And yet Jonah could only loosely be termed a comedy – and then only in the same way as is Ricky Gervais’ The Office. Much of the time the show makes for uncomfortable viewing as we watch the awkward, lost, man-boy Jonah grope his way toward some sort of self-awareness and maturity. It’s important for this journey that Jonah is not really a bad kid. At least, not in a vicious, violent way. Sure, he is enormously irritating, disrespectful and far from the sharpest tool in the shed, but Lilley tempers Jonah’s many unsavoury aspects with brief flashes of vulnerable pathos, never allowing us to fully give up on him.

– because seriously, comparing Lilley to The Office in 2014 is a fool’s move: he’s made almost twice as many hours of television as all of the UK The Office put together, so we can safely consider that particular strip mined out. If Lilley can’t transcend his influences by now, he’s nothing but a hack.

But we do appreciate the way that in this series Chris Lilley is actually letting people who aren’t Chris Lilley have more than a handful of lines. It’s still a show where Jonah welds a “ranga’s” locker shut then rounds up all the school’s “rangas”, cages them in back-to-back soccer nets then tries to make one of them eat dog shit, but… what was our point again?

Oh right: everything in this article is wrong:

It’s hard to think of anyone on TV who excites as much interest or divides audiences as dramatically as Chris Lilley

Maybe Ms Enker should think a little harder: last time we checked Chris Lilley wasn’t exciting as much interest from Australian television audiences as The Bold and the Beautiful.


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  • Tony Tea says:

    I knew you would be all over Enker. Worst article ever.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Lilley getting called out for his blackface is good. Jingoistic reviews are bad. Low ratings are ugly. I guess this near the end for Lilley.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    What will surprise people looking back is how deliberately Lilley refused to steer away from the cliff. He has literally been making the same show again and again since We Can Be Heroes.

  • BIlly C says:

    287k is diabolically low for 9.00pm. The Agony of Modern Manners got in the 400s. Even the Kumars at 9.30 got more. Hopefully the ABC will stop funding Lilley as he certainly hasn’t improved or learnt from his mistakes. Time to give some other people a chance.

  • Bernard says:

    “Time to give some other people a chance.”

    Yeah, the ABC Rotating Comedy Roster must be moving into the Marieke Hardy quadrant by now. Then it will swing through to Josh Thomas, The Jungle Boys, Adam Zwar, then Gristmill. Rinse and repeat. Is that what you mean by “other people”?

  • Yeps says:

    I’m perversely intrigued to see just how low the ratings drop.

    Obviously ABC is now feeling the sting of having lauded Lilley’s garbage for so long, but for that very reason I can’t see them pulling it off the schedule early. It would be too much of an admission of guilt.

    And so, unless they decide to hastily fart out the last few episodes in a “special time”, back-to-back, one night screening) a four week game of ratings limbo begins…

  • er says:

    Worth mentioning that episode two was up against the season premiere of Offspring, which probably contributed a lot of the huge ratings drop. Of course, Offspring fans will tune in next week, unlike those Jonah viewers…

  • yoyo says:

    Oh you must be joking, everybody simply loves Josh Thomas and Marieke Hardy..I mean, not anybody I know or have ever met, but why would the ABC lie about ratings???? They’re such an honest institution! Obviously many people all over Australia love Marieke Hardy, her facebook page has 3800 likes!

    Good on you ABC for appearing to give chances to new talent while never actually doing so!

  • BIlly C says:

    Pointing at an unofficial fan page with about three posts is hardly evidence. She has 95,000 twitter followers. I’m not a particular fan of hers but she’s had two series of one show and some guest spots on the book show. She’s hardly been given the keys to ABCTV.

  • yoyo says:

    Twitter followers are meaningless imo. They’re based on how often you post and a bunch of other factors…facebook pages people seek out and choose to like, and since there isn’t any other Marieke Hardy page on facebook that’s about as substantial a fan page as anyone will get. John Safran has 30’000 or so and I’d say that’d decent, but that means I’ll have to give Josh Thomas props for having 270k. I just find old Hardy funny because of her family connections and how irritating she is on the book club show. The abc could have picked an amusing literary academic in need of a job to talk on the show…nope…they go for an attenting seeking pseud with nothing interesting to say.

  • ega says:

    *New Zealand hip-hop

  • 13 schoolyards says:


  • BIlly C says:

    I agree that Facebook pages are better indicators in some respects but pointing at an unofficial page with a couple of posts is not evidence of popularity. Why would anyone join that group? It provides very little content and is not official. If you don’t like Hardy that’s fine, I personally enjoyed her on Triple R for many years but didn’t think much of laid.

  • Tony Coca-Cola says:

    Semantic question for the group – is Lilley’s “blackface” as equally offensive and culturally damaging as Hank Azaria doing Apu or Akira or Carl or Drederick Tatum on The Simpsons?
    I have a real problem with the blackface accusations levelled at Lilley.
    For mine, there’s a MASSIVE difference between blackface and even basic, arguably one note characterisation.
    Islanders (at the very least) may certainly take offence at Lilley playing a character like Jonah, but it’s hardly blackface or minstrelsy.
    I don’t dispute that the outrage is fair and genuine, but I think it’s irrational.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    It is more offensive because Lilley is literally ‘blacking up’ not just putting an accent. ‘The Simpsons’ was seen as different because in a cartoon world caricutures are seen as okay and since ‘The Simpsons’ usually espoused a soft left messages they weren’t seen as racist. However comedians like Hari Kondablu etc have called out Azaria for his accents so there is a change.

    Lilley tried to offset the ‘blackface criticism’ by having ‘Kool Kris’ as a positive role model but I don’t think it’s about ‘being positive’. If there are Tongan stories to tell, let Tongan people tell them- negative or positive.

  • BIlly C says:

    An interesting question. I have another. What about S.Mouse? The issue is in my mind is that dressing up as other races is inherently troublesome. Providing the voice to an animation? Doesn’t really bother me just as much as Bill Murray voicing a cat doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is a white man dressing up and portraying other races to show those characters as disparaging or pathetic. It was used on stage and screen, including in Australia to mock but also because they would never let an actual black or indigenous person act. Have you seen the old Australia film where a white woman painted black is referred to as ” a nice piece of chocolate?” If a young Tongan played the role I’d still have problems with the idea of a white man writing a show that “kicks down” but it would be slightly less troublesome. The sad part is the ABC rarely puts shows on in prime time that aren’t written by people who aren’t white men on ABC1. But they’ll put a man dressing up as a young woman or a polonesian boy on. Thankfully the audience has spoken.

  • Tony Coca-Cola says:

    I agree that it’s inherently troublesome (I do like that phrase; I can imagine Andrew Bolt appropriating it – “Liberal overreactions to my alleged racism is troublesome…”)
    But I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to not to do it, nor flat out condemn the whole project as worthless.
    Putting limits on creative output seems a much worse crime, to me.
    Of course, one might dispute the definition of “creative” in this and many similar instances, and rightly so.
    As far as I’m concerned, you can do what you like, but the kicker is – you have to be prepared for any consequences.
    Certainly he (or anyone) can make a show, a good show, without resorting to stuff like this.
    But I don’t think it, or any topic, should be off limits in any artistic context.
    You just – again – have to stand by your work. Whatever creative decision you make, you’re gonna have to wear whatever comes with it. And a lot of it might be really, really not good.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    The problem is that ‘creative output’ is already limited by a ‘Code of Practice’, commissioners , budgets etc. And since ‘Jonah’ is on the ABC it’s held to a higher scrutiny than it would be on a commercial network.

    Now I’d be surprised after the success of SHH if a commercial network didn’t approach Lilley with an offer of a bigger budget etc. but Lilley declined because he didn’t want to answer to studio bosses, marketing etc. So ‘creative output’ is always adulterated. Unless you’re Gervais or Allen.