So, exactly how much of this week’s episode of Jonah from Tonga was just a bunch of schoolboy dickheads running around hiding from authority figures? We’re not saying that kind of thing can’t be funny; we are saying that when you’re Chris Lilley and the only string you have to your comedy bow is your ability to replicate various teen foibles, it’s probably not a great idea to spend large chunks of your show just running around.
Then again, what else was he going to do? Jonah’s been firmly established as a one-note dickhead, and with last week pretty much seeing the end of his “hilarious” string of schoolboy bullying, this was the episode where he had to redeem himself before once again going off the rails next week. So we got a lot of running away, some occasionally half-hearted attempts to court Lilley’s much loved “edgy comedy” by having Jonah be kind of attracted to his hot cousin, and eventually the Fob-alicious crew learnt about the evils of bullying and made a heart-warming anti-bullying video. Take that, the very idea that Jonah could possibly be a bad influence on the kids!
Oh wait, then he went and lay on the road in front of oncoming traffic. Eh, the was a safety warning up the front, kids aren’t that stupid.
If none of that sounds particularly funny, collect a gold star. Lilley’s rightfully very aware that he’s in dangerous waters with his portrayal of Jonah, what with Jonah being an Islander and Lilley being white, and it’s increasingly clear that while he’s never going to be able to defuse the argument that he simply shouldn’t be trying to tell Islander stories, he’s trying his hardest to make sure no-one can claim that Jonah is a negative picture of a troubled youth. He’s just a really boring one.
In theory, this episode balances out all the horrible stuff Jonah was up to in the first two episodes, saving him from just being an annoying shit like Ja’mie was. Great! He’s a character we can like again! Oh wait, we’re back to the whole “not funny” thing again, aren’t we? Because Lilley only ever makes one joke, and that joke is “look how outrageously horrible these people treat everyone around them” so when he makes moves to redeem his characters all the comedy drains out of the show in an instant.
It’s this kind of basic fatal flaw that’s made Lilley’s career so frustrating to watch over the years. Even when he fixes a lot of the problems in his same old, same old act – Jonah from Tonga actually gives non Lilley-characters lines, which you’d think wouldn’t be a big deal but it really is – you still run up hard against the wall that is his near total disinterest in actually creating a decent comedy.
There’s a very good reason why these days the “mockumentary” format is largely just treated as a loose set of guidelines rather than a firm commitment to documentary reality: unless you’re really good at it, it’s hard to smuggle jokes into it. If you watch any mockumentary stuff made before The Office (UK) – People Like Us, The Games, the work of Christopher Guest – it’s obvious that the fake documentary approach is just a way of selling a bunch of really good jokes. How hard would it have been to film Fawlty Towers as a behind-the-scenes mockumentary set at a dodgy hotel? Not that hard if you think about it, but the good stuff – the underlying comedy, the stuff that makes it a great show – would have been basically the same.
Post The Office though, “realism” became the selling point for mockumentaries. Let’s just pretend we could be bothered dredging up that Ben Pobjie quote where he berated Modern Family for not doing mockumentaries “right”, ok? People latched onto one idea – that the more accurate a show was, the funnier it would somehow be – and for a bunch of years there, refused to let go. This is the world that Chris Lilley has decided to stay in: one where even moderately well-crafted jokes would fracture the fragile “realism” that he prizes so highly.
So most of the comedy in this episode comes from Jonah making up and telling increasingly shithouse “jokes”: “What did the bowling alley do to my dick? Give me balls.” Occasionally sure, this stuff is funny. But this is all Jonah’s got. It’s a comedy so realistic the only way it can get any laughs on screen is by having the lead actually tell jokes. Only because it has to be realistic, the jokes have to be shit. If you’re doing that, you’re doing comedy wrong.
Oh, the ratings went up a little this week:
ABC News (762,000) led ABC1 then 7:30 (681,000), QI (605,000), Spicks and Specks (490,000), QI 6:30 (351,000), Jonah from Tonga (348,000) and a repeat of Upper Middle Bogan (212,000).
Shame everyone came running back for what was easily the least funny episode to date.