Jonah Week 4: The Sound of Silence

Hey, where’d everybody go? Two weeks ago we could pad these reviews out with loads of quotes from various articles denouncing Jonah as racist tripe or praising it as cutting edge comedy from Australia’s favourite satirist, and now… nothing. What gives?

Oh, that’s right: Chris Lilley’s career is over. Actually, it was over a couple of weeks into Angry Boys, when it became clear that the success of Summer Heights High was more about a mix of crowd-pleasing subject matter (schools) and a wider audience’s unfamiliarity with Lilley’s extremely limited bag of tricks, but the Australian media being what it is we had to put up with endless catch-up articles praising his genius for the next few years.

Now finally the truth about Lilley’s declining ratings seems to have sunk in. The final episode of Summer Heights High rated 1.5 million viewers; if Lilley could pull even a third of that for Jonah from Tonga he’d be a very happy man. Blah blah iVew blah blah: Is Jonah from Tonga getting a million hits on iView a week? No? Then his ratings are going down.

Despite our snooty tone, we’re hardly comedy insiders. So we have no real way of knowing if Lilley is a much loved figure within the comedy and television community here in Australia, or whether he’s seen as an arrogant, self-obsessed control freak who’s alienated pretty much everyone he’s worked with. We can certainly take a guess – wow, sure has been a lot of comedians taking swings at him in public these last few months – but we have no real hard evidence either way.

Which is a shame, because it’s really starting to look like Lilley is going to need some friends aside from Princess Pictures’ head honcho Laura Waters in the coming months and years. You wouldn’t say his solo career is over after the flop that’s been Jonah from Tonga – rumours persist that a Mr G series is either planned or underway – but after Ja’mie: Private School Girl failed to hit big in any real way it became clear that an exit strategy was needed. He simply couldn’t keep going on the way he had: his attempt at creating new characters in Angry Boys had failed, and now the old ones weren’t crowd-pleasers either.

It’s no surprise that most of the press coverage being pimped by Lilley’s social media is coming from overseas; the man himself gets less impressive the more you see of him, and Australian audiences seem to have had enough. It’s astonishing to us that the criticisms we levelled at Lilley back during We Can Be Heroes are just as relevant today. He burst onto the comedy scene basically fully-formed, and has refused to learn or change his act in the slightest for a decade. Well, ok, maybe his comedy songs have gotten cruder. Not sure that counts as “developing” though.

So instead of discussing this weeks episode – oh no, Jonah messed up big time and is in remand, does anyone else think it’s weird that Gran from Angry Boys didn’t make an appearance? – we went way, waaaay back and found the first ever review by a member of Team Tumbleweeds of a Chris Lilley show, which would be We Can Be Heroes back on the Cook’d and Bomb’d forum where we all first met. See if you agree that this could basically have been used to review everything he’s done ever since.

Oh God, we’ve wasted our lives.


I’ve seen the first episode of We Can Be Heroes, and… okay, here goes.  First off, I expected it to be a series of episodes focusing on individual characters, but nope – we get five minutes of each of the five characters in each installment.  It’d be interesting to know if they planned it this way for a reason or whether it was a decision taken afterwards – it seemed logical to have each ep concentrate on a single character, but after seeing the first one splitting them up is definitely the way to go.  Because – and prepare to put on your comedy ‘shocked’ expressions – not all of them are that interesting, most notably the Brisbane cop (who decides to go into motivational speaking after a brief brush with fame after a bouncing castle he was in floated away and got stuck on power lines ) who is pure 100% David Brent.  As I said, I’ve only seen the first one, but five minutes of him was more than enough.

Fortunately, things do improve.  The Chinese-Australian uni student doesn’t start out that much stronger, but the high school girl sponsoring 80-something Africans was worth a few chuckles (seeing her abuse her power and treat her sponsor cases like toys was both funny and a little disturbing, which is two more things than most current Aussie comedy can manage).  The outback teen donating an eardrum to his brother was good old-fashioned bogan humour (with plenty of ‘shits’ and the occasional ‘fuck’ thrown in), while the rolling mum was a decent enough silly idea for five minutes but I’m not sure if it (or she) will go the distance.

Good points: Chris Lilley is actually pretty decent in all five roles – he seems at least as interested in creating believable characters as he is in going for cheap laughs, which for mine makes this kind of show funnier.  The writing didn’t seem all that strong, but it was a lot closer to reality than anything on Comedy Inc and I did laugh here and there… which again, is yet to happen with Comedy Inc.  Best of all, I wasn’t bored: considering watching local comedy has felt like doing a homework assignment for the last six months, this is high praise indeed.

Bad points: The cop is David Brent. I’m not convinced these characters can stay interesting for six episodes.  It’s the kind of show that anyone following recent UK comedy has already seen a dozen times before (as Bean pointed out, it not only sounds very People Like Us, it is very People Like Us).  Against an international field, it barely rates a pass.  Against the local crop, it’s the stand-out show of 2005.


[and then, a few weeks later]

… The more I think about WCBH, the more I think that after basically losing a comedy generation in this country – unless you count Rove, which I don’t and never ever will until he dies in an amusing manner – it’s probably about as good as we could hope for from someone new(ish).  We’ve gone so far backwards and lost so much comedy skill that this shoddy collection of half-hearted cliches really is the best Australia can produce (sob).

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  • BIlly C says:

    Does anyone else find it astounding that he announced a series of q and a cinema events, launched a website to promote it and then cancelled the whole thing without making an announcement. Just assuming nobody would notice. Was there so little interest as to not bother doing a couple? Still no HBO air date announced I notice.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    It was pretty ambitious- two shows in Sydney and shows in all capital cities. Maybe the ABC told him to stop it?

  • BIlly C says:

    Well strange that the DVD has launched before the show has finished airing. It was going to be Melb, Bris, Gold Coast, Syd from memory. Sure have a q and a but why would anyone want to watch it again in a cinema?

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Maybe the ABC thought it was going to cannibalise DVD sales.

    Lilley probably think of himself as an auteur. After every episode his fans can ask him questions like, ‘How long did you take to come up with the concept of ‘Fobalicious’?’ and ‘Does Jonah’s move from 8=}tation to Vcat signify an emotional and sexual growth in Jonah signifying a move from the need of priapic and paternalistic validation to validation of women as (lost) mother and lover?’

  • BIlly C says:

    This made me laugh more than anything Lilley’s ever done.

  • simbo says:

    It’s sorta a pity that, if Lilley was going to do the “give the summer heights high characters individual spinoffs”thing, he didn’t start with Mr G. Ja’mie had already gone through two series (and was already outta material by Summer Heights High), and a weaker rehash of the same rehash was not going to do well – Jonah’s arc was pretty much played out and bringing him back was just going to, again, weaken and rehash. Mr G at least could go somewhere else- and the story of a demented egotist who always wants to be the star of his show and pushes everyone else to the sidelines is at the very least guaranteed to be self-parody.

    So instead … what? He hasn’t exactly formed relationships with other comedians (due to the “nobody else gets jokes” thing) so he’s unlikely to be showing up on panel shows or be offered work in the usual “you do my show, I do your show” approach. So obscurity awaits?

  • Jam says:

    It is so weird that they just cancelled the entire Q&A cinema thing and he isn’t responding on social media to any of the people asking what happened. He replies to all the other questions.

    Initially, I thought he cancelled it because he didn’t want to deal with possible protests from the Tonga community in a live setting like that? But is that naive? Is it more likely that the decision was made for him?

  • Billy C says:

    “Kalowski is quick to defend Princess Pictures and Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga, whose overnight ratings were well below that of Lilley’s previous efforts. He points out there were 600,000 views of the series when it premiered on iview, which inevitably affected the broadcast audience, and after that the first two episodes had 875,000 views on iview. ”

    875k for 2 eps is pretty impressive but we have no context as Iview figures are only used to justify poor broadcast ratings. Sitll it’s more than what was reported for Ja’mie which was 810,000 for Eps 1-3. You have to take into account that iview is increasingly on more devices attached to tv’s these days.