Jonah Week 5: Caged Heat

Oh look, it’s the episode of Jonah where Chris Lilley reuses all the “Gran” stuff from Angry Boys rather than reusing the “Jonah” stuff from Summer Heights High. A few years ago Lilley opening an episode with two non-Lilley characters talking to camera for an extended period would have been hailed by us as a positive step in his comedy development, but Jonah from Tonga is so repetitive and stale it just doesn’t matter anymore.

If putting Jonah in juvie initially seemed like an opportunity to do something – anything – new with this series, those hopes were rapidly dashed as once again we got even more of Jonah slinging out crap insults, impressing little kids with his “swagger”, making up new ways to insult the other inmates, pissing off his father and, of course, hilarious comedy racism (this weeks insult de jour: “Abos”). Oh, and practicing his “dance moves”. Yeah, that never gets old.

“What did the dick say to the shit? Why haven’t you got balls.” Remember how this stuff seemed kind of funny back in episode one? Lesser comedians would have established Jonah’s fondness for shit “jokes” in the first ten minutes and then only occasionally referenced it later on, aware that this kind of thing becomes less funny the more the audience hears it. But not Lilley: he understands that doing the same thing over and over and over and over again is, uh, well, something that he does. A lot.

And then there’s all the “heart-warming” stuff about Jonah the troubled teen. Here’s a tip for all those confused Australian television reviewers out there: if something’s not even trying to be funny, what is it doing in a comedy? If you really seriously think that Jonah works best as a dramatic portrait of a troubled Islander youth, then why is noted middle-aged white man Chris Lilley playing Jonah?

Way, way back in We Can Be Heroes, one of the jokes – often the only joke – was that it was the same man playing all these different characters. Now there’s not even that. Just a bunch of serious dramatic moments that wouldn’t pass muster in the Neighbours writers-room involving Jonah confronting his own failures and insecurities stemming from the death of his mother.

Get the fuck out of here. We wouldn’t call this stuff “blackface”, but if there are serious stories about Islander youth to be told Chris Lilley is not the one to star in them. There’s a license you get doing comedy that you just don’t get if you want to tell a story straight, and while pretty much anyone with their head screwed on properly would give a comedy series some wriggle room when it comes to playing a scene seriously, pretty much the second half of every Jonah from Tonga episode to date has been nothing but Lilley going for all-out drama. It’s not the kind of thing that makes the comedy funnier by contrast; it’s the kind of thing that makes you realise you’re not watching a comedy at all.

If the show itself wasn’t so dull – as a comedy it’s not funny; as a drama it’s a great comedy – it’d be worth watching just to try and figure out what the hell Lilley was thinking. It’s just an extended vanity project at this stage, the work of someone who spends his nights staring at himself in the mirror and muttering “I AM a serious actor!” Even though he’s a forty year old white man who wants to pretend to be a fifteen year old kid from Tonga.

The ABC has made some strange scheduling decisions around Jonah from Tonga – there were those cinema Q&As that were mysteriously cancelled and the series DVD was released with two episodes yet to air – which all make sense once you realise that the idea of “Chris Lilley” is a lot more popular than what he’s currently creating. Out there in the media and in the minds of many of the general public “Chris Lilley” is still a hilarious comedian and satirist. It’s just that whenever they actually watch anything he’s made since 2007, they drift away, never to return.

So of course the ABC are going to try and get as much money out of you up front as they can. They put up the entire series online before the first episode aired on television; every week they delayed releasing the DVD is a week where more viewers would decide they really didn’t need to buy a copy. Eventually all this has to catch up to Lilley and then his career will be over. Going by this weeks episode of Jonah from Tonga, that day can’t come soon enough.



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  • simbo says:

    Saying “nobody’s been interested since 2007” is hyperbole. 2009 and we’d be talking sense. Summer Heights High was a genuine ratings and audience phenomenon, but it’s one that’s been impossible to replicated (and returning to the well is just poisoning it).

    The main issue may be that Lilley has a sketch brain that keeps on trying to do sitcom. And sketch characters are built for a good five minutes or so. “We Can be Heroes” managed to maintain by switching between five different characters ensured that nobody really got more than five minutes an episode, and a dud Phil Olivetti bit was survivable because Ricky Wong or Pat Mullins was coming along soon enough. “Summer Heights High” managed to get away with about ten (and, again, could intercut so that if you got bored with Jamie doing the same three plot points, you had Jonah or Mr G to fall back on).

    Angry Boys decided to focus on characters for entire episodes at a time, which was disastrous as pretty much nobody had the depth to go that far, and focussing further with a full 3 hours worth of material on Jamie and Jonah has proved even worse.

    So where to next for the ABC comedy department? Well, doubling-down with Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler is not a bad bet – and after a string of duds, Peter Helliar’s “It’s a date” flew pretty reasonably. And Micallef is solid for the number of episodes he wants to do a year (no, I don’t think he wants to do a year round show, and getting the ABC to throw money at him to over-extend the series isn’t the answer). And The Chaser team have improved their focus with The Hamster Wheel and are doing infotainment pretty well on The checkout. And despite being horrendous, Gruen still rates (although Wil Anderson’s overseas standup ambitions means that it can’t do long series either)

    It’d be interesting to see who else is developing stuff – Ronnie Cheng is clearly being positioned to take off if he can come up with something TV-series-worthy, and Hannah Gadsby should be able to find a place somewhere that isn’t just arts docos. And if they can find something else for the Bazura Project team that can actually be sold overseas and on DVDs (i.e. not something clip-dependant), they’re laughing.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    So where to next for the ABC comedy department?

    That is the question. Micallef and ‘The Chaser’ will trudge on through. Gruen might go through a line-up change with the respective ambitions of the hosts- though after S&S the ABC will be reticent. There seems to be a resurgence in ‘sketch’ (LGGKF, TIL, Fresh blood etc) probably with the hope a skit goes viral online and hence the show goes viral. I mean one of these groups could be the next ‘Little Britain’ with enough experience but with everything that’s going on I doubt they will. Then there’s ‘dramedies’ or ‘realistic comedies’ like PLM to promote the ABC’s critical and artistic cred. So I expect yeah comedy on the ABC will be on life support for a while.