How to Solve a Problem like Chris Lilley

So there’s been a bit of attention over the last few weeks drawn to the fact that Jonah from Tonga is, as the French say, racist as fuck. First this:

New Zealand’s Maori Television has dropped Jonah from Tonga from broadcasting

Which led to this:

The narrative never really shifts in Australia: to admit that Lilley is guilty of a deeply racist act of cultural violence would be to admit that the nation itself is a constantly unraveling act of actual violence.

That admission will never come. White Australia may confess Lilley is “offensive”, but hey, he’s also pretty funny, right?

Which gathered more mainstream support here:

Yet for all of the one-liners and audience acclaim, Jonah and Ja’mie also represent Lilley’s satire at its worst. The problem for Lilley is that his methods – brownface and cross-dressing – obscure his message. No matter how worthy the satire, Jonah’s brownface is never neutral. No matter how funny Ja’mie can be, it is still a white bloke acting out problems he’s never had. Is it really necessary to dress in brownface to make the point that “the Island boys”, to quote one of Jonah’s teachers, have a hard time at school?

While our learned opinion falls somewhere in between these articles – we’re not exactly convinced that the entirety of post-war American comedy was based on minstrelsy (Bob Newhart?) and that Guardian piece wastes way too much time trying to pretend Lilley is “capable of brilliant satire” – this realisation that Lilley is a bit shit is basically good news. There’s only one problem: it doesn’t go far enough.

If you’re going to give Chris Lilley a well-deserved kicking for his blackface cliches, what about his even more crude yellowface work? Remember Ricky Wong from We Can Be Heroes – a Chinese physics student who embodies pretty much every Asian cliche there is (passive, hard-working, great at science) only there’s a twist: he wants to turn his back on his heritage – oh wait, his parents are cliches too as they demand he be an over-achiever – and put on a stage musical. In which he’ll appear in blackface.

Yes, this is as dodgy as it sounds. The thing is, there’s also a number of actual indigenous people involved (like Lionel Rose and Cathy Freeman) and the end point of his storyline is that while he should follow his dream, this particular dream is – going by the reactions of the indigenous people watching it – not a great idea. It’s a show that says “hey Chinese guy – blackface is a bad idea, don’t do it”

And then in Summer Heights High white guy Chris Lilley does it to rapturous applause. O-kay.

But if you thought Ricky Wong was a collection of offensive stereotypes, then the less said about Angry BoysJen Okazaki the better. Remember when she was marketing her (hetrosexual) teen son as gay with a gay dog called Gay Dog? What exactly were we meant to be laughing at there?

While we’re at it, it’s not like Lilley’s portrayal of women in general was anything to be proud of. Gran was a massive racist, Jen was a nightmare, Pat Mullins was a drip who rolled around on the ground for laughs and Ja’mie was a license to insult teenagers sustained over three separate series. As we said at the time, Chris Lilley’s acting style consists of creating a comedy character, putting on a comedy accent, dressing up in a comedy costume and then not being funny at all. But instead of making him “not funny”, this somehow makes him a brilliant mimic and subtle, insightful performer.


Chris Lilley only ever created nasty, unpleasant characters, and Australia loved him for it – Summer Heights High was based around a bitchy parody of a teenage girl, a music teacher who placed shit on the floor of a classroom and blamed a Down Syndrome student for it, and a high school bully who got laughs for tormenting “rangas”. If you found this stuff funny, maybe you might want to consider what exactly it was you were laughing at.

His defenders claim his comedy is sharp edged satire. But what was he satirising? When did he take a swing at anyone with real power in our society? A more accurate description of his comedy would be schoolyard mockery –  remember how Gran insulted the teens she watched over? Remember how Ja’mie insulted “povvo bogans”? Remember how s.mouse insulted the intelligence of everyone watching?  – that he “redeemed” at the last minute by having his hateful characters break down in tears as they suddenly realised that being a total shit was not a great way to behave.

If only their creator could realise it too.


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  • Billy C says:

    Surely he’s done now.
    No live work to fall back on.
    He’ll just live on his Summer Heights High DVD money.
    You’re critique is spot on.