Ten Years On: The Silence Around Summer Heights High

As you read this, it’s exactly ten years since Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High first aired on ABC television. Running from September 5th to October 24th in 2007, it was a ratings smash – one and a half million Australians tuned in for the final episode – that made Chris Lilley a household name and led to two spin-off series. It was also an international success, airing in both the UK (on BBC Three) and the USA (HBO) pulling in numerous glowing reviews from across the nation. Lilley went on to win a Silver Logie for his work in Summer Heights High, and the show itself won the Logie for Most Outstanding Comedy Program. It’s easily the biggest success story in Australian comedy of the 21st Century: so where’s the celebration?

Oh that’s right: Chris Lilley is now a creepy racist. A backlash that began with his 2011 series Angry Boys has slowly gathered steam until in 2017 his Summer Heights High spin-off Jonah from Tonga was withdrawn from New Zealand’s Maori Television for ““perpetuat[ing] negative stereotypes of Pacific people”. Not to be diverted from a career path built on “saying the unsayable” that he’s been committed to since at least 2004, Lilley then went on to post an already extremely dubious clip from Angry Boys titled “squashed n**ga” three days after a Northern Territory* (*edit, it was actually Western Australia) court case involving a man who ran over an aboriginal child. It’s probably a touch difficult to celebrate today a comedian who two months ago was being called by Briggs “an out of touch classic Australian racist”.

And yet the media silence around this major anniversary still seems a little odd. Summer Heights High was a massive achievement, and if its star and creator has gone off the boil in recent years… well, there are plenty of critics around with loads of experience talking about a classic hit from someone who’s now mostly churning out rubbish. On the flip side, a few months ago everyone was wiling to line up to give him a good kicking for being a shit: where are the anniversary stories pointing out that Summer Heights High is now actually kind of embarrassing?

We already know the answer: Summer Heights High‘s reputation as a classic is untouchable. Go through every recent story about how Chris Lilley is now a creepy racist: every one either avoids mentioning Summer Heights High or suggests that while he used to be good he’s well past his prime. Summer Heights High is the reason why anyone cares about Chris Lilley in 2017: it has to be untouchable because otherwise the story isn’t “decent comedian goes off the rails and we’re woke enough to point it out” but “shit comedian always was shit”.

And yet, if you actually watch Summer Heights High, it’s exactly as problematic (and as unfunny) as his later works. Just compare Ja’mie in SHH to her debut in We Can Be Heroes: first time around, she was part of a double act with her put-upon mum, with the comedy coming in part from the way her selfish, demanding attitude had a clear victim (who’d made a rod for her own back by indulging Ja’mie’s every whim). But in Summer Heights High, she’s just a bitch with a bitchy support group wandering around coming up with increasingly “shocking” schemes (taking a lesbian to the school dance, organising a fake AIDS fundraiser to secretly pay for an expensive school formal). Reviews at the time made sure to constantly praise Lilley’s realism…because high status seventeen year-old girls are always dating twelve year-old boys like Ja’mie does in SHH.

Meanwhile, high school drama teacher Mr G is trying to get rid of his down syndrome sidekick by placing a turd in a classroom and blaming him for it. And while Lilley might have had some of the nuances of an awkward posturing 13 year old boy down pat, Jonah still embodied all the usual cliches about Islanders. Ha ha, he’s a disruptive vandal! Watch out for his scary violent dad! Child abuse allegations!

Right from the start, Chris Lilley has always been a one note performer. His best work is the first time you discover him, because all his work is pretty much the same. That said, his sketches as Mr G on Big Bite were easily the best thing on that series, and they still hold up today – mostly because it was short segments where he had to get to the point in a minute or two. Everything since then has been Lilley doing the exact same thing over a longer and longer time frame: how many hours now has he spent exploring the character of Ja’mie King? For a character with no supporting cast and no real character beyond “she’s kind of a self-centered bitch”, spending three television series – including a six part solo series – playing her suggests a startling lack of artistic ambition.

That’s not to say Lilley isn’t good at what he does – it’s that what he does is create a comedy character, dress up as a comedy character, put on a comedy character voice, and then refuse to do anything funny with the character. Jonah’s character arc is always the same: he’s a loveable knockabout prankster who annoys the grown-ups, only to slowly get in over his head as his pranks turn out to have consequences and oh no now he’s in real trouble. Remember when he was an armed robber in Jonah From Tonga and it wasn’t played for laughs? Chris Lilley is a serious artist, and he wants you to take him seriously.

Which leads to one of the more awkward questions no-one seems to want to answer about Summer Heights High: so what exactly is the joke? In Summer Heights High Lilley plays a): a teenage girl, b): a gay cliche, c): an Islander. Two out of the three characters are monsters; the third is a clueless idiot we’re meant to grow to pity. If the joke is meant to be based on the characters themselves – they’re awful people behaving awfully – why couldn’t an actual young woman and an Islander play Ja’mie and Jonah? And if the joke is that a white man is playing these characters… what’s funny about that?

And yet all the controversy has fallen on his later, identical, shows. To be fair, that’s partly because Jonah From Tonga was the show stirring up the fuss earlier this year. But all of Chris Lilley’s solo work has the exact same issues, because – as previously mentioned – it’s all exactly the same. He’s a skilled mimic who thinks mimicking women, minorities, and teenagers is intrinsically hilarious. Summer Heights High was just the first time a wide audience saw what he was up to. And they loved it.

*Look at the “controversies” listed on Wikipedia:

The series is renowned for its controversial portrayal of such issues as mental disabilities, homosexuality, sexual abuse and racism. Even before Summer Heights High aired, some community groups complained about a “rape joke” and Mr G’s inappropriate “touching” of a boy with Down syndrome.[17]

The Herald Sun reported that parents and some teachers have considered the possibility that the show is influencing children to misbehave at school. Students were reportedly imitating Jonah and Ja’mie, repeating lines that were bullying, racist and homophobic.[18] Education Union branch president Mary Bluett stated in response that the show was “clearly tongue-in-cheek“.[19]

After episode three, in which a character called Annabel dies after taking ecstasy, the family of Annabel Catt, a girl who died taking drugs at the 2007 Good Vibrations Festival in Sydney, complained that the program had been lampooning Annabel’s death.[17] The ABC apologised to the family, stating that the situation was purely coincidental and assured them that the filming of the episode in question had been completed eleven days before her daughter’s death. The ABC thereafter began to display a message before each episode stating that there is no link between the series’ characters and people in real life.[17]

Where’s the controversy that Jonah in Summer Heights High was a blackface character? Let’s say it again: every single problem people have with Jonah in Jonah From Tonga is present in Summer Heights High. And yet, where’s the controversy? In fact, when reviewers bring it up – which they do, in a sign that they’re fully aware of how it looks – it’s to reassure viewers that no, this isn’t blackface but a sharply observed character:

the barely literate, troublemaking Jonah is something else again — there is nothing exaggerated about the performance, in which Lilley perfectly embodies all the brutal tics and awkward evasions of a mixed-up 13-year-old boy. And though he’s a bit of a foulmouthed bully, Jonah is the only one of the three leads you are asked to like; he gives the series the heart without which it would otherwise expire.

Played by a white man with his face painted black.

The reason why Summer Heights High is untouchable is obvious: even the people happy to throw Chris Lilley under a bus today want to defend it. This supposedly savage takedown of Lilley from a few months ago lays out the score:

When I first saw We Can Be Heroes I thought “yes, this guy gets it: it all can be skewered”. With Summer Heights High he seemed to reach another plateau: “Mr G is Mrs Clements!” I thought, while high-schoolers a nation over said variations of the same. He was an enviable mimic, and one whose comedy was steeped in the dry pathos of a form that had gone from Spinal Tap, to Working Dog, to David Brent, and beyond.

That dry mockumentary style gave the character’s a weighted authenticity that would otherwise be absent. It’s not racist, you’d tell yourself. Jonah is fleshed out: look at this moment when he is sad about failing school. If Lilley was truly racist, Jonah wouldn’t be depicted as vulnerable. This is funny, we said, but it’s sincere.

Friends, God help you if you laugh at the same things as a 14 year old when you are anything but. God help you if you can’t peer through the fog of nostalgia at a cultural artefact and admit to yourself “gee, that’s actually a little bit shit, and a lot problematic.”

And yet this is exactly what happens in this article: Summer Heights High is mentioned as being his older, funnier stuff, and then the writer goes on to slam Angry Boys and Jonah from Tonga for all the exact same problems SHH has. All Chris Lilley’s series are the same: all of them are based around the idea that a white guy pretending to be a cliched parody of a minority is funny – by which we mean awkward, annoying and embarrassing, because they’re the reactions Lilley strives for rather than anything approaching amusement – in and of itself. But because one and a half million Australians thought Summer Heights High was pretty hilarious back in 2007 and don’t want to have their past challenged, their memories become our critical standard.

So Summer Heights High remains untouchable, despite being as deeply problematic – and generally unfunny – as anything else Chris Lilley has done. It can’t be celebrated, because all the problems in his later, more easily disparaged work are on full display. It can’t be dismissed, because that would be saying that big, big audience was wrong to like it in the first place.

And we couldn’t say that now, could we?

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  • Doyle says:

    Chris Lilley sort of reminds me of Ricky Gervais each new thing he does as well being diminishing returns it reveals the weaknesses of their earlier stuff and there lack of range.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I think Lilley is a good comedy character actor with a chequered history as a writer.
    Yes he preys on stereotypes but dammit if Ja’mie and Jonah don’t remind me of some conversations I’ve heard or parts of my own adolesnce that I witnessed, respectively.
    He should tried his luck in LA and replaced Rob Schneider/Martin Short or tried to be a mini-Minchin. I think he is stuck between two eras but I presume making enough money not to care.

  • Billy c says:

    I agree with your article but are there ever really anniversary stories or celebrations for comedy shows? I don’t have a 25 year anniversary late show mug anywhere. It will be interesting to see if he comes back or just lives off those DVD sales for the rest of his life.