R.I.P.S.Mouse

Who knew Chris Lilley still had the power to make us laugh?

In the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement, Deadline can reveal that Netflix has removed four shows from controversial Australian comedian Chris Lilley from its services in Australia and New Zealand.

Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, and Jonah From Tonga have all been taken down after featuring characters that have in the past sparked questions over racial discrimination. The shows were originally made by Australian producer Princess Pictures for the ABC.

Remember when people took Chris Lilley seriously? Bet there’s a lot of critics around the world working hard to scrub their many, many glowing reviews of his “work” from their resumes. And if they’re not, they really should be, because it’s not like nobody noticed at the time that his blackface shit was offensive – they just thought that was part of the joke.

Not racist at all, nope

This 2011 interview in The Atlantic is particularly awkward to read in 2020 – maybe not as awkward as this 2008 story in The Age (or even this Age review from 2014) – but this bit is worth quoting in full in case it mysteriously vanishes:

With S.mouse, you’ve been criticized for “exploiting the history of race relations for a cheap laugh.” Is that a common reaction to your portrayal of S.mouse, who appears in blackface, or Jen?

Well, Australia has a thing where apparently it’s fine for me to dress up as an Asian woman. No one has questioned that. But there was—which I totally expected—there was a bit of an outcry about me playing a black person. And also, my shows are meant to be a bit provocative and I like that kind of television that shocks you. But the thing is, I think a lot of people just saw the trailer and then they started writing about it but they didn’t sit down and watch the episodes. When you get to know S.mouse, it very quickly becomes not about a guy wearing blackface. It’s a character. It’s sort of irrelevant that I’m black. It’s about him being home on house arrest and lost in the commercial music industry. There’s a lot more heart to the character by the end of the series. Yeah, but that stuff just sort of came and went in Australia. It’s completely predictable and obvious. And then funnily enough, in the UK there was no issue at all. They just completely got it.

Better dump a few more statues into the harbour quick.

Being the humourless scolds that we are, we jumped on the “Chris Lilley isn’t funny” bandwagon before there even was one.* Because there isn’t really one now: keen-eyed readers will have noticed that nobody’s saying Lilley wasn’t funny, they’re just saying that the blackface (and yellowface) antics he based his entire career on are currently offensive. Obviously blackface was just as offensive fifteen years ago, but at the time his fans just thought that was part of the joke. Safe to say that view has not held up.

Unlike just about every other comedian currently in trouble over their past blackface antics, Lilley was never trying to say or do anything with or around the idea of blackface. To his defenders (presumably he still has some), he was never doing blackface at all – just playing a range of comedy characters that happened to be black, or Islander, or Asian, or female, or (stereotypically) gay, or socially disadvantaged, or… anyone else starting to see a pattern?

Chris Lilley’s entire “comedy” act – and we’d argue his interest in comedy was marginal at best; he just liked pretending to be minorities and comedy was the only way he could do that – was based on the idea that seeing a white male pretending to be a minority was intrinsically funny. And if that wasn’t the case, then was exactly was the joke?

Time and time again Lilley was praised by critics for the “realism” of his performance. But if realism was what people were tuning in for, why wasn’t Jonah played by an actual Islander kid? Were there literally no black actors available who could capture the subtle nuances of S.mouse? You can’t read an article about Ja’mie without someone praising Lilley’s accurate portrayal of a teen bitch; if the joke there isn’t that a teen bitch is being played by a mid-30s man, what is it?

Most of the time, most of the comedy that gets slated for blackface was at least somewhat aware that blackface is offensive. Sometimes they were trying to say something about a character that would willingly don blackface; sometimes they were just trying to use it for shock value. But Lilley was (hopefully) the last comedian we’ll see who used blackface completely unironically; he was a white man who wanted to pretend he was black, and people laughed because that was funny to them.

Those critics who were quick to praise his work (“The sort of comedy he wrote in Summer Heights High was dangerous and provocative and raw”, for fucks sake) better scrub a little harder.

*just look at anything here with a “Chris Lilley” tag – they’re pretty much all negative**

**that said, this is probably the best one to read if you’re in a hurry

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4 Comments

  • Sean says:

    I’m still a Chris Lilley defender. In my opinion, the current spate of axings feels akin to a book burning. Chris Lilley is a character actor after all. You say why wasn’t Jonah an Islander? Because Chris Lilley is white, that’s why. What’s he supposed to do? Make a million different straight white male characters? Is Ja’Mie sexist? Are straight actors playing gay characters homophobic? It’s just gotten stupid now.

    I’m gay, so a ‘minority’ I guess, and Mr. G is one of my favourite characters of all time because he’s NOT a victim. None of Lilly’s characters have been created with malicious intent. They’re just humans, and very realistic in some cases whether we like it or not.

    I’ve been trying to pitch a comedy I’ve been creating for months now and I fear that everyone is now so sensitive and PC that no one will touch it because instead of portraying minorities as victims I portray them as just people with faults. Everything is ‘problematic’ these days. You can’t do a single thing without being labeled a racist or sexist or homophobe or ageist, the list goes on…

    So what does the future hold? A whole bunch of ham-fisted SJW crap comedies that treats every minority as if they’re in a constant state of victimhood? All I can see are more racists and more homophobes because with every minority depicted with a victim complex, the ‘majority’ is positioned as a ‘bad guy’ every time they sit down to watch TV.

    This truly feels like the death knell for Australian comedy, which was already dying. Everything is going to be so bland and boring and neutral and revolve around crass fart jokes for the foreseeable future. But I won’t change my show just to conform. In fact, I’d rather it stays on paper than be turned into a weak, watered-down piece of trash like everything else on TV.

    A world without Chris Lilley or Matt Lucas is TV landscape full of sanctimonious minorities that make people hate us more.

  • Evil says:

    Good work posting the most funniest reply you could find OZ Tumbleweeds team! A gay comedy writer worried about humanizing people who think that person should be dead, hilarious

  • Sean says:

    @Evil

    What exactly did they ‘find’? I commented on their post. I don’t imagine them scouring their inbox of spare replies in attempts to locate one that was both funny and on topic.

    Besides, Tumbleweeds doesn’t shy away from controversial opinion. As every critic creams their pants over Please Like Me, they’re courageous enough to suggest that it’s possibly overrated.

    Just a note to anyone reading my above comment: I’m not worried about humanizing extremist bigots (but anyone with the reading comprehension of a 12y/o would probably realize that). No, I’m more concerned about the cleansing of media and its negative impact on the freedom of speech and expression.

    Oversensitivity is like a riot: it only serves to undermine one’s cause because you end up hurting people that don’t deserve it for reasons that don’t exist.

    Characters like Mr. G or Precious from Come Fly With Me are more humanizing than the defensive and sanctimonious ‘minority’ characters that we often see on television because they’re funny, likeable and human. Their ‘character’ doesn’t revolve around being gay or black, it revolves around their personality, flaws, desires, etc. What are we supposed to do? Pretend every minority is a sweet little angel with no faults or personality? Moreover, they’re fictional. These are ‘characters’. Believe it or not, it’s an actors job to assume the identity of someone else.

    There is such a thing as ‘too far’ obviously, but that applies to political correctness also, especially when it starts breeding contempt. Also, what of double standards? Is White Chicks racist? Can black people impersonate whites but not the other way around? How extreme are we gonna go?

  • UnSubject says:

    Dear god – “White Chicks”. No-one cares about “White Chicks” except for those who want one example they can pretend is equivalent. One “White Chicks” doesn’t balance out black minstrel shows; hell, it doesn’t even balance out the blackface in “Hey, Hey It’s Saturday”.

    As someone who (bewilderingly) watched pretty much all of “Angry Boys”, Lilley had almost nothing other than playing characters who delivered stereotypes. S.Mouse, the a gangster rapper. The Asian Tiger Mum. The target of his humour was increasingly how mockable the stereotype was. It’s laughing at the character – “Haha! Look at how terrible they are!” and very much punching down. It’s not flaws being observed here, but mockery. It appeals to an audience who already is looking for an excuse to make fun of them.

    It was an interesting comparison that the two white twin kids he was playing were always being incredible jerks (e.g. getting out their testicles in family photos) but they didn’t get mocked or hauled up by their parents; they were the point of view characters who got to be the protagonists (such as it was for this mess of a show).

    If a key part of the joke is that white people dress up in make-up and make fun of the accent, it’s already on pretty shaky ground.

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