By Cameron Williams
Lilley has been accused of “black face” in playing South African pet psychic “Jana”. (Netflix)
Chris Lilley is now exposed to 148.9 million Netflix subscribers worldwide.
The creator of Summer Heights High is going global with Lunatics, a 10-part mockumentary series where Lilley plays six different characters. It’s the latest original series — one of few Australian productions — rolled out by the streaming giant.
In Lunatics, we meet Keith, a fashion retail veteran who has a sexual relationship with a cash register; Becky, an Australian student with gigantic legs attending college in America; and Gavin, a challenging boy who is next in line to inherit an English estate.
Then there’s Jana, a lesbian pet psychic to the stars from South Africa, and Quentin, a real estate agent and DJ with a massive backside. And, if you don’t feel exhausted already, Joyce, an ex-porn star living as a recluse and facing eviction from a house overcrowded with collectables.
Lilley pushes his new batch of characters to extremes for laughs, but the show’s bio wants to have it both ways by reminding us: “… as eccentric and odd as they all are, they are scarily recognisable types and they teach us that its ok to just be you.”
The feel-good summary attempts to offset any offence caused by Lilley’s minstrel approach and overreliance on crossdressing.
A back-catalogue of criticism
Lilley’s preference for these comedic techniques has drawn criticisms that have intensified with each new series.
In an interview with Esquire, when asked about doing blackface to play the rapper, S’Mouse, Lilley said:
“I don’t think there should be any rules. Things seem to be a little more relaxed in Australia with that kind of thing. But I think it’s all about the context. The stuff I did in Angry Boys, it was designed to be confronting and challenging to watch. It’s all about that context. If I just dressed up like a Japanese woman and started doing stupid voices, I don’t know…”
If context is key, then no greater challenge to Lilley’s stance came than in 2017, when he issued an apology after the music video he made for S’Mouse, Squashed N***a, was posted by a fan account the week after the man who ran over and killed Indigenous teenager, Elijah Doughty, was cleared of manslaughter. Even though Lilley had no control over the post, it brought up an important question: why did it exist in the first place?
Lilley was criticised for his character Jonah Takalua, a rebellious Tongan youth with poor social skills and limited prospects. (Facebook: Jonah From Tonga)
Things got worse when the Summer Heights High spinoff, Jonah from Tonga, was withdrawn from Maori television in New Zealand for its negative portrayal of Tongan culture; Lilley wears brownface makeup to portray a rebellious teenager. New Zealand’s minister for Pacific peoples, Alfred Ngaro, said the show “perpetuates negative stereotypes of Pacific people”.
So, Lilley’s work to-date brings into question the meaning of “it’s okay to just be you”, which has never been at the heart of his comedy as he takes stereotypes and lampoons them under the cover of “satire”.
At the base of all great satire an ugly truth is revealed, but with Lunatics, the ugliness is all on the surface.
So is it any good?
Following around each character in Lunatics is a test in patience and faith in Lilley’s abilities.
Ever since the success of Summer Heights High, Lilley’s status as a chameleon performer has risen, and Lunatics spends a lot of time trailing each character waiting for lightning to strike.
There are scripted scenarios to push the story of each character forward but most of the time you’re a voyeur as Lilley does freestyle improvisation. Jana’s psychic readings of animals are always flat, Gavin’s constant profanity wears thin quickly and Joyce’s eccentricities try to mine mental health issues for misguided jokes and quirks.
Each episode is only 30 minutes long, a relief when it’s becoming common for TV to blow out to over an hour, but the minutes feel longer as the gaps between laughs increase.
But, in the words of Lilley’s infamous private school girl character Ja’Mie, “it’s totally random”, which is where the appeal of Lunatics lies when it comes to the online memes and quotes it will generate; the true currency of any show in the streaming age.
In an article for The Guardian, writer David Renshaw asked, “Comedy or cruelty: does Chris Lilley have a place in 2018?” Renshaw wrote:
“Parody only works if the jokes are “punching up” and the audience is laughing at something wider than the subject. Aiming the same comic scythe at a minority group with little power can look like bullying. And, unfortunately for Lilley, the message of his most popular characters often seems to get lost in translation.”
Lilley is flailing his arms around everywhere in Lunatics, especially toward working-class people, but he has adjusted his aim a little.
The three male characters — Keith, Gavin and Quentin — get close to examining the hubris of the male ego in 2019. The ways these characters behave and their sense of entitlement, unchecked most of the time, get close to parodying the ways male mediocrity thrives.
But whenever Lilley gets close to saying anything meaningful about these characters, he undercuts it with something grotesque designed for an easy laugh. Quentin is a real estate agent, the perfect target for parody, especially in a week where a lavish home display video when viral, but the joke is that he has a “huge arse” and occasional urinates in his mouth for Instagram.
From the minute Quentin opens his mouth it feels like a new Ja’mie has arrived. Ja’mie satirised white privilege in the bubble of a wealthy private school. Sure, most of the time she’s remembered for her brutal insults, often taken out of context, but Lilley created an upper-class monster.
Mr G from Summer Heights High is similar, a creative man, who takes the death of a student and decides it’s his story to tell despite significant pushbacks. In a way, Lilley has become like Mr G, championing his own creativity above all else.
Stuck in neutral
Lunatics is designed to aggravate and make you feel uncomfortable, but the bait isn’t worth taking because we’ve been here so many times before; to be outraged is too easy.
The repetitive nature of Lilley’s comedy and his inability to evolve makes him stick out even more, especially at a time when there is a great reckoning in comedy. Comedy has changed and audiences are less receptive now to what may have been once the norm. To bring back Lilley’s defence: we can put the jokes of the past in their context — racist, sexist, homophobic — but that doesn’t mean they’re going to fly in 2019.
To contrast, Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette, another Netflix original, is an incredible deconstruction of stand-up comedy and the toll of humiliation and self-deprecation.
We’re in apples and oranges territory here but if Nanette is the future then Lunatics is the stone age.
There are so many characters to lampoon in 2019: men’s rights activists, Instagram influencers, reality TV stars, billionaire entrepreneurs and alt-right conspiracy theorists. The potential is huge, yet Lilley plays it safe, once again.
Slim pickings for Australian content
Netflix hasn’t invested much in original Australian series. If you take out co-productions (Pine Gap, Glitch), you’re left with Tidelands, a show about drug-dealing mermaids, and now, Lunatics.
Netflix Australia launched in 2015 and it’s worrying that only two original series have been made locally in that time. There are no local quotas mandated for streaming services either; they don’t play by the same rules as free-to-air broadcasters in Australia.
So, it makes sense that Netflix bet on Lilley as an Australian comedy export who is not only well known in Australia but has celebrity fans like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Naomi Campbell, Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss; one mention from them on social media is the best word of mouth Netflix is going to get.
Was it ever funny?
Digging deep into the relevance of Lunatics is to assess Lilley’s entire body of work. Is this funny? Was it ever funny? You’ve got to come to terms with the fact that what may have once been humorous no longer stands the test of changing times.
If anything, the way Lunatics forces us to assess Lilley’s comedy is its greatest strength — at his own expense.
In Australia, we hide behind a laidback mentality: “she’ll be right, mate, it’s only a joke”. We sometimes care little for the impact of comedy in favour of maintaining our larrikin status, which is often where bigotry thrives.
It’s fine to admit you liked something but now realise there was something not quite right about it.
Great artists do the same, they roll with the times, reflect and reinvent themselves.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic.