One of my favorite TV shows of the last few years is Summer Heights High, the brainchild of Australian comic Chris Lilley. It’s a show about a high school and the teachers, students and parents who populate it. But here’s the hook: Lilley plays the three lead characters.
It may be hard to picture Lilley, who’s a middle-aged white Australian man, playing an upper class 15-year-old girl, a 13-year-old Tongan hooligan and a high-strung high school drama teacher in the same show, but he does, and it’s a remarkable achievement. Equally noteworthy, however, is Lilley’s ability to balance the edgy humor of his scripts with real pathos–while his characters are hilarious and sometimes despicable in the things they say and do, they are not reduced to caricatures. I can’t think of another series that balances these two elements so well.
Lilley’s next show, appearing in early 2012 on HBO, is called Angry Boys and borrows characters from his first series, We Can Be Heroes, while adding new ones, including an African American rapper named “S’Mouse” and an overbearing Japanese mom.
While Angry Boys frequently achieves the unique balance of bizarrely funny and genuinely touching that has become the comedian’s trademark, he pushes farther and goes darker with this series than he ever has before, and I’m not entirely sure it works. As in his previous shows, Lilley uses comedy to explore themes of adolescence, masculinity, family and racism, but it feels as if, as he tries harder to push boundaries and break taboos, he is simultaneously running out of things to say. There are plenty of laughs to be had, but his characters, especially his aforementioned “racial” characters, don’t seem to contain enough insight to justify the shock value.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, however, Lilley gave some insight into his choice to play a black character:
“The idea is that I play multiple characters. That’s what I’ve always done. Part of what I like to do is to push the boundaries and try new things…. I think I wanted to do it because I thought it was a challenging, new, interesting idea, and mostly I just thought it was a really funny character. I think once you get through 30 seconds of S’Mouse you realize there’s more to the character than just a blackface joke. Like, obviously that’s not the joke. You see that he’s this vulnerable guy who’s living at home with his dad and he gets exposed by the documentary for not being the big tough guy he’s making himself out to be. There’s a lot more going on. It’s a character.”
I appreciate comedians who push boundaries. That’s the highest role of comedy as far as I’m concerned. And frankly, the blackface doesn’t bother me as much as the weakness of those characters compared to some of his others. Is America ready for an Australian in blackface? I’m don’t think we are, at least not this one.