Originally published in THE BRAG – May, 2011
Fans of Chris Lilley and his previous two series – the hilarious and often poignant We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High – are well aware that he often skirts around the borders of taste and decency in search of a laugh. We Can Be Heroes saw Lilley – dressed as Asian wannabe actor Ricky Wong – perform a rather tasteless, and borderline racist, Aboriginal musicial, while an average episode of Summer Heights High dropped more f-bombs than the entire run ofThe Sopranos. The undeniable quality and unfettered sentimentality of these two shows has made Lilley and his creations somewhat impervious to criticism. These were fully realised worlds in which the offensive moments added rather than subtracted from the overall impact.
Third series Angry Boys had the international stakes raised considerably when American cable channel HBO came on board as a broadcasting partner, with a pre-sale to BBC3 ensuring a walk-in audience of millions. Few doubted he would crack under the pressure; Lilley is a longtime auteur, notoriously guarded with his creations and a fierce protector of his own creative control. Few, however, could have predicted what was to come. Rather than tone down for more puritanical palettes, the first episode of the show was by far the most offensive Lilley production to date; the usual string of expletives bumped up a notch by the very liberal use of the word “faggot.” This was small fry. Episode two saw Lilley adopt blackface for the character of failed rapper S’Mouse. Audible gasps were heard national-wide and soon the controversy overshadowed the quality of the show. And this is all before the series has gone to air in the US.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” says Lilley slowly down the phone. “I mean I obviously know that’s a confronting thing for people; I have two agents over in America who read the first treatment and said ‘you realise this is going to be a bit of an issue over here.’ I don’t know, I think once you see it, it all works within the context of the show. It’s screened over in the UK and the press haven’t even brought it up as an issue – it’s not an issue over there. In Australia there has been a lot of press about it. I think it’s about the character, it’s not purely a joke about being black; I think once you get into the world of the character you find it’s not about a man doing blackface.”
Despite his perceived nonchalance regarding the topic, Lilley was still a little cautious about his use of the word nigger, despite confessing an illicit thrill from its inclusion in the program.
“I knew it was the language the character would use, and a part of me probably likes the idea that it pushed things a bit. Certainly, when I was on set it was a little odd for me to be yelling at this big, black American guy and calling him a nigger – this man is like a fifty-year-old guy who is from a different era – but he got it and thought it was hilarious, and we were both calling each other niggers. It did concern me, but I like stuff that’s a bit shocking, so it was worth it for the shock factor.”
And therein lies the rub. It’s clear that the ‘shock factor,’ however pleasing, is far less important to Lilley than striving for realism.
It was a lot harder and took a lot longer,” he said about making Angry Boys seem realistic. “Summer Heights High was all in one location and about school, and I knew a lot about school. But there are certain details in the different worlds [in Angry Boys] that had to be right, so it took a lot longer. Even things like the wall of legends [twin brothers Nathan and Daniel’s wonderwall of heroes; mainly comprised of surfers, skaters and swimsuit models], all those posters had to seem completely real. It was also the first time we’d gone outside that suburban world, like the whole skatey ‘gay-style’ world and the rap thing, these characters had to be seen as famous people, so their whole surroundings are not your average suburban thing. So we had a graphic designer from Japan working on all that stuff. The wardrobe designer and production designer both told me this is the most challenging thing they’ve ever done.”
This realism also prompted the rapid-fire use of the term “faggot” as an insult between the teenage characters, another tool Lilley defends as being born of realism.
“That’s how kids speak,” he explains. “I went out to the country and hung out with teenagers and spoke to people out there, and they say it a lot. I’ve done a few gay magazine and stuff in the UK, and I got a little nervous that they might have an issue with that. They thought it was hilarious. It wasn’t really an issue.”
Still, this drive for realism never threatened to hamper the comedic elements of the show.
“I got a group of Japanese mums together, and discovered that the character of Jen is nothing like a Japanese woman. But I didn’t care,” he laughs.
On the eve of the American release of the program, Lilley betrays no nerves about how the show will be received, citing pre-release leaks as testament to the fact it will be successful: “They loved Summer Heights High, so I think the same crowd, the HBO audience will be into it.” And he remains steadfast in his belief that the more racially sensitive sections won’t raise the same furore as they have in Australia.
“I think they’ll get it, more than the Australian audiences. I think we are a little more nervous about stuff like that, whereas they are surrounded by that culture. I mean people in Australia don’t even know black people, we just don’t have them here. I think if you are surrounded by that culture, you are going to get it.”