May 2011


Can we be heroes?

By Peter Conrad
Chris Lilley in characters. Courtesy of the ABC. © John Tsiavis
Chris Lilley in characters. Courtesy of the ABC. © John Tsiavis
Chris Lilley and the politics of comedy

In Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys (screening in 12 parts on ABC1 from 11 May), the mother of the Sims twins – disadvantaged slackers from the bleak South Australian bush town of Dunt – breaks some bad news. Dan has volunteered to donate an eardrum to help restore the hearing of his deaf brother Nathan. But the procedure fails: there’s no chance, their mum glumly reports, of implanting a cochlea. Lilley, playing ‘Nath’, scowls fatalistically, perhaps not having heard the prognosis; playing Dan, he chuckles with unholy glee. Why is he laughing, his harassed mother demands?

Why indeed? Laughter is instinctive, and what it conveys is a flushed awareness of superiority. But there is more to it than one boy’s enjoyment of the other’s distress. Dan, for the most part droolingly inarticulate, in this case consents to explain his amusement: he’s laughing, as well he might, at the word cochlea. Penis-obsessed like all Lilley’s male alter egos, he finds a crazy hilarity in the notion of a cock lodged somewhere inside your ear. He might have been even more delighted if he’d known that the word refers metaphorically to the spiral shell of a snail. What would you sooner have in that orifice on the side of your head, a phallus or a slug?

The absence of a laugh track – the chorus of mechanised glee that makes American sitcoms so convivial and so unthreatening – leaves us fumbling to decide for ourselves whether we find Dan’s reaction funny. The misanthrope will chuckle, as I did, and the wit will rejoice at the little specimen of linguistic exotica that Lilley has held up to view. Someone more compassionate will be shocked at the crude, cruel breach of social and moral decorum. The eighteenth-century essayist Horace Walpole reckoned that “this world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”, which is why “Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept”; however, the choice between the two options is never easy because we all think and feel simultaneously. Lilley, who plays both the joker and his victim, can get away with being Janus-faced, at once wickedly sardonic and tenderly sympathetic, and his twinned characters share this ambiguity. When do-good social workers recommend transferring Nath to an ‘educational facility’ in Adelaide, Dan is dismayed. He protests, and not only because he will lose his whipping boy – the inferior half of himself, whom he can punish with impunity. Unable to change the situation, he storms out into the backyard where he paces up and down, quietly sniffling. “Daniel’s crying!” screeches his little sister. Raillery and ribaldry were always the cover for a brotherly love that could not be openly avowed.

A great comedian has to be a theorist of comedy, aware of its rules and its ethical scruples in order to test or defy them, as Lilley so dangerously does. A great comedian is also a philosopher manqué, since the constant concern – which preoccupies Lilley whether he is anatomising the aspirational try-hards of We Can Be Heroes, examining the lethal nastiness of adolescence in Summer Heights High or surveying a wider world of ravaged innocence and corrupt, commercialised dreams in Angry Boys – is the odd, contradictory business of being human. One way of defining our species is to say that we are animals that laugh. But to be human is to exist in an indeterminate, middling state: our laughter can be humane and generous, the acceptance and enjoyment of common imperfection, although it can just as well aim to dehumanise and playfully destroy its object. Mirth is affectionate, yet anger – which fuels many of the characters in Lilley’s new series, just as it provokes the rampages of Jonah the Tongan bully in Summer Heights High – has a righteous ferocity that takes no prisoners. Comedy can be a mode of aggression, the acting-out of a violent resentment or the satisfaction of a grudge, and when Jonah trashes the school from which he has been expelled the spectacle of so much baffled disappointment and such raw hurt is hideous to watch. A cello emotes, and the other pupils look on in misery. Even so, the animal that laughs remains a beast and, at its most primal, the comedy of Angry Boys relies on bodily functions that express hostility more succinctly than any witticism could so. A horde of surfies in one episode challenge a rival tribe to combat by pissing on their sandy turf from high on a cliff. In another, Nath squats on the hood of a police car and shits to make clear his opinion of the law.

Lilley doesn’t just want to make us laugh; his plan is to tickle us illicitly until we do, then reprimand us for being so heartless. After the joke disintegrates or is neutralised by our unease, it’s hard for comedy to recover its guiltless composure. Ja’mie, the North Shore princess sent to slum for a term at Summer Heights High, circulates a text message to her cronies mocking the bogans she has befriended at her new school. She calls one of them “a Clearasil ‘before’ shot”, while another is “a Housing Commission whore”. Both phrases owe their brilliance to Lilley, who of course plays the odious Ja’mie: the first has a catty epigrammatic finesse, the second is gloriously fantastical, as if the Housing Commission were responsible for assigning resident hookers to the proletarian dormitories it builds. But neither characterisation pleases the girls in question, who receive the text by mistake. When they object, the unapologetic Ja’mie drawls, “Guys, just learn what a sense of humour is, OK?” As always, Lilley is challenging us from behind the character’s mask: we enjoy hurling barbs at others but can we tolerate the pain when they rebound?

Australian humour has always been hard-bitten, shamelessly abusive, formed by the competitive antagonism of a frontier society. In early America men gunned their rivals down; our Australian forefathers mocked those they disliked or feared, which achieved the same result while causing a more permanent injury. Lilley is unmerciful, and – like Dickens joking about wooden legs and severed heads – he refuses to accept that anything should be out of bounds. The surgical boot of the would-be athlete Pat Mullins in We Can Be Heroes generates much chortling merriment. Summer Heights High has its platoon of “specials”, kids confined to wheelchairs or suffering from Down syndrome: they are treated like village idiots, our excuse for taking pride in our own supposed normality. Comedy has traditionally backed away from disability, preferring to ridicule vices that are optional and corrigible. William Congreve, explaining the critique of affectation in his 1700 play The Way of the World, said there are people whose afflictions ensure they remain “rather objects of charity than contempt”; when the Old Vic in London recently revived Georges Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear, a pious reviewer lamented that the play made fun of a character with a cleft palate (which did not deter me from splitting my sides at the actor’s baffled efforts to enunciate sentences without consonants). To his credit, Lilley is not so squeamish, whether he’s confronting physiological or political embargoes. He is determined to offend: as the Chinese nerd who blacks up for the Dreamtime musical in We Can Be Heroes, he managed to outrage two Australian racial taboos at once.

One of his new personae in Angry Boys is Gran, a detention-centre dominatrix who is also the grandmother of the Sims twins. Her charges are a posse of juvenile offenders, whom she proudly describes as “the worst boys in the state”; organising team games in the fly-blown prison grounds, she encourages the players by heckling them as “Negro” and “Abo”, “faggot” and “poof”. They beam with gratification, basking in her tough love. Like every other comedian portrayed by Lilley, Gran enjoys exploiting her power and can’t help experimentally pushing its limits. Hence the gambit she calls “Gran’s Gotcha”, a particularly evil form of practical joke. A tearful boy is told that his sentence has been quashed on appeal, helped to pack his paltry belongings and ushered to the gate, where he is told his mum is waiting to collect him and take him home. Of course the gate remains barred: Gran has got him and she gloats as she marches him back to his cell. Could Iago have devised a more sadistic wheeze? It’s her Australian way of fortifying her charges, instructing them – as if they had recently disembarked on the fatal shore, their chains clanking – to abandon all hope as they enter this brutal place.

Yet Gran is a grim disciplinarian with a squashy interior; she hand-embroiders superhero pyjamas that she distributes to her charges and brings her favourite guinea pig to cheer up a catatonic teenager serving a term for the grubby crime of dog-wanking. How do we respond to a scene that appeals to facile snobbery (the guinea pig after all is called Kerri-Anne), risks mawkish sentiment as Gran cradles the boy while lightly hinting at sexual abuse, and never lets us forget that what’s being punished is a silly and sordid act of bestiality with which the law probably ought not to bother?

All of this is messily ludicrous; then, Lilley introduces death as the ultimate reproach to comedy. Gran reminisces about her fondness for a previous internee, a boy on the isolation ward who ended by hanging himself. “A little bit heavy, isn’t it?” she murmurs, daring us to snigger. Comedy has no compunction about wounding its victims but it seldom slays them. Lilley, however, massacres characters wholesale in the interest of frustrating comedy’s scheme to engineer happiness. The gallant Pat Mullins in We Can Be Heroes has a sudden recurrence of liver cancer and dies before she can begin her quixotic roll to Uluru; her husband blubs real tears in remembering her, and we’re as shiftily embarrassed as if we were witnessing a friend’s breakdown. Random casualties pile up in Summer Heights High, calling a halt to the fun. A pupil at the school is killed by an ecstasy overdose, and most of the Sudanese villagers who receive patronising sponsorship from Ja’mie are wiped out by a flood. Mr G’s yapping chihuahua Celine scampers into traffic and is reportedly flattened. In a fortuitous twist, the obnoxious dog is resurrected, which challenges us to admit that we were secretly delighted by the accident: as Oscar Wilde remarked, only someone with a heart of stone wouldn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell.

And once we have observed a minute’s mournful silence, what happens next? Comedy resumes, heedlessly resilient, instantly overcoming hurt and loss. At the end of a Greek tragedy, the amphitheatre was invaded by satyrs brandishing stiff, goatish phalluses, who stirred up a festive pandemonium. Lilley, too, is riotously priapic. Phil Olivetti in We Can Be Heroes leers about his hefty endowment, and Jonah in Summer Heights High draws bulbous penises all over the school buildings. Angry Boys, which exposes the strutting imposture of masculinity, is even more obscene.

Or is it? Once again, Lilley delights in creating discomfort, with qualms about inadequacy undercutting the fertile riot we expect. Dan Sims brands a mongrel dog a “fag” because its hindquarters wiggle as it shows off its testicles; he chastens Nath’s frantic wanking, and tries to dent his brother’s erection by hurling a shoe at it. One of Lilley’s new creations, a Los Angeles rapper called S.mouse, brags about his “motherfucking dick” and his “big black balls”, though it is all loud, empty braggadocio, as his discontented girlfriend hints.

Back home, a beach bum called Blake Oakfield – played by Lilley as a sad pseudo-Californian wannabe, a surfer, who, like Mishima’s sailor, has fallen from grace with the sea – is actually a gelding. His balls were amputated after he was shot in the groin during a pub brawl, and he claims to be investigating the possibility of acquiring a decorative prosthetic pair to plump out his Speedos; meanwhile, he needs daily testosterone supplements and relies on a sperm donor to beget his kids. He seems to be wishing his own emasculation on others, since he initiates new members of his surfie gang by tying chunks of bleeding meat to their genitals and sending them out beyond the breakers to attract sharks.

The most fiendishly penis-fixated of Lilley’s personae is a woman: this is the ambitious Japanese matriarch Jen Okazaki, who forces her teenage son Tim to pretend he is gay to boost his career as a skateboarding champion. “We know you love cock,” she tells the wilting lad, coaxing him to ogle the pendulous nuts of a pin-up in a porn mag. Jen is a castration complex in human form. For her, the male organ is a merchandising opportunity and, to exploit her son’s popularity, she manufactures a line of fleshly pink fetishes for a gay clientele – a cock-shaped whistle that enjoys being blown, a penile drinking bottle that enables you to rehearse fellatio while hydrating, a disciplinary scrubbing brush with a bristly phallic knob, a dildo that somehow doubles as a dispenser for grated cheese. Unlike Sir Les Patterson’s frisky trouser snake, the members Jen sells have all been chopped off the body and rendered harmless, feminised by the anaphrodisiac household tasks they perform.

Despite their swagger, Lilley’s angry boys all turn out to be detumescent: what, he seems to be asking, could be funnier than a penis? If comedy is about lying and self-deception, how better to define it than by thinking about that puffed-up appendage, so briefly imposing and so easily deflated? We are even treated to a close-up of Blake’s empty ball sack, as sorry a sight as a pair of popped and shrivelled balloons.

The sense of impotence is national as well as sexual, which makes Angry Boys additionally uncomfortable. Although it seeks to capitalise on Lilley’s fame overseas, its American and Japanese storylines actually measure the estranging, intimidating distance between Australia and the rest of the world. Nath is a fan of S.mouse and Tim Okazaki, so Dan invites them to a party held on the scrubby farm before his brother’s departure for the deaf school in Adelaide; a family reunion of all Lilley’s disparate personae can be expected in the final instalment of the series. But Steve, a laconic and discouraging bricklayer – the boyfriend of the twins’ mother – reminds them of Australia’s isolation, or its banishment to a nether realm: “Celebrities aren’t gonna want to come here,” he says, surveying a vista of derelict sheds, unplanted paddocks and a muddy puddle that the boys call a dam.

This meagre local reality can’t accommodate the wish-fulfilling fantasies of Americans, who assume life will make their dreams come true (and often indignantly take hostages or open fire on passers-by when they discover how wrong they are). In We Can Be Heroes, Ricky Wong’s musical Indigeridoo contains an uplifting gospel song that intones “Your Dreamtime is here” and in Summer Heights High, as Mr G drills his students to perform Cole Porter in the school gym, he explains: “I’m teaching them to dare to dream.” This being Australia, Icarus soon plunges back to Earth. Ricky wistfully renounces “dreams that might not come true”; Mr G resigns in a tizz, saying, “Shoot me for wanting to dream.”

In Angry Boys Lilley looks at those dreams from the other side of the Pacific and jeers at their falsity. His monsters, unlike Dame Edna or Sir Les, know they are phoneys: S.mouse is a bourgeois brat who masquerades as a ghetto gangsta and Tim Okazaki is both an American teenager passing himself off as Japanese and a straight boy claiming to be gay. The motive for their deceit is commercial. As S.mouse complacently yawns, “All I’m doing is trying to deliver the shit the fans want.” Switched into reverse, this might be Lilley’s cautionary admonition to himself: don’t pander to the fans; irritate or insult the audience rather than satisfy its expectations; and, above all, don’t let yourself be co-opted by America. “That’s not disruptive, that’s entertainment,” says one of the ruffians in Summer Heights High when accused of misbehaving. But Lilley would rather think of himself as a menace to public order and a disrupter of the received wisdom than as a slick, cozening entertainer.

Angry Boys is what William Empson called a version of pastoral, contrasting two worlds – one complex and modern, the other bucolically simple – that are separated by the gaping vacancy of the Pacific. It regrets the loss of innocence and of childhood, both of which were preserved by Australia’s isolation. Sentenced to house arrest in Los Angeles, S.mouse gathers around him the battery of electronic appliances that complicate our lives and compel us to live at second-hand. In Tokyo, Jen Okazaki beams at the tacky, kinky gadgetry she sells.

Perhaps the Sims brothers are lucky to have so little: Dan is furious on Nath’s behalf when their mother says that, if he consents to be sent away to the deaf school, she’ll get him an iPhone. Against the technological swank and cushioned affluence of Japan and California, Lilley sets Australia’s drab tedium – the single dusty thoroughfare called Main Street that the Sims boys enliven with wheelies or the outback railway station where they listlessly wait for a train that never comes; the encampment of shacks where Blake Oakfield and his washed-up mates while away the rest of their lives. Against success on the American model, Lilley sets Australian failure. The Sims twins are dead-end kids, and Blake is a shiftless has-been. But they are harmless, and have found a kind of happiness simply because they don’t fanatically pursue it.

Can we be heroes? As Lilley contrasts his ignominious homeland with those brighter horizons across the ocean, he seems to be saying we can’t, and adding that we shouldn’t want to be. Anyway, Australia has always preferred anti-heroes. There’s just one problem with that down-in-the-mouth, ironically defeatist conclusion: Lilley’s genius as a writer and a self-multiplying performer proves it to be wrong.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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