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Outrage and irony in the comedy firing line

Chris Lilley is no stranger to controversy.

Some of his best-known characters – Tongan schoolboy Jonah Takalua, introduced in 2007's Summer Heights High, and African-American rapper S.mouse, from 2011's Angry Boys – drew widespread criticism after they were labelled "blackface".

Chris Lilley as South African pet psychic Jana in the Netflix series Lunatics.Credit:Netflix

The trailer for his new Netflix series Lunatics has ignited a similar firestorm on social media, with the character of Jana – "a South African lesbian pet psychic who struggles with unrequited love for her personal assistant" – now facing the same accusation.

The problem? According to the show's producer Laura Waters, Jana is white.

The confusion seems to have arisen from the fact that in the trailer she appears to have a rich, caramel-coloured tan and an "Afro" hairstyle.

More on that later, we're promised. "When the series is released you will see that Jana is a white woman with huge '70s style curly hair," Waters said.

But the official denial does not seem to have doused the flames, and given the appetite on social media for everyone to grab a pitchfork and join the pack of angry villagers, it does not seem likely to.

In the past, Lilley's razor-sharp, sitting-on-the-line-in-the-cultural-sand characterisations have proven easy targets.

Pat Mullins, the housewife from Nollamara in Perth, Western Australia, who suffered from skeletal dysplasia of the femur – that is, one leg is shorter than the other, allowing her to "roll" in a straight line – was one of Lilley's most loved characters.

The accusation critics would level at that performance – that it is "disability appropriation" – is hard to reconcile with the fact that Pat's death was devastating, and that Lilley's performance as the character was both nuanced and genuinely moving.

Similarly, the characterisation of Jonah Takalua was battered by accusations of "blackface" which, curiously, did not surface materially when we were introduced to the character in 2011 but took until 2017 to find momentum.

And yet Lilley's performance as Jonah, his battle with literacy and bullying from the school faculty, and his battle with his own self-esteem, was impactful. On the basis of that substance, it's tough to consign Jonah to the pop culture dustbin.

Chris Lilley as Jonah Takalua in Angry Boys.Credit:John Tsiavis

And what should we make of Lilley's Ricky Wong, the Chinese physics student from We Can Be Heroes, who eschewed academic overachievement in favour of art, and took the role of Walkabout Man in the high school musical Indigeridoo.

To summarise: that's a white man, playing an Asian kid, wearing indigenous face paint, playing an Aboriginal. How that didn't turn into a tsunami of social media protest goes some way to explaining how flimsy and inconsistent such firestorms can be.

The problem with social media warfare is that it demands treaties be signed in less than 280 characters and that's tough when a comedian's nuance comes to the table.

It is true that Lilley is a provocateur. His art plainly hungers for both the endorsement of the cool kids at school and the opprobrium of their parents and teachers.

The relationship between comedy and offence is hard to navigate at the best of times.

And while such cultural appropriations seem a straightforward and legitimate accusation, it stumbles because it is unevenly applied. That that statement could be interpreted as a defence of blackface – which it is not – is itself proof of the challenge in bringing simple arguments to complex issues.

2011's Angry Boys gave us S.mouse, the African American rap artist. Of all of Lilley's characters, he seems to have drawn the loudest criticism. Partly perhaps because he is the clearest case of blackface. But also because, broadly, he is one of Lilley's weakest characterisations.

In the same series, however, Lilley played Jen Okazaki, a Japanese wife and mother of three who obsessed over her son Tim. If that performance was not singled out in the same way, should we conclude a comedian playing Asian is less offensive than blackface?

The many faces of Lilley in We Can Be Heroes.Credit:ABC

Look at Sacha Baron Cohen's performance as General Shabazz Aladeen, the fictitious Arab dictator. It drew some criticism, but not much. Should we conclude that a comedian playing an Arab is funny but blackface is not?

And look at Cohen's performance as Brüno Gehard, the flamboyant, homosexual fashion reporter. Cohen is not gay himself, so why is he allowed to get away with playing an effeminate, wrist-drooping caricature of one? Is the takeout that a straight comedian playing gay is fine while blackface is not?

The answer, perhaps, lies in part with our own prejudices. Why are Asians, Arabs and gays seen as fair game, but others are not? Should all of it be banned? Should none of it be banned?

The final irony, perhaps, is that the cultural case being prosecuted online once more is over a character who is by all accounts white.

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