KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —


But Is It Comedy? Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys

by Guest Author , June 1, 20112 Comments

The first step in reviewing something is to successfully identify what it is. Start complaining that Zoolander isn’t taking seriously the plight of child labourers in the fashion industry and people probably aren’t going to bother with whatever else you have to say. So it’s tempting to suggest that when reviewers talk about how Chris Lilley’s latest series Angry Boys ‘had flashes of artistic brilliance, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that there weren’t more laughs’ or write that ‘Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys is bold, aggressive, unafraid to trample on some very shaky ground. But on the basis of last night’s opening episode, it’s hard to conclude that it’s especially funny’, they might want to look up the dictionary definition of ‘comedy’. If a comedy isn’t funny, then it’s a failure, right?

Of course, when it comes to Chris Lilley that isn’t quite the end of the story. Though it might be if you’re approaching Angry Boys expecting to laugh loud and often. In his last series Summer Heights High it took seven episodes for Jonah to go from high-school prankster to heart-wrenchingly adrift youth: here the Sims twins Nathan & Daniel (Lilley) gear-shift from comedy to angst by the end of episode one. The foul mouthed, racist prison guard Gran (Lilley) displays a soft heart in episode two, and future episodes reveal that the similarly offensive rapper S.mouse, washed-up surf bum Blake Oakfield and monstrous stage mother Jen Okazaki (all played by Lilley) all have warmer, more human depths underneath their blunt exteriors.

What’s wrong with that? Plenty of truly classic comedies have featured characters with more than a hint of pathos about them. But when overweight, sleazy, middle-aged office manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) begged for his job in The Office (UK), it was a last-minute twist in a long-running series, much like the way Lilley handled the death of Pat Mullins in We Can Be Heroes – a brief, sudden shift that worked to shock us into realising these comedy characters were real (okay, ‘real’) people. By trying to sustain that drama over weeks or months in Angry Boys, Lilley has set himself a much more difficult task.

Contrary to the accepted wisdom that hails him as a master of disguise and a keen-eyed observer of character, Lilley has become less subtle with each series. In Lilley’s first solo effort We Can Be Heroes, Phil Olivetti was able to be both funny and pathetic at the same time. In contrast, the current crop are all two-stage characters from the same mould, comedy monsters who are revealed to have hearts of gold. Once the reveal happens, the comedy fades away: Daniel and Nathan’s acting out becomes an obvious cry for help, Gran’s bizarre behaviour is how she clumsily shows she cares, S.mouse is struggling to find his identity, and so on.

The actual comedy is increasingly throwaway, the same old song parodies and (literal) poo jokes (in Summer Heights High, Mr G put excrement on the floor of the special needs classroom to try and get them kicked out of his play; here, Nathan shits on a police car in imitation of one of S.mouse’s songs). But where in Summer Heights High the comedy was still largely the point of the show, in Angry Boys it’s clear that Lilley’s sights are set a whole lot higher.

The big success story of Summer Heights High was its only original character, Islander student Jonah. Where Lilley’s efforts to add depth to earlier creations Mr G and Ja’ime never really worked – Ja’ime’s cry of ‘state schools rock’ as she drove away in the final episode was a blunt repudiation of everything the character had said and done over 16 episodes of television – Jonah’s increasingly desperate plight as he struggled in a school system ill-equipped to help him earned Lilley plaudits.

So it’s not completely surprising that he’s decided to base an entire twelve-part, six-hour series around the drama that comes from troubled people trapped in dead-end situations. This shift is why reviewers are struggling with Angry Boys. It looks like a comedy on the surface – Lilley is still playing dress-ups, after all – but right from the first episode it’s obvious that this show doesn’t really want to get laughs. It’s not a failed comedy like, say, Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, which was packed with jokes that didn’t work; it’s a show that often isn’t even trying to be funny.

As a comedy then, it has to be seen as a failure. But if it’s not trying to be a comedy, does it succeed as a drama? Well, not really. There’s not much forward momentum to the storylines, for one thing. It’s largely a character study, but characters like S.mouse aren’t all that realistic. Taken together, the cast as a whole just isn’t deep or complex enough to require six hours of in-depth exploration.

What’s really interesting about Angry Boys slide into drama is Lilley’s conviction that viewers will go beyond the superficial ‘he’s a man in a dress / blackface / whatever’ and connect with his performance on a purely dramatic level. It’s a big ask, but if Lilley is able to convince viewers to take him seriously playing all the major roles in an increasingly humour-free character-based drama, he’ll have to be considered one of the acting titans of our age.

If not … well, at least people won’t be laughing at him.

Anthony Morris’s essay ‘A Bad Habit”: Chris Lilley and How We Rate Comedy’ appeared in Kill Your Darlings Issue 3. Anthony is DVD Editor at The Big Issue.

  • Emilie Collyer

    Great analysis Anthony. The series so far doesn’t fit comedy or drama comfortably. Character study, acting show piece for Lilley, social commentary. A different way to consume ‘story’ that is not entirely satisfying but has enough curiosity factor (not to mention big ticket HBO production values) to stick with and see how it pans out.

  • Suzanne

    I’m afraid that Angry Boys is not the result of the work of a ‘titan of acting’ but an example of too much success leading to excess. We all so wanted to love Angry Boys but it’s just not hitting the mark. SMouse is a foul mouthed pain who provokes little sympathy, Nathan and Daniel have degenerated into boring dullards and the only character where the tension between hate and love is working is Gran. The surfer boy is just as dull. Bring back Jonah. When I expressed that opinion, my 13 year old said- but he can’t come back Mum he’s in Tonga- a measure of his reality to her. She is not impressed with the new characters and is certainly not laughing.

West Bank

David Donaldson

Whitewashing occupation? Bill Shorten and the Israel Lobby

Racism and military occupation have no place in the modern world, and are certainly not something looked upon favourably by a majority of Australians. Yet while apartheid, for example, has become a byword for shame and racism, the Labor Opposition leader feels comfortable asserting that some Israeli West Bank settlements are legal. Read more »

Tony Abbott

David Donaldson

Abbott and Brandis’ culture war backfires

What is supposed to happen in a culture war is that conservatives use a controversial issue to drive a ‘wedge’ through the left, forcing a split between factions. In Australia, this usually means pitting Catholic unionists against their socially liberal colleagues in the Labor party. Read more »

climate change

David Donaldson

Australia is going backwards on climate policy

During the Howard years, it was usual for Australia to be awarded ‘Fossil of the Day’ by climate advocacy groups whenever it attended a climate negotiation conference. The award signifies the country that had done the most to hinder climate change negotiations, and Australia has won a pile of them. Read more »

Zoe Pilger

Carody Culver

Girls, eat your hearts out

Middle class hipsters, conceptual artists and third-wave feminists have long been easy targets for mockery, so I admit that I wasn’t expecting anything too groundbreaking when I picked up Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, a satirical romp through contemporary London that reads like a surreal mash-up of Broad City, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Less Than Zero. Read more »

Laika, Astronaut Dog

Carody Culver

Houston, we have a fabrication

As someone who doesn’t have children, I’m no less resistant than any of my book-loving friends-with-kids to the charm of a beautiful picture book. So when I spotted Laika: Astronaut Dog by writer and illustrator Owen Davey, with its charming retro-style artwork Read more »

& Sons

Carody Culver

WASPiration: David Gilbert’s & Sons

As someone who’s always secretly aspired to being a WASP (before you mercilessly judge me for this, I should clarify that my desire has less to do with attaining elevated social and financial status than with being able to dress like a character in The Great Gatsby Read more »

American Pickers

Julia Tulloh

Eccentric junk collectors held high on American Pickers

The History Channel’s American Pickers, currently in its sixth season, is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable reality series on TV. It’s not a competition show, it doesn’t exist to objectify people and it isn’t particularly dramatic. So what’s the appeal? Read more »

Justin Timberlake

Julia Tulloh

Pleasantly forgettable: Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience

On 7 March this year, tickets went on sale for the Australian leg of Justin Timberlake’s latest tour, ‘The 20/20 Experience’. All five shows sold out in a few hours. The same day, five new shows were released, with most tickets for these rapidly selling out too. Read more »


Julia Tulloh

BuzzFeed quizzes understand me

If you use social media regularly – Facebook, in particular – you’ll have completed a BuzzFeed quiz during the past month. Don’t deny it. Even if you didn’t share your results online, deep down you’re still feeling smug because the ‘What Should You Actually Eat For Lunch?’ quiz confirmed that eating ice cream was, in fact, an appropriate meal for your personality type. Read more »

The Lego Movie

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Nostalgia and today’s family-friendly films

Hollywood has always known the adults are watching alongside the kids, and that to push a film into record profits (as Lego looks set to do with a global box office of $428 million and counting), you need to appeal to ‘kids of all ages’. Read more »


Rochelle Siemiennowicz

Weirdos on screen: Noah and Nymphomaniac

There are some filmmakers you’ll follow into the dark, no matter how bad the buzz is about their latest work. For me, naughty boy Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia) and strange kid Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) are two filmmakers who can be loved or detested, but never ignored. Read more »


Rochelle Siemienowicz

Notes from a plane

There’s an art to choosing the right film for every particular occasion, and as I nervously sit in a Qantas jet about to take off on a four-hour flight from Melbourne to Perth, the choice seems very important indeed. Read more »

Samsung fingers

Connor Tomas O'Brien

‘Fooled’ by technology

As I browsed the web last Tuesday, something struck me: tech companies can no longer pull off compelling April Fools’ Day hoaxes because there’s no longer even the thinnest line delineating sincerity from spoof. Read more »


Connor Tomas O'Brien

Flight 370 and gaps in the internet

On Twitter the other day, sandwiched between a slew of links to articles about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, somebody tweeted a link to the website for Tile, a Bluetooth-enabled device that can be attached to physical objects, enabling them to be located within a 150-foot range. Read more »


Clipped: What would Susan Sontag say about always-on cameras?

As I write this, a tiny camera clipped to my shirt collar is silently taking a picture every thirty seconds. At the end of the day, I will plug my Narrative Clip into my MacBook, and it will upload half a gigabyte of images to the Cloud. … Read more »

Young Adulthood Books

Danielle Binks

The young adult books of my young adulthood

In March, Penguin Books Australia rereleased Melina Marchetta’s first novel as part of its Australian Children’s Classics series. Looking for Alibrandi was first published in 1992; the first print run sold out in two months, and Marchetta’s debut went on to win the Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Award. Read more »

When You Reach Me

Danielle Binks

A children’s lit prize of one’s own

Earlier this year, Readings Bookstore announced the creation of The Readings Children’s Book Prize. The eligibility criteria for the 2014 Prize was specified as ‘a work of published fiction, written for children aged 5–12’. Read more »

The Fault with a Sick-Lit Debate (1)

Danielle Binks

The fault with a sick-lit debate

American author John Green’s young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars has been a bestselling juggernaut since its release in 2012. Green’s book was somewhat inspired by his friendship with Esther Earl, whose posthumous memoir This Star Won’t Go Out was released in January this … Read more »

music theory

Chad Parkhill

Do music critics need music theory?

Canadian musician Owen Pallett – the man who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s albums, co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her, and has a bunch of wonderful solo albums – can now add another feather to his cap: that of an engaging music writer. Read more »

Tune Yards

Chad Parkhill

Drips, leaks, and spurts

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a state of perpetual excitement – musically speaking, that is. First came tUnE-yArDs’ new song, ‘Water Fountain’, a joyous, riotous explosion of colour and movement. Then Swans released ‘A Little God in My Hands’, a seven-minute epic of a track … Read more »

Grandma photoshop

Chad Parkhill

Singing out

My maternal grandmother, Merilai Lilburn, recently died in a nursing home in Katikati, New Zealand, of complications arising from pneumonia. She was 82 years old. At the time of her death, I and the other members of our extended family based in Australia Read more »


Stephanie Van Schilt

Diary of a lurker: TV and Twitter

At the end of last month, global information provider Nielsen announced that Australia was to become the third country in the world with the ‘Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings’ service. According to a Nielsen Company press release, the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings are ‘the first-ever measure of the total activity and reach of TV-related conversation on Twitter’. Read more »

Broad City

Stephanie Van Schilt

Funny Broads

‘All comparisons between Girls and Broad City should be hereto forth banned from the internet.’ I agree with Katherine Brooks. Yet the comparisons continue, ad nauseam, mostly following one of two lines of thought. Read more »

The Carrie Diaries

Stephanie Van Schilt

‘Alive Girl’ TV: The Carrie Diaries

Get ready to feel old: it’s been ten years since the final episode of Sex and the City aired. I’m not talking about the first episode back in 1998, but the final episode – the one before the two questionable movies were released. Read more »