Pushing boundaries: Chris Lilley (centre) in Jonah from Tonga.Recently, Chris Lilley was conversing via Twitter with Paris Hilton.
”You get ridiculously famous people following you and then you follow them and then they private-message you,” says the comedian and television hyphenate. ”I had Paris Hilton send me a private message saying, ‘I can’t believe you follow me, you’re amazing, I love you’, and we had this chat. It’s weird, because a few years ago you’d have to call someone’s agent, but now Lindsay Lohan and I chat privately.”
If it sounds like Lilley is living out the fantasies of one of his characters, such as narcissistic schoolgirl Ja’mie King, then the instigator of polarising successes such as Summer Heights High and Angry Boys is taking it all in his stride. Even as he’s built the Lilleyverse – an interconnecting web of memorable characters that is about to launch his latest production, Jonah from Tonga – and attained an international profile, the 39-year-old has remained productively holed up in Melbourne, shunning the spotlight and retaining control.
”Everyone is like, ‘Why don’t you go to Hollywood and get in some big show like Modern Family?’. But to me that’s boring,” says Lilley. ”Why would I want to read someone else’s lines when I can write my own, then edit them, and decide what happens?”
The six episodes of Jonah from Tonga, a mockumentary that extends the impertinent antics of schoolboy tearaway Jonah Takalua from 2007’s Summer Heights High, will screen on the ABC, the BBC in Britain and the cable network HBO (Game of Thrones, Girls) in North America (the first two broadcasters will also stream the entire series between May 2 and May 4). If it sounds logistically complex, the end result is that Lilley has leveraged prior success into creative freedom.
”The arrangement is that there’s no input from anyone. The ABC and government funding bodies and HBO are paying for it, and the ABC check for their editorial policies, but I don’t get notes,” Lilley says with some satisfaction. ”HBO have this great policy of finding creative teams and letting them do their thing. They read the scripts and are supportive, but there’s no interference. I’m getting away with it.”
When Lilley is in Los Angeles to liaise with HBO, he sometimes meets American comedy producers and stars who invariably ask him how many writers he has working on his show. They usually assume the answer is 10 to 12, but as Lilley explains, it’s just him. He writes by himself, and only about the characters that excite him. If he wants to return to a character, as he’s doing with Jonah, he will.
”Certain characters, I finish a show and I think, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving them there’. I love them too much and I want to come back and explore their world,” say Lilley. ”Jonah was always going to come back – he’s a great character and I’m obsessed with that whole culture he’s from.”
This time the 14-year-old is first seen in Tonga, where he’s been banished by his disapproving father. The second line of dialogue, courtesy of Jonah’s aggrieved uncle, is that ”Jonah is like a f—ing idiot”, and he’s not wrong. Foul-mouthed, interested in daft boasts, bullying and graffiti, and seemingly allergic to authority, the dim adolescent is a raw nerve of obnoxiousness. Brought back to Australia and enrolled at a Catholic co-education high school, Jonah’s soon diverted into a stream for problem pupils, alongside his new crew of fellow Pacific Islander students, where he manages to aggravate his teacher, burly former soldier Mr Joseph, to the point of violence. Jonah pushes the boundary of comic offensiveness, testing both his teachers’ and the audience’s capacity for his incessant retorts and ludicrous attention-seeking.
”Most of my characters never change as [a series] goes along,” says Lilley. ”There’s a familiar structure to television where the character is a certain way and then they go through a certain experience and they become different, but I like the idea that people don’t change. That represents reality more.”
The idea that a character has to be likeable on an audience’s terms, or ultimately be redeemed, doesn’t interest Lilley. His younger protagonists, such as Ja’mie or Jonah, can sometimes sense their failings, but awareness doesn’t help them address their problems.
”Jonah’s not the brightest kid. He doesn’t think things through. Watching him make the wrong decisions is fascinating,” Lilley explains. ”The show doesn’t have the cues of a normal sitcom, so some people feel uncomfortable because that hits close to home, but that’s cool and what I like about it.”
In his own school days Lilley was, like Jonah, in the bottom class and in the hands of various remedial specialists, but his issues stemmed from an anti-authority stance. ”I didn’t like being told what to do,” recalls Lilley, and he remembers sitting in class thinking to himself, ”You’re all a bunch of idiots”.
His revenge was to impersonate his teachers at Hornsby’s Barker College on Sydney’s North Shore whenever he got the opportunity. In year 12 he spent months rehearsing a performance, instead of studying, where he played five different teachers, complete with drag for his female subjects, and even alluded to an affair between two of the academic staff.
Two decades on and Lilley is intrigued by how television creates its own version of the truth. He was obsessed by glossy LA reality shows such as Laguna Beach and The Hills. He prefers to cast amateurs that fit a character’s description, as opposed to actors, in supporting roles on his show. Several of Jonah’s Fobba-liscious gang were students Lilley found at the school he used as a location in Hopper’s Crossing.
”Actors are much harder for me to edit together to appear real, as they give away the game too much,” admits Lilley. ”The framework for the show is that’s a fake documentary, so it’s meant to seem like it all really happened.”
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