Summer Heights High: articles

Chris Lilley

Pushing the boundaries

WHEN he launched his series We Can be Heroes in 2005, Chris Lilley bucked a disturbing trend in local TV production.

Though many attempts at comedy at the time proved to be misguided flops, Lilley made such an impact in his self-penned mockumentary series that he went on to win the Graham Kennedy Logie Award for Most Outstanding New Talent.

Softly spoken Lilley's talents are not difficult to define.

He has pin-sharp observational skills and an innate ability to immerse himself in male and female characters.

In Heroes he played five people who'd made a shortlist to represent their state for the title of Australian of the Year.

So impressive was Lilley that when he performed on radio as schoolgirl character Ja'mie King, he sparked outrage from listeners who thought Ja'mie was a genuine Australian of the Year contender.

A caller identified as Michael called Nova radio station to say: "It's a sad day for Australia when a person like Ja'mie can be nominated for Australian of the Year. It's great that she supports the kids overseas, but going on the 40-Hour Famine to hide your eating disorder is sad."

Another radio interview prompted listener Nick to write: "Finally, a girl with both looks and a heart of gold. Can I get her number?"

The public reaction to Lilley's work underscores his ability to produce comedy that jolts you from your comfort zone. If some see him as intentionally confrontational, he says, "so be it".

Lilley's new series Summer Heights High has not yet been to air but has already provoked community outrage.

Continuing the mockumentary format of Heroes, Summer Heights High sees Lilley bring to life mischievous Tongan schoolboy Jonah Takalua, who is an A-grade smart alec obsessed with drawing the male anatomy all over the school. Also making an appearance are ego-driven drama teacher Mr G and the aforementioned Ja'mie, the morally bankrupt private schoolgirl who in this series is on student exchange.

A recent newspaper report on Summer Heights High suggested advocacy groups were angry the first episode of the show contained a "rape joke" and disrespectful references to the handicapped.

In one scene, the Mr G character is approached by an intellectually disabled student who he contrasts with the "normal kids".

The teacher then explains rules on contact with students, saying hugging the boy is fine. Mr G then puts his hands on the boy's behind and says: "That sort of thing not fine."

Another newspaper reported unrest over a plotline in which Mr G decides to create a school musical about the death of a student from the drug ecstasy.

Lilley is steadfast in his defence of the show, insisting it's not just out to make you laugh, but to expose prejudice and bigotry and force you to contemplate your own belief systems.

"I think it's important at times to make people uncomfortable and challenged and to create a show where the audience is never quite sure what it is going to get," Lilley says.

"The show takes some very unexpected turns and there's some sad stuff in there, so I'm sure there will be people who are mad at me.

"The story about the Down syndrome boy is an important one as the story progresses because he (Mr G) extends himself to this boy and they have a nice bond. The story is justified in the end.

"I'm sure the ABC switchboard will receive some calls about the show and I'm sure some people will be upset, but I really haven't set out to upset just for the sake of it.

"I pretty much have creative control over the show, but the ABC is paying for it and contractually have the final say on content. Kim Dalton (ABC director of television) said he really wanted me to push boundaries, otherwise there was no point doing the show."

Lilley was halfway through production on We Can be Heroes when the ABC flagged its desire to bankroll his follow-up project.

Lilley had decided he wanted to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary-type comedy set in a school.

The actor drove around the suburbs of Melbourne on weekends searching for a school that would serve as an appropriate location for the show.

"I'd drive around, then break into them to check out the playground areas and facilities," Lilley says.

He also writes for the Ja'mie and Jonah characters by spending time around teenagers and studying speech patterns and body language.

Though Lilley had performed as Mr G in stand-up routines and on the Channel 7 sketch series The Big Bite, the character became more "fleshed out" after Lilley met some school drama teachers.

"One of the challenges we faced was in casting the other actors in the show because I didn't want recognisable faces in the roles," Lilley says.

"It was hard casting Jonah's friends, the Islander boys, because some parents would turn up to the auditions and say 'there's too much language, so we're not doing it'. In the end, we got the Islander kids from a rugby club."

By Darren Devlyn
September 05, 2007
The Courier-Mail