We Can Be Heroes: articles

ABC comedy gets Heroes welcome after premiere on US television

CHRIS Lilley's comic hit We Can Be Heroes premiered on American television yesterday to rave reviews.

The six-part comedy, which first screened on the ABC last year, has been renamed The Nominees for US consumption — possibly, one reviewer mused, because the former title sounded too much like a 9/11 documentary.

The influential trade magazine Hollywood Reporter declared: "This very funny six-part mockumentary keeps its tongue planted firmly inside its cheek as it brilliantly spoofs the world's current obsession with turning just plain folks into media sensations."

The glowing reviews come as Heroes creator and star Lilley and producer Laura Waters prepare to start shooting their second comedy series in Melbourne.

The new show, revolving around life in an outer-suburban high school, is expected to air on the ABC next year.

While enamoured with the comic talents of Lilley, who played the five main characters of the Heroes series, the Hollywood Reporter's reviewer sounded slightly incredulous about the Australian of the Year award the show parodies. "(It is) an honor actually bestowed annually Down Under on Australia Day," Ray Richmond wrote.

The series screens in prime time in the US, at 9pm Tuesdays, on the Sundance cable network.

The Hollywood Reporter concluded: "It's all utterly ridiculous and at the same time ingeniously subtle, the kind of inventive comedy that leaves you pining for more."

Other publications were similarly glowing. The Los Angeles Times liked the fact that the comedy became bittersweet as the series evolved. "Like many of the best comedies of its generation, The Nominees doesn't settle for laughs, nor does it care much about them. Comedy does not have to be funny."

The reviewer for the Detroit Free Press wrote: "Welcome to Goofball A-Go-Go. Australian jester Chris Lilley is a sly deadpan comic treat … Laugh early, laugh often."

By Nicole Brady
September 7, 2006
The Age

Lilley can be hero

THE star of the ABC TV's satire We Can Be Heroes has won a top international television award for his portrayal of a foul-mouthed private schoolgirl and other characters.

Chris Lilley has taken out the noted Rose d'Or award for Best Male Comedy Performance for the series, based around five characters vying for the title of Australian of the Year.

Lilley, who also co-produced the show that screened last year, played all five characters, including a national champion in the art of rolling on her side for long distances, and a police hero-turned motivational speaking guru.

He was one of two Australian winners at the international television awards, held in Lucerne, Switzerland at the weekend.

Girl in A Mirror, an acclaimed documentary by Kathy Dreyton and Helen Bowden about photographer Carol Jerrems, took out the Arts and Specials award.

A thrilled Bowden was told the news early yesterday morning.

"It has had quite a lot of good recognition in Australia but nothing internationally," said Bowden of Girl in A Mirror.

"Whenever you make a film, you send it out to the world and you get rejection slips.

"And then suddenly something like this happens and it is very exciting for it to reach a new audience."

It is the first time since the Rose d'Or's inception in 1961 that Australian programs have won.

More than 330 programs from 32 countries entered the 2006 awards.

ABC TV head of arts and entertainment Courtney Gibson said the awards were international affirmation of the two shows' outstanding skill and craft.

"We're so proud to have been able to support the development and production of these two extraordinary projects," Ms Gibson said.

"The awards are usually dominated by British shows. Call it revenge for the Ashes and the rugby."

May 01, 2006

Chris Lilley

Going global ... Chris Lilley as Ja'mie King

Global Hero

POPULAR comedy series We Can Be Heroes has gone global.The ABC program yesterday launched in the UK on the Fox Channels under the new name of The Nominees.

The show features five unique Australians who have made the shortlist to represent their state for the prestigious title of Australian of the Year.

From foul-mouthed schoolgirl Ja'mie King to the complexities of an Asian-Australian character telling the story of our Aboriginal heritage they all have a story to tell.

Series creator Chris Lilley, who is currently working on a new comedy project for ABC, says he is amazed the show has had international interest.

"It's unbelievable," he said.

"I never imagined the show would be exposed to such a massive audience."

Lilley has written a book based on the series to be released in May.

The series also will air later this year in New Zealand and on the Sundance Channel in the US.

January 27, 2006

Chris Lilley

Flying in the face of success

Chris Lilley was the comedy find of 2005. Nicole Brady finds out what makes him tick.

BENEATH a baseball cap Chris Lilley is just another guy on a sultry St Kilda morning. Delicately framed and on the smallish side, the star and writer of this year's ABC sleeper hit We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year is nice looking without being a hottie, as Ja'mie might say.

His features come together as a sort of malleable package: together they are the unassuming demeanour Lilley presents to the world; in isolation they are the perfect starting points for the five monstrously comic creations of his mockumentary series.

The striking green eyes are all Ja'mie, his olive skin the natural base for theatrical physicist Ricky Wong, the rounded nose reminds of the time rolling champion Pat Mullins got a gumnut stuck up hers, his gestures occasionally recall the tragic Phil Olivetti. While his teeth are too neat and white to be those of Daniel and Nathan Sims, the lips remind of the sneers the farm twins specialised in.

Having shot to fame in the wigs and masks of these characters it is surprising to see the recognition Lilley has. While blase St Kilda diners fail to give a second glance as he enters his local cafe, it does not take long before a breathless waiter arrives.

"You don't sound like a manager you sound like a stupid fat bitch," the waiter blurts, quoting Ja'mie, then rushes on: "You are my hero - I'm sure you get it all the time."

Lilley smiles and thanks him, then looks vaguely puzzled as the guy departs with a line that sounds something like "sometimes I forget I'm Asian".

After wondering out loud "Did you hear what he said?" Lilley suddenly clicks and realises the waiter is quoting a Ricky Wong line from the show.

"That happens all the time, and they get the lines wrong. It's 'Sometimes I forget I'm Chinese'," he says, half to himself.

The exchange signals how much Lilley's series touched a chord - "My friends and I think he's a genius," the waiter says later. "He comes in here and all the customers ask me about him and if I can get his autograph for them; he just seems so humble". Yet this is also a clue to his perfectionism.

As he lives in the uncomfortable space between acclaimed first comedy and writing a second, Lilley is wrestling with a perfectionist's demons. Sifting through ideas from ABC enterprises for spin-off Heroes merchandise takes time, as does the Heroes book he is writing and one-off performances such as Ja'mie's gig as an Aria presenter.

For him, everything must be in sync with the show's credibility. But time away from his new project creates fear and frustration.

Despite himself, Lilley is occasionally drawn to internet commentary on Heroes, then feels stung by the odd jibe. One of the most irritating, he says, has been comparisons between his show and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office. "Apart from being a mockumentary I didn't think there was any similarity," he says.

Lilley, 30, emerged seemingly from nowhere this year to take television viewers and critics by surprise. Heroes grew by word of mouth over its six week run and since being released been the ABC's top-selling DVD. Sales to the US Sundance cable television channel and a UK cable station have further strengthened his reputation.

While he had been on the comedy scene for a few years performing on sketch comedy shows such as the Big Bite and the short-lived Hamish and Andy, most had never heard of Chris Lilley before the ABC matched him with producer Laura Waters and gave the pair money, time and freedom to make Heroes.

Looking back, Lilley marvels now at the space afforded him by the ABC.

"Weirdly, I was left alone. I think it was something to do with being down in Melbourne; maybe it was part of the plan that they wanted to just leave me alone. I'm not sure whether they decided to do that or whether it evolved that way out of neglect, but I got to do my own thing."

Lilley is now deep in the process of writing a new eight-part series structured around a drama teacher Mr G and a group of high school students staging their annual musical. It will be another mockumentary but beyond that broad term Lilley cannot say because, he says, he does not know.

"I haven't fully locked in all the characters, I'm still keeping it pretty open-ended. It's going to be anchored by Mr G and his journey and there will be other characters who are off in their own little worlds."

Fans of Big Bite and Hamish and Andy might remember the annoying drama teacher Mr G, who was one of the standout regular characters. Expect him to be quite different this time around.

"I never really got to do him the way that I completely wanted to," Lilley says. "It had to be done to suit a sketch show so it had to be quite short, it had to have a laugh track, had to have joke points. I went off into a much more dramatic style with We Can Be Heroes and I think this new series of Mr G will do that and maybe even more."

In crafting the show, he and Waters recently spent several months observing an outer suburban Melbourne high school production of Oliver!. They watched the rehearsals, were backstage during the performances, interviewed students, their teachers and parents.

Much has been documented on video, which Lilley is now poring over in order to make his characters as grounded in reality as possible.

"It's just so important that it's accurate because if you're parodying something the people who are from that environment are going to be watching it and going 'This isn't real,'" he says.

In discussing his television work, Lilley is a contradiction. On one hand, he is so certain of his comic vision he micro-managed the production crew of We Can Be Heroes. On the other, the success of that program brings doubts. It sounds like second-album nerves.

"It definitely is, which I wasn't expecting," Lilley says. "I don't want to do We Can Be Heroes part two, I don't want to use the same tricks. I want it to be something completely new and have its own feel and style. I don't want to be ripping myself off because then you slowly just get worn out and tire of it."

And then there is the naked fear and self doubt many creative people wrestle with.

"I'm scared," he says flatly. "I am a little bit scared that that was a oneoff, like it was because I came out of nowhere and because of that, it can never happen again. That's pressure that I'm putting on myself that I think maybe it was just this one little special thing that can't be done again."

In writing new characters Lilley is also aware of the limitations his success has built around him.

"It is hard to invent characters that have to be completely different to the five that I have already done and there's only so much I can do. I don't want to do characters that are way out of my range. I think Pat was about as old as I can go and Daniel probably about as young as I can go and I've covered so many types there. And also Ricky, with the sort of shocking 'Oh no, he's doing an Asian' thing. It's sort of hard because I can't do that again now."

Though much of his pressure seems to come from within, Lilley occasionally feels overwhelmed by people around him.

Success has brought advice and offers from everywhere. Some useful, many bizarre, some downright bad. There was the film person who the day after We Can Be Heroes finished rang to pitch a movie, Ja'mie goes to New York City.

"People forget that the reason they like Ja'mie and those characters is because of the context that they're in. That they're a small part of this bigger thing and that it's this cult show and it's this word-of-mouth thing. You take that out and put her up on a billboard and go 'Jamie in New York City' and you've killed it. That's obvious."

Lilley, who grew up in the northern suburbs Sydney suburb of Turramurra (think Ivanhoe), has long been a close observer of Australian comedy. As a kid he adored sketch shows such as The Comedy Company and Full Frontal and seems to have drawn lessons from their demise."

I've seen other comedy characters come and go and I've seen that point where you go 'You've crossed the line. You shouldn't be doing those ads for Telstra in character,'," he says.

"If I was an audience member who'd watched We Can Be Heroes I would not want to see Ja'mie doing a Toyota commercial. I say that now and then when Toyota offers me a million bucks I'll probably go 'yes'."

I sound like a wanker saying 'It's not about the money it's about the art' but it kind of is. I'd much rather be known for making these shows that I'm really proud of.

People like that waiter are excited to see me. He came over and quoted the show and he still keeps glancing at me - he got a thrill out of seeing the show and that's really much more important than me sitting back with money and doing corporate gigs and being happy that I've got a shiny new car. I'd think I'd wait until I was desperate before I did that."

Though he seems to have sprung from nowhere, in a way Chris Lilley has been working towards We Can Be Heroes for most of his life.

As a primary student he and a friend started a lifelong game of crafting and play-acting television programs. Between them they built up several soap opera sagas, some of which "ran" for 10 years.

The boys would make up the premise for a soap - one was set in a wealthy rural community and called Barry Fields - then divide the cast into two sets of characters, each playing and writing a half. Somehow Lilley often ended up doing the women, a useful precursor he says for the characters Ja'mie and Pat.

From planning scenes and drawing set designs, the projects evolved into behind-the-scenes dramas, as well. Having made up stories for the fictitious actors who played the fictitious characters, one of the pair would yell "cut" and they would segue into play-acting the lives of the actors and television executives.

The boys would write letters in character and make cassette tapes featuring answering machine messages for one another.

The dramas were so intense and real that at one point when a character who had been the star of a soap for many years suddenly died of a brain tumour Lilley recalls he and his friend (then living in Norway with his family) had to telephone to check the other was all right.

And what happened to the make-believe actor who played the character? "She went on to do a cooking show afterwards, so she was good," Lilley says.

Looking beyond the Mr G series, which is likely to go into production early in the new year and screen in the second half of the year, Lilley says he has tossed around the idea of a sequel search for the Australian of the Year."

There might be a time when that would be a really cool thing to do, maybe after this or after a couple more things, to go back and go 'Hey, We Can Be Heroes can be back.'

"But I think that's definitely something for the future. I'd rather be challenged and I think it's more exciting for the audience to get something very new - and more exciting for me, too."

By Nicole Brady
December 08, 2005

Ja'mie King is everyone's favourite hero

She always knew she was destined for big things, but even Ja'mie King couldn't have predicted just how sought after she would become.

After bursting onto the television scene this year in the ABC comedy We Can Be Heroes, it seems Australia can't get enough of the Sydney schoolgirl who sponsors 85 World Vision children—or the actor who played the fictional character, Chris Lilley.

In the program Lilley, a 30-year-old Sydney comedian, portrayed five different characters competing to be Australian of the Year.

But Ja'mie has been the most popular by far, and Lilley is still coming to terms with all the fuss surrounding the precocious schoolgirl.

"Ja'mie's been asked to do lots of TV appearances and sitting next to Kerri-Anne (Kennerley) and Bert (Newton)," said Lilley.

"There's lots of crazy offers to do weird celebrity wrestling and strange things like that.

"I (also) have a couple of people wanting to do Ja'mie movies."

Lilley, who struggled to get We Can Be Heroes on air for a long time before the ABC picked it up, says he had doubts about whether to go ahead with the Ja'mie role.

"Because I just thought it was going to be too disturbing for people to see me playing a younger girl and the sleepover scene and all that sort of stuff," he said.

"But people just go along with it.

"They don't really think it's a guy."

There has been a similar response to other characters from the show, including twin brothers Daniel and Nathan, from the fictional town of Dunt in South Australia.

In the program Daniel donated his eardrum to his hearing-impaired brother in a world first transplant operation.

Lilley recalls an incident while walking down the street last week.

"These two guys… they were talking about me as if I wasn't there," the actor said.

"They started impersonating Daniel and Nathan… .

"It was just weird that they could access these quotes (from the show) straight away."

Not that Lilley can talk—the comedian also is in demand after doing We Can Be Heroes.

So in demand that he gets mobbed by grandmothers and teenage girls—something which upsets his girlfriend.

"She's fine with the old ladies," Lilley said.

"It's the teenage girls that go `I wanna hug you' that she gets a bit funny about."

The actor, currently working on a book and CD for the series, says he didn't expect the show to be such a hit.

"I had to pretend `oh yeah it's going to be the next Kath and Kim'," he revealed.

"But deep down I really thought it was going to be small."

However, he says there is danger of doing too much with the characters.

"I've actually been asked to do lots of appearances, but I've been saying no to heaps of things because I don't want to wreck it," Lilley said.

"I don't want it to undermine the reality of the characters."

The comedian says there are plans for another series of We Can Be Heroes—although Ja'mie and the others won't be making a return appearance.

Instead, he has written five new heroes.

"Because of the logic of the series it kind of doesn't make sense that you would keep pursuing Ja'mie," Lilley explained.

"As much as people say I'd love to see more of those characters, I think you'd tire of it if you saw another series of them."

However, audiences will have to wait a while to meet the new Australian of the Year nominees.

Lilley is first planning to do a new show based around a high-school drama teacher called Mr G, a role he played on the Seven Network comedy shows Big Bite, and Hamish and Andy.

"I'm hoping we can start shooting really early next year," Lilley said, adding he hoped the ABC would pick up the show.

September 23, 2005

Brave art of comedy

CHRIS Lilley is challenging a worrying trend in Australian TV comedy production.

Though Comedy Inc: The Late Shift still screens on Channel 9, the axe has fallen on other comedy shows that have struggled to rate or been affected by creative fatigue.

Let Loose Live, Big Bite, Eagle and Evans, Hamish and Andy and SkitHOUSE have all bitten the dust, illustrating how hard it is to make audiences laugh.

If anyone can play a major part in restoring our faith in locally produced comedy, it's Lilley, who gave us glimpses of brilliance on Big Bite and Hamish and Andy.

Lilley made an impact as Extreme Darren, a skateboard riding stunt performer who endured more bumps and bruises than Wile E. Coyote.

Another Lilley creation, hopelessly inept drama teacher Mr G, is also well known to Lilley fans. Quietly spoken Lilley, who has a talent for immersing himself in both male and female characters, takes on the massive task of playing six people in his self-penned ABC comedy We Can Be Heroes.

The show takes a tongue-in-cheek look at society's obsessive search for heroes.

Narrated by Jennifer Byrne, it charts the stories of Australians who have made the shortlist to represent their state for the title of Australian of the Year.

The show exposes not only the heroics and courage of those in line for the title but also their many failings.

Lilley, who began his performing career in university revues, hopes a strong visual sense and an ability to write character-based comedy will attract an audience.

The five special Aussies nominated for the Australian of the Year Award are Brisbane cop Phil Olivetti, physics genius Ricky Wong, charity-minded schoolgirl Ja'mie King, country teenager Daniel Sims and Perth mother of two Pat Mullins.

Asked how he feels about the show going to air, Lilley confesses he's nervous.

"It's as if I've done an assignment that I'm happy with. I've handed it in, and now all I can do is sit back and wait for the ratings and reviews.

"I try not to think about all this too much, but it is pretty scary."

Lilley studied the mannerisms, language and motivations of real people to create characters for his show.

Creating Ja'mie involved visiting a private school to interview high-achieving students.

Lilley went to see motivational speakers to structure policeman Phil, and there's a fair bit of Lilley's mother in housewife Pat.

"I just wanted to play characters that come across as real.

"I want it to be funny but also to make people feel a bit uncomfortable."

By Darren Devlyn
July 27, 2005
The Herald Sun

Newest heroes

CHRIS Lilley has a split personality—in fact, he has six.

Through his kooky alter egos, TV's newest funnyman is being credited with becoming the next Kath and Kim.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the six characters—in the curiously titled We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year—are being quoted in schoolyards and lauded by the critics.

In the six-part ABC parody narrated by former 60 Minutes reporter Jennifer Byrne, the 30-year-old has capitalised on Australia's penchant for sending up cringeworthy dags.

And his most quotable character, Ja'mie King, a schoolgirl who sponsors 85 Sudanese children, has all the makings of a cult icon.

Ja'mie ranks the children in a top 30 in the spirit of Australian Idol (but according to their appearance), pulls sponsorship if they don't write to her for three months and goes on the 40-Hour Famine each week to lose weight. Lilley has caused a storm when impersonating Ja'mie on radio, with listeners flooding stations JJJ and Nova with complaints—unaware she was a spoof.

The characters are so not politically correct—and that's exactly why viewers love them.

A little-known comedian whose TV experience was limited to Channel 7's Hamish and Andy and Big Bite, Lilley is fast adjusting to his new following.

The 30-year-old from Sydney, who studied teaching and music at university, admits it is strange to hear people impersonate his characters on the street.

"I was in a high school doing research for another show and there were students yelling out 'Ricky Wong' and doing impersonations of Ja'mie," he said.

Despite its cult following, the show is still a sleeper.

It is hovering around 70,000 Adelaide viewers, compared with House on Channel 10 with about 160,000 and Seven's Blue Heelers with about 130,000.

Lilley is the one-man production team behind the show—he writes, acts and co-produces with Kath and Kim's Laura Waters.

He says he was inspired for the "mockumentary" by wanting to shock, as well as looking at the "ridiculous" achievements in the list of nominees for the Australian of the Year awards.

"I wanted to play with taboos, make people a little bit uncomfortable, but not in a mean-spirited kind of way," he said.

"I was probably nervous about having to fight the battles. I knew people would find it offensive, misinterpret it.

"I know it's a really scary time to put a comedy out when so many have failed." The son of a nurse and pharmacist, Lilley spent time in Victorian private schools interviewing and observing girls as part of his research for Ja'mie.

"I wanted to make sure I got the language right, all the popular culture references," he said.

"Lots of mums have said to me they have daughters like Ja'mie."

And how does he play a female so convingingly radio listeners cannot tell he is a male?

"I always used to dress up as my teachers at school and put on little plays—they loved it," he said.

While no one would mistake Lilley for Asian, his performance as Ricky Wong, a Chinese-Australian physics student who harbours a desire for a career on the stage, is equally outstanding.

He said the character had been embraced by the Chinese community, many of whom volunteered to be extras in the show. But Lilley most enjoys playing SA drongo Daniel, a teenager who lives on a farm and donated his eardrum to his twin, Nathan. While loathe to liken the show to Kath and Kim, he said its stars Jane Turner and Gina Riley were fans.

"They have given me tips on how to deal with it, just saying it's a bit overwhelming, when it (a show) works, it can be scary."

Another daunting experience was playing six characters—including twins—in the one show.

"On the weekends I would have to borrow costumes and wigs and get dressed up, and walk around home talking like the characters because it was so full-on swapping between them," he said.

"My apartment looks into the windows of others, so I must've looked quite a sight."

The final episode screens on August 31 at 9pm.

By Elissa Doherty
August 22, 2005
Sunday Mail (SA)