If you have any form of social media, it is highly likely that you will know exactly what Summer Heights High is and who the most meme-worthy character, perhaps of all time, Ja’mie is. While out of context snippets may be funny or #relatable, behind this humour birthed from the socially outdated mind of ‘comedian’ Chris Lilley lie darker themes. Lilley has made a comeback with his new show ‘Lunatics’, which despite being rejected by TV stations in Australia, on the basis of not wanting to work with him, was taken on by Netflix. Having faced heavy criticism in the past for a wide range of insults, notoriously including black-face and casual racism, one would think his new show would be subject to a fine-tooth comb. Yet Lilley’s humour is as misguided and socially unacceptable as ever, more ostentatious than Paris Hilton herself.
When I started watching the show I was only peripherally aware of Lilley’s reputation, but not educated enough to have formed an opinion. With an open mind and family-sized bag of popcorn, I started watching the series. Admittedly, I often have quite a niche sense of humour and am victim to cheap gags and basic comedy. Some of his lines did land, some of the characters made me laugh and occasionally I was entertained. However, in order for this to happen I found myself enduring frequent moments of mind-numbing cringing, ignoring casual sexism, homophobia and jokes about mental health and the drastic lowering of my social standards. Much of his humour represented a hurtling regression back through decades of societal restructuring, showcasing a heart-breaking involution of progression towards humour that does not rely on ridicule. To start with, I gave the show the benefit of the doubt, defending it as social commentary and a demonstration of the perils of social media and the residual flaws of humanity, this could not be upheld for long. There is a place for this form on social commentary, in which comedy is used to portray an exaggerated demonisation of lingering perpetuators of outdated social norms and ideologies. However, for this to have merit it requires the demonisation of the demons, not the victims or the less advantaged.
Lilley is able to portray a plethora of distinctive characters with flair that makes you forget it is him. It is easy to overlook the fact that an adult man is harassing young girls, dressed at as a 12-year old in a fat suit, or a portraying a former porn star who has developed a hoarding addiction. The characters in Lunatics may be diverse but they share a common theme; they are the people who are disadvantaged, ridiculed or outcast by society either currently or historically. His attempt, if it is one, at social commentary fails miserably due both to a lack of genuine comedy and to an outrageous display of insensitivity and ignorance. While some of the characters occasionally say or do something funny, at which I won’t apologise for laughing, the value of this is drowned out by the rest of it. Inadvertently, Lilley’s writing, directing and producing has manifested one of the most important social commentaries of late; people with a mind-set like Chris Lilley’s unfortunately still exist.