Talking to Chris Lilley about Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, and We Can Be Heroes

Subtlety is probably not what you’d expect from a comedian who trades in fat suits and black face, but it’s the medium in which Australian funnyman Chris Lilley works. Instead of painting his wacky characters with broad strokes, in his past three shows —  We Can Be Heroes in 2005, Summer Heights High in 2008, and Angry Boys which premiered January 1st — and for the past six years, Chris Lilley has breathed specificity into characters who, without their invented idiosyncrasies, would be little more than tired stereotypes.

The laughs are in the details. As with Judd Apatow’s best characters (The 40-Year-Old virgin doesn’t just ride a bike, he uses hand signals), Chris Lilley’s are fully formed. We meet Angry Boys’ S.mouse, an American rapper of dubious origins — the progeny of gimmicky ring tone rappers like 2007’s Soulja Boy — and learn that he’s not just a phony, but had a Broadway phase and wore those horrible transitions lenses in high school. Juvenile prison warden, Gran, isn’t just a politically incorrect hard ass; she raises a colony of guinea pigs and distributes hand-sewn, off-brand superhero pajamas to her charges.

These people are ridiculous, but they could be real. Lilley’s characters — in all of his shows — are ambitious to a fault. They view common decency only through the lens of how it will bolster their own images, think or wish themselves more significant than they will ever be, believe their own self-generated hype, and only in his most recent show Angry Boys are these clowns forced to confront their absurdity. And that’s what makes this project so special.

I had the chance to talk with Chris Lilley about his work leading up to the creation of Angry Boys, what goes into writing these characters, and how he’s responded to criticisms of racial and cultural insensitivity.

From their start in We Can Be Heroes, Nathan and Daniel have had a love for rap music — the beat boxing, the dog named Ja Rule — and in Angry Boys, we get to see that explored with S.mouse and his influence on Nathan. Was S.mouse a character you had in mind from the beginning? And did the boys’ interests dictate many of the characters you created for Angry Boys? They seem to all orbit around Daniel and Nathan’s interests.

Yeah. Well I really wanted to bring Daniel and Nathan back for this one. I interviewed so many young teenagers and I like to do a lot of research and go around and meet those actual types of people. And I just noticed that they had posters of rappers all over their walls and I thought wouldn’t it be awesome if I could jump into the poster on the wall and take us off to that world and become that character. It was probably during Summer Heights High I started thinking about Angry Boys and I thought ahhh this would be really cool if I could do that. Which is a big difference from We Can Be Heroes which is much more about suburbia and small things and people in their living rooms, whereas this show which took us to… things were on a much bigger scale and I was really excited about that.

Right. Because even though none of your shows are explicitly connected, each seems to grow the idea of the last: We met Ja’mie at Hillford in We Can Be Heroes and then in Summer Heights High saw her out of her comfort zone in a public school. Then Summer Heights High went from being set in an insular high school environment to Angry Boys spanning three continents. How do you decide what the next step is with your characters and settings from project to project?

It’s sort of just how I’m feeling at the end of the last project. After Summer Heights High where I’d recycled… like Mr. G was actually a character from another show I’d done from before We Can Be Heroes which was like a sketch comedy show. So Ja’mie and Mr. G were old characters I was really excited about bringing together and Jonah was the only new character. So at the end of Summer Heights High, I felt like I’d really restricted myself. It was all very contained and in a school and it really excited me to do something on a really big scale and not have those boundaries I’d given myself. So usually at the end of each show there’s a moment of getting excited about where to go with the next thing.

A lot of the charm of your shows — here in America, at least — is JUST HOW AUSTRALIAN they are, with slang like povo and bogan and ranga. I’ve heard you had this option before, but could you ever see translating these shows specifically for an American audience?

I think it’s just… I write by myself and I have no one to answer to and I get to create these things in a really small environment. And I think there’s something really cool about that and the lack of interference from other people. And it doesn’t really appeal to me to kind of rehash something and translate it to another country. I think the shows work in America anyway. And they might not be as big as something on NBC that has American famous people in it. But it’s just a much more pure thing and more real. And you can only spend so much time doing something and I’d much rather work on creating these kinds of shows and my own characters and stories than sort of be stressing about with a team of writers. It just doesn’t excite me as much.

In We Can Be Heroes, one of the Sims kids says he wants to “get Dunt on the map” after Daniel’s Australian of the Year nomination. In countries where Angry Boys has already aired, I’ve seen that fans of the show are wearing I heart Dunt merchandise and screaming NATHAN to you on the street. How do you think Dunt’s fictional residents would feel about all of this notoriety?

It’s awesome. It’s just ridiculous how big that’s become. And I know that this show really worked in the UK and I’ve heard these reports from music festivals of people on stage and the audience yelling Nathan. And the “I love Dunt” t-shirt’s been one of the biggest selling thing from the shows in Australia. It’s cool. But Dunt’s not a real place. Obviously it’s completely made up, so it’s really strange that it’s known around the world — at least among the fans.

You make a lot of your characters horrible and loveable at the same time. Gran’s gotchas and Mr. G’s Annabel Dickson musical are just tasteless, but somehow you still like the characters. Why do you think people find this kind of behavior and duality so funny?

I think they’re pretty innocent characters. They say and do nasty things — but especially when they do their one on one documentary interviews — you get exposed to the real them. And Gran particularly is pretty naïve and is such a nurturing and caring person underneath even though she says the most horrible things. But she’s not all that clever. I think you forgive her because you get to see the real her. Same with Mr. G. He’s just a bit stupid. He thinks he’s so great and is only just looking after himself. He never actually intends any harm on anyone else. He just wants to show off in his little school world.

Probably Jen in Angry Boys is the meanest, most awful I’ve ever done. That was intentional. I wanted someone who would just eat Ja’mie alive. Even worse that her. Nasty, exploiting her own son and just being awful.

Even before Angry Boys explored the humor in masculinity, a lot of your characters struggled with this issue — Jonah’s DICKtations in Summer Heights High, Phil Olivetti’s competition with his own son in We Can Be Heroes — and it’s even more in your face in Angry Boys with the GayStyle penis merchandise and Blake. What made you revisit this theme?

Yeah! I just find it funny… that’s the main thing. I don’t know why, but I just find it interesting. It’s something that I notice a lot. A character like Blake — he makes out that he’s this big tough guy and this legendary character in Australian surfing history. And then it’s a nice idea for the documentary to expose that he’s not all that tough and he’s caught up in his childhood and he can’t move on. It’s just an interesting thing to me and it opened up a lot of stuff that I found fascinating. And it encroaches on all the characters — like S.mouse and his sort of lame hip hop music that he puts out and then him trying to create something to make him seem a bit tougher. It’s just a thing I really like.

Slap Your Elbow is clearly intentionally ridiculous, but it charted in Australia — and Mr. G’s musical scores were pretty catchy. Will we see some purely musical comedy from you with your next project?

I love doing the music! But it’s always the secondary thing. It’s always about what’s funny — creating characters and writing really funny stories is much more interesting to me but I always manage to creep a bit of music thing in there. After I’d done the Mr. G musical thing, I thought I have to leave the musical theatre thing alone for a while. And to do something so vastly different like American hip hop was so exciting for me.

I’m not sure what I’m doing next. I have lots of ideas and I’m sure some music will creep in there as well.

And it’s funny because when I was younger, I really wanted to be a musician and had this vision of being a singer-songwriter pop star. And to actually be in the charts in Australia as a black man and a gay drama teacher is quite ridiculous.

Mr. G started as a stand-up character. How did he make the transition from stage to screen?

I used to do Mr. G in stand up a LONG time ago — I’d set him up and then I’d become him. And I’d talk to the audience as if they were the students. Then a friend of mine came and saw it and said why don’t we go out to a school and film you talking as the character. So we spent a day out in a — we didn’t even have permission to be in a school — we were just walking around the playground with him and a handicam. And I just started doing a documentary where I was talking and leading him around — sit down, do an interview — and we cut it together and it was 15 minutes and sooo rough. We sent it to a television network and they got back and said We love this thing and are actually doing a sketch comedy show and we want you to recreate this but for television.

So I joined the cast of this show just out of the blue. All of a sudden, I was on television doing a sketch show recreating all the Mr. G stuff. It became these mini mockumentary segments every week. And after We Can Be Heroes, I thought I have to bring back Mr. G. So that’s how he evolved — which actually is how my whole interest in the mockumentary style… it came from that.

So when you went to this school, the kids you talked to obviously weren’t prepared and didn’t know what was going on and I know it’s not VERY different on the actual shows. How informed are the people you’re playing against? Because I know a lot of them aren’t professional actors and a lot of the moments when your characters have said something horrible to them seem genuine.

It’s the most exciting thing. It’s a really long process to cast these people because you have to find really interesting people can handle these situations. A lot of trained actors overthink it and give away the game too much. Whereas real people… it’s harder in a way because they don’t always give you what you want. It’s risky. But you end up with these moments. Like the woman who played the principal in Summer Heights High was actually a real principal from a local school. She came in and was kind of difficult to deal with. She’d turn up late or have a meeting to go to and disappear in the middle of a scene. She never remembered her lines. She just put them down on the desk in front of her and would read them and say them back to me. And you’re like OH This is never going to work. But you get these magic moments like This is really happening. This is not an actor.

It’s so exciting. And I love being a character where they’ve got a bunch of peers like Jonah and his friends and Ja’mie and her friends and Daniel and his friends. And I get to be in amongst a group of the real thing.

And it is scripted, so it’s carefully planned to cover all the material to tell the story — but then it’s expanded upon and changes every single time. We do a thing where we don’t rehearse the scene. The reason is there’s two cameras that have to chase the action so whatever happens, they have to behave instinctively which gives it a real documentary feel.  Rather than cameras that are preempting things and whip to a door before someone walks in — so little things like that.

Tons of your characters say and do terrible things to kids. How do you get away with this on set with the underage actors?

Well we actually had some difficulty with that with Angry Boys. With Summer Heights, they changed some of the child welfare rules, but for Angry Boys… we had representatives from child welfare visiting the set. It was really hard.

I MEAN — we’re not trying to do the wrong thing by the kids. We made sure they were up for it and the parents read the script and knew what would happen. Then we have to kind of throw the script out of the window and I end up saying things to kids that I probably shouldn’t have said. But it’s harmless and all a part of the show and the kids thought it was hilarious.

It’s funny. There are scenes where I’m punching the kids and pushing them around and being physically rough with them — and it’s not in in the script so no one really questions. But when you’re on set, things just happen. But everyone’s happy. No one gets hurt.

You’ve been criticized for your lack of political correctness — particularly the blackface you don to play S.mouse — but you’ve also played a Chinese guy, a Tongan student, and a Japanese mother. Why do you continually choose characters and subject matter to which people will almost definitely react sensitively?

I’m more interested in the character in the story and I know that most fans ignore the negative stuff that’s written. I’m not drawn to it because it’ll provoke people. A character like S.mouse — it’s because the boys [Daniel and Nathan] are into rap and it’s such an interesting world to me. Being able to show this character who’s exposed as a fraud at home with his family. The joke is not that he’s black; it’s about the music industry and that youth culture.

It’s very interesting that I got criticized mostly for that character but no one said anything about me playing an awful Japanese woman being inappropriate. In Australia, it’s apparently okay to do Asian impressions, but not anything else. It’s strange. My whole thing is that I do multiple characters and surprise people with these very different types of characters, so why is it offensive for me to do anything other than a white Australian? It’d be very limiting.

Your characters seem to share this big gap between who they think they are — or who they want people to think they are — and who they really are… and the documentary format does a great job of exposing this disparity. How important is it to you to keep coming back to these kinds of almost delusional characters?

I really love it. For me that’s the whole joke of that thing. I feel it’s very interesting that within the mockumentary style… that exposure. Because they behave a certain way when they’re being interviewed and another when the camera is spying on them. And then the way that the fictional editor has put it together points out other things and I find all the layers of that really interesting. And a lot of documentaries do tend to focus on delusional people — and it’s a documentary style to find an interesting person and use that juxtaposition of the interview versus the real stuff to expose them.

I’m certainly not bored with that format yet. I love it. I love the boundaries of that style. When I’m writing the script, there’s a lot of things I want to do in the story and can’t — like why would the documentary be there for that and why would that person react like that in front of the documentary?

It’s been said that Angry Boys is more dramatic than your past series, though there have certainly been heartfelt moments in your other shows — Jonah’s emotional departure with the Gumnut cottage teacher was a favorite. What prompted you to go a bit more serious with this show?

It wasn’t really a planned thing. It just evolved that way. It was pretty instinctive. Another thing — sometimes something on the page, you don’t realize how dramatic it is until you shoot it and put it together. There are some things – like when Gran gets the young Aborginal boy to speak for the first time. On the page, it seems like a fine little twist at the end, but when it happened, it had the crew crying. His performance and the relationship between him and Gran… you can’t see that when you read the script. So, it just strangely evolved into being quite dramatic. Towards the end of the series…

WAIT! I HAVEN’T SEEN IT!

Oh! Okay! Well, the last few episodes surprisingly got a lot of tears in Australia. It’s funny as well. But I like the idea of extremes — laughing one minute and crying the next. And it’s the biggest compliment that people are invested enough in the characters and the stories that they’re crying — when it’s just me in a fat suit and a wig. That’s pretty cool. It’s interesting how it’s gone more in that direction.

Rebecca O’Neal is a freelance writer in Chicago trying to be a full time writer maybe not in Chicago, but… you know how that kind of thing can be. Her mother is very concerned.

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