Australian actor and writer Chris Lilley is back with a new show made especially for Netflix, but its already ruffled a few ‘woke’ feathers, writes Phumlani S Langa.
Available on Netflix SA
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Australian comedy heavyweight Chris Lilley is finally back with a new series.
As we’ve seen in his previous shows – the lauded Summer Heights High (2007), Angry Boys (2011), Ja’mie: Private School Girl (2013) and Jonah from Tonga (2014) – Lilley uses sharply observational humour to depict the old and young.
In Lunatics, he plays six different characters: a 5m-tall college student from Australia; an eccentric fashion designer with a rare condition known as objectophilia; a real estate agent jock; a former porn star; and a “lit” teenager called Gavin, who’s in line to be the earl of an illustrious estate in England.
However, the stand-out character is Jana Melhoopen-Jonks, a Cape Town pet psychic who works with some of the biggest celebrities in South Africa. She has a big perm and is making big bucks with her ability to convince rich people that she can talk to their pets.
But Lilley’s shows do not come without controversy. Angry Boys saw him play a character called S.mouse – an African-American teen rapper – in blackface. Inspired by the likes of Soulja Boy, S.mouse burst on to the scene with a viral dance hit called Slap My Elbow. Unfortunately, he’s unable to recreate the success of his first song, resulting in follow-up flops like a song called Squashed Nigga.
Lilley has also played Pacific Island teenager Jonah Takaluah in brownface. On the release of Jana’s image for the show, some accused Lilley of making Jana transracial, saying that her perm was an Afro.
“It’s 100% blackface, 100% an Afro and 100% racist AF. Chris Lilley is tone-deaf and not funny,” said one.
Another person said: “I also used to defend Chris Lilley for doing brownface and blackface, I am fully admitting that, but I’ve grown as a person and realised that it’s never okay and makes a mockery of multiple marginalised groups.”
However, I see nothing wrong with Jana – she’s a white Afrikaans tannie with a large perm and not an Afro.Lilley’s South African accent is on point and Jana’s backstory with her roots in Zimbabwe and her missing aardvark had me in stitches.
I’m a twisted dude, so I thought S.mouse’s track Squashed Nigga was a bit funny. I know rappers just like S.mouse who are wack but try so hard to say something, and it ends up sounding a lot like this track. I prefer an outlook shared by people like Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover. If we’re really so touched about people using our likeness and culture to make money, we could quite easily flip that, like he did in the first season of the hit show Atlanta. I’d rather that than assume the role of the powerless victim.
When trying to make people laugh, you always run the risk of offending some of them. The comedic landscape everywhere is changing rapidly. Can you imagine Eddie Murphy performing his set from Delirious today? Not a chance. And Lilley will have to move even further away from humour that takes aim at marginalised groups the way his does.
Lunatics could be viewed as crass, devoid of any class and downright offensive. But I would rather watch volatile programming than completely sanitary viewing. Don’t @ me.