Chris Lilley says he doesn’t set out to be offensive. The 39-year old Australian comedian may be known for the foul language, and homosexual and racial slurs of his characters, but he insists that it’s all part of the creative process.
“You don’t know until you create something, and that’s when you make those decisions,” he explains.
“I like the shows to be really confronting and a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s not like ‘Oh, how can I be as un-PC as possible?’”
That said, things don’t get much more un-PC than arguably Lilley’s most popular character, foul-mouthed Polynesian troublemaker Jonah. The wannabe breakdancer’s sullen disrespect for authority and hatred of “rangas” (red-haired fellow students) in 2007’s Summer Heights High made him a hit in the UK, and are sure to bring a faithful audience to the character’s new series Jonah From Tonga.
Not one for resting on his laurels, Lilley’s last series Ja’mie: Private School Girl only finished airing in the UK a few weeks ago (late last year in Australia), but he’s already glad to be back playing Jonah.
“It’s so fun. It’s easy in that I love doing it, I love writing for the character and I love playing the character. It’s pretty tricky to put together, but jumping back in is so fun.”
Fans seeking to jump back into Jonah’s world themselves are in for a treat, but despite his shows’ high profile in the UK, Lilley remains unmoved by our comedy scene.
In fact, he rarely sees comedy at all he says, preferring to watch the kind of reality TV that echoes his mockumentary format. Eventually, he remembers one influence from our shores.
“Ricky Gervais’ stuff, I’ve seen all that, that’s all great. I really like Derek.”
Lilley also thinks that despite recent waves over the lack of women involved in the UK comedy scene, the situation is even worse in his homeland.
“I fit the stereotype of someone who’s gonna get their own show,” he points out. “White guy. I can’t think of any of their names, but there’s much more female stuff here I think, than in Australia.”
Of course, Lilley has been accused of some discrimination himself. In a previous series, Angry Boys, Lilley portrayed a black American rapper in full makeup, which caused some criticism from the Australian Herald Sun and members of the rap community. Lilley remains blasé on the subject, and insists that the whole incident was overblown.
“I don’t read a lot of reviews and stuff, but someone told me there was an Australian article that tried to stir up some issue.” he says. “I don’t think that was a real thing.”
However, a recent article by Morgan Godfrey in The Guardian (that ran after the time of interviewing) again accused the comic of racism. The article likened Lilley’s makeupped, wigged performance as the Polynesian Jonah to a “modern minstrel show”, offensive no matter what the satirical or comedic intention.
Lilley would not agree; for him, such qualms are limiting to his creative process – provided it was for a good reason, he thinks any character is on the table.
“It’s hard to go, ‘oh well I’d never tackle…I dunno, aboriginal people’ or something. There are no rules, it’d just be a case-by-case thing,” he says.
Whatever he tackles next (and he’s not sure what that is yet), he’s emphatic about one thing – it won’t be predictable.
“I just focused on these two shows, and then don’t have any plans for something next. I love doing them, and I reckon I won’t be able to stop doing it,” he says.
“But it’s not fun for me to just deliver what’s expected – it’s fun for me to surprise people.”
Jonah From Tonga starts at 10pm on Thursday 8 May on BBC3