Spastic. Faggot. Retard. Wop. Are you already tittering away at those words before you know the context, because they’re just intrinsically funny? Then Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s new series, Angry Boys – which starts tonight on BBC3 at 10:40pm – is the show for you!
Lilley won fans here in 2008 with Summer Heights High, a comedy set in a school, shot in a faux-documentary style but featuring Lilley in all the main roles. I found its chortling “un-PC” style (in the final episode, a camp, catty drama teacher ended up casting a boy with Down’s syndrome in a musical) crass and tedious. Plenty of viewers disagreed.
Surely, though, Angry Boys will turn off even Lilley’s biggest fans. An even lazier and less sophisticated beast than Summer Heights, it’s built on a simple idea: that people being racist, homophobic, crude and cruel is hilarious.
Lilley’s belief that he is a gifted character actor again leads him to take all the most prominent parts. He’s teenage twins Dan and Nathan (previously seen in Lilley’s 2005 series We Can Be Heroes): Dan likes to taunt his stepfather, Steve, for being placid, and his brother Nathan for being deaf. “Faggot!” says Dan, hiding his mouth behind a magazine.
Lilley is also the boys’ grandmother, known as “Gran” in the young offenders’ institute where she’s a fearsome warden. She plays practical jokes such as falsely telling kids they’re about to be let out, and baits the black and Aboriginal inmates.
The case for the defence would be that Lilley’s characters are unsympathetic. He’s laughing at, not with. OK. But the reason most comic writers avoid this area isn’t that they’re not as brave as Lilley – it’s that they know it basically isn’t funny. You need a lot of careful work to make it so. You need to make a point, otherwise you’ve got Curry and Chips, not Til Death Us Do Part.
Angry Boys barely even tries. Long stretches of it are just the naughty words. Even if you accept that Lilley is saying “Look at these awful people”, I don’t know why that would be funny.
If he’s saying “Isn’t it funny when ignorant/eccentric people say embarrassing, offensive things?”, my answer would be: not really. It still isn’t funny if it’s filmed in a documentary style and is thus ironic, postmodern or whichever other adjective you want to misuse.
Lilley can even ruin things you thought couldn’t be made unfunny. Swearing, for instance. Swearing is one of my favourite things in life, but there’s so much of it in Angry Boys – again, just ladled on willy-nilly, if you’ll pardon the expression – that it becomes boring within minutes.
In its best moments, Angry Boys rises above gratuitous offensiveness, upping its game to be simply dull. Gran has relatively subtle quirks like singing karaoke and keeping guinea pigs. Underneath it all she’s compassionate towards the young offenders and to Dan and Nathan in their regular Skype chats. But these things are just thrown on in the hope that they’ll turn her into a character.
Presumably there’ll be a stab at humanising Lilley’s creations later on in the run, as there was towards the end of Summer Heights High. But seeing that would involve sitting through further episodes, so I’ll have to miss out.
Here’s a clip (warning: contains, well, the things described above…):