One of the arguments used to defend Chris Lilley is that he is trying to do social commentary. However, in interviews, Lilley himself has repeatedly said his characters have no deeper meaning, other than he thinks they are funny. Additionally, he acknowledges that they cause harm and that, “That’s the fun bit for me”. Here are some examples:
Steven Mackenzie: Your shows are always set in schools. Are you trying to say something about education? Do you have a message?
Chris Lilley: No, not really.
Steven Mackenzie: Ja’mie and Jonah are dealing with certain issues. Do the shows encourage kids who relate to them to play up or realise they’re not alone?
Chris Lilley: A bit of all of that. It probably encourages kids to be naughtier. Teachers come up to me a lot and say thanks for giving permission for my kids to call me this and swear at me. That’s the fun bit for me.
“It’s not like I’m trying to make any deep social commentary,” says the 36 year old. “These are just characters and situations I find funny. Each one is like a piece of art – a painting that I have created instinctively. The strange part comes when you hand it over for people to look at and they want to pick it all apart to discover the meaning behind it. I’m not sure there is a meaning. Mostly, all I want is for it to be really entertaining.”
Chris Lilley: “Sometimes I feel a little big guilty about the ranga thing. I get angry letters from rangas. And letters from parents whose kids are rangas. So I feel a little bit guilty, but it’s funny and that overrides everything.”
“I just thought, it’s going to provoke people, it’s going to be headlined — and certainly everyone in Australia fell into that trap. It was all over the place, like, ‘Blackface! He’s doing it!’ Like, Australians definitely don’t walk around dressed up in blackface going ‘Ha-ha.’ We’re exposed to American culture and stuff, so we get it. I think I wanted to do it because I thought it was a challenging, new, interesting idea, and mostly I just thought it was a really funny character.”
I wanted to challenge myself, take things to the next level and put myself in some really uncomfortable and full-on situations, like playing a black guy.
Esquire: You’ve been accused in the past of being racially insensitive.
Chris Lilley: Oh yeah.
Esquire: You’ve done characters like a Japanese mother and a black rapper. And some people found it racist. Do you feel misunderstood?
Chris Lilley: I get upset. But I try to block it out. I don’t read a lot of stuff.
Esquire: Like reviews?
Chris Lilley: Or whatever. But you still hear when people get angry. Especially after Summer Heights High. Jonah talked about rangas and redheads, and that’s probably the number-one thing that people were upset about.
Chris Lilley: It’s short for orangutans. I still get a lot of redheads coming up to me, saying, “You’ve made my life hell.” Well, it’s not my fault. People were making fun of redheads before I came along.
Chris Lilley says: A lot of people interpreted him [Jonah] as just a naughty kid, but this time you’re more aware of the culture he’s from and how those kind of kids fit into school in Australia.
”The arrangement is that there’s no input from anyone. The ABC and government funding bodies and HBO are paying for it, and the ABC check for their editorial policies, but I don’t get notes,” Lilley says with some satisfaction. ”HBO have this great policy of finding creative teams and letting them do their thing. They read the scripts and are supportive, but there’s no interference. I’m getting away with it.”