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Chris Lilley on Angry Boys, the Blackface Taboo, and Laughing at His Own Jokes

Chris Lilley.

While Australian comedian Chris Lilley played three distinct characters in his 2008 offbeat cult hit Summer Heights High, the man of many personalities reaches even further in Angry Boys, his new mockumentary series premiering January 1 on HBO. Lilley takes on six different characters, including twin teen boys Daniel and Nathan, who decide to throw a party and invite all of their heroes; Gran, their grandmother and an officer at a boys’ prison; Blake, a slacker surfer; Jen Okazaki, a Japanese Tiger mom who forces her skateboarding son to pretend he’s gay so she can market branded penis-shaped products; and the slightly more controversial S’Mouse, a black rapper from Los Angeles. Yes. Blackface is involved. Vulture chatted with Lilley about not shying away from controversy, the research that goes into his characters, and laughing at his own jokes.

Angry Boys seems more emotional than Summer Heights High. Was that a conscious choice?
Not so much that I sat down and went, Ah, let’s do one to make people cry. It just sort of evolved more instinctively. I was more interested in dramatic stuff when I was putting it together. I think I like the idea of surprising the audience.

Did you have any worries about how American audiences would react to blackface? It’s kind of a huge deal here.
Yeah, and it’s actually a big deal in Australia as well. The idea is that I play multiple characters. That’s what I’ve always done. Part of what I like to do is to push the boundaries and try new things. When I came up with the idea of the boys’ heroes on the wall, I thought, Well, they’re going to be into hip-hop. They’re going to want a rapper to come to their party, so I have to play a black guy. And 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 think once you get through 30 seconds of S’Mouse you realize there’s more to the character than just a blackface joke. Like, obviously that’s not the joke. You see that he’s this vulnerable guy who’s living at home with his dad and he gets exposed by the documentary for not being the big tough guy he’s making himself out to be. There’s a lot more going on. It’s a character. The funny thing is, I played a Chinese student in We Can Be Heroes, I played a Tongan boy in Summer Heights High, and I play a Japanese woman also in Angry Boys, but the only one that people talk about is S’Mouse. It’s kind of funny that there’s only certain races that it’s an issue — yes, it’s that history with blackface — but, I don’t know. There’s no comparison. I think it’s a bit stupid that you would shut yourself off to being able to do that.

Is there anything you wouldn’t tackle in your comedy?
If I thought it was funny, I don’t think I would be scared to do it. I think I’m pretty brave with putting myself out there and looking stupid and doing things that are potentially offensive, but I don’t know. I only like to write about things I know about and am interested in. Religious humor is not really my area, so I probably wouldn’t do anything about that, or politics or something. But, no, there’s no real sort of taboo thing. I’ve already gone far enough with the blackface thing — I can’t go much further.

Gran is also pretty un-PC. She screams some really inappropriate things at the boys.
Yes! Often she does. It’s funny because the boys, quite often they [the actors themselves] didn’t know what I was going to say. And I just said to them, “You have to play along with this. Just remember I’m your boss.” I was saying all these horrendous things to them and they were just trying not to laugh and having to go along with it. I told them if they laughed, I was going to cut them out of the show, so as soon as they’d start laughing they had to hold it together because they wanted to be on TV.

Do you ever make yourself laugh?
Oh yeah, I do! And it’s the worst. When you see it in the bloopers, it looks like, “Oh, he’s having a fun time on set.” But because it’s my show and I’ve written everything, any time I make myself laugh, the crew are like, “Get over yourself.” And you just feel so humiliated because you’ve just been like, “I’ve said the funniest thing ever!”

How much research did you do to prepare for Angry Boys?
Because some of the characters are so far [from my life], like S’Mouse and Jen, I like to read a lot of books and watch a lot of documentaries and television and reality shows. For this one, I met a whole bunch of Japanese women and talked to them about their kids just to hear what they sounded like and how they interacted. In the end, Jen is such a ridiculous crazy character that it was sort of not that useful because she’s not a typical Japanese woman. I went out into some country towns and hung out with some teenagers. I went to a party just to sort of pick up little things, like what beer they drink, how they interact, a bit of lingo. I met a guy who worked at a prison, and I read lots of books. It was hard to get into a prison. I met heaps of surfers in New South Wales in small towns. It just sort of comes together.

Since your shows are so quotable, do you ever have people coming up to you in inappropriate situations saying your lines back at you?
Yes. All the time. If ever I’m out anywhere, people will come up and they just talk as the characters at me, and then they’re like, “Now you do it.” I get people coming up and they’ll sing a S’Mouse song to me and it’s so awkward. I get a lot of people yelling out “Nathan” at me now. If I’m walking, someone in a car will pass and you’ll hear “Nathan!” That’s pretty cool. People just like to yell out the characters’ names, actually. I’m pretty lucky. I don’t get too many haters.

Chris Lilley on Angry Boys, the Blackface Taboo, and Laughing at His Own Jokes