I met Chris Lilley on Tuesday. I shook his hand and simultaneously thought two things. One, ‘crikey those are the greenest human eyes I have ever seen’ – it was literally like shaking hands with a dragon and two, ‘this stranger, whose hand I’m allowed to hold for the next 2 seconds, is someone who really sees people’. Well of course he would with eyes like that, but the television programmes he has made so far are the most sophisticated example of pathos we’ve seen since Charlie Chaplin.
Hugely successful for years in Australia and lately in the UK and America, We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High and Angry Boys are comedy series written by Lilley and in which he stars as all the major characters. Young, old, male, female, black, white, Asian and everything in between – each one of the characters is a total work of art. Sophisticated, complex and yet beautiful in their simplicity, each is a fully rounded, utterly believable, vulnerable, loathsome, loveable creation of humanity and woven expertly into a script where you will laugh at them, with them and then cry for them all at the same time.
Lilley is obviously a professional people-watcher and what he’s produced with these shows clearly represent 1000s of hours of observation, research, thinking, writing and editing. The result is so realistic that to say this is good TV would be like saying Fred Astaire was good at dancing or Frank Sinatra was alright at singing a song like he meant it. This is fabulous TV. Comedy at its very best.
When analysing the success of these shows, it’s heartening to note that people must be getting it. I mean really getting it. Sure, there will be people who shout ‘Nathan!’ into Chris’s face in the street, people who will download ‘Animal Zoo’ and listen to it thinking, ‘you know I really should get to a zoo’ and people who will scrawl ‘dicktation (just imagine the picture for the sake of the argument)’ onto their school books, but on the whole, people are enjoying the shows I think because it causes them to have the paradoxical feeling of escaping from reality by confronting it. Lilley plays with all the big ones like racism, homophobia, disability, prejudice, discrimination, but also has a point to make on just about everything else. It’s as if collectively the audience is shown something familiar, shocked by it, amused and then all give each other a big virtual hug and carry on with their lives, maybe feeling just a little bit more in the know.
From what I’ve read, Lilley seems somewhat surprised by his success and personal popularity. He doesn’t want the fame and possibly thinks what he’s done by making shows which are essentially just about people isn’t all that unusual a thing. Everyone loves a reluctant hero though so I don’t think his appeal is going to wane any time soon.
I’m glad I met him. I couldn’t help feeling afterwards like I wished he was my friend and I don’t think I was the only one..