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Is Chris Lilley too funny to be called racist?

TV is sometimes an unforgiving medium. Partly this is because as a society we’re pretty harsh in our judgment of people who appear on it. So when Gerard Healy’s brain explodes during AFL pre-game coverage or when Eddie McGuire’s brain explodes during AFL post-game coverage, we mock, even condemn their actions as unprofessional. When Jeremy Clarkson makes a racist remark on TV that isn’t even live to air, we rightly take him to the cleaners.  But somehow in the midst of all this criticism Chris Lilley gets to make a show in brownface and for the most part we bicker amongst ourselves about whether it’s better than Ja’mie Private School Girl. 

For the sake of argument let’s assume that Jonah from Tonga is the funniest show on TV this year, and that Lilley’s decision to ‘brown up’ rather than playing Jonah without make-up, or casting another actor in the role was taken to further his incredibly astute and nuanced critique of Australian racism.

The main issue here is the lack of outrage over his decision to appear in brownface, regardless of motivation, that would seem to be consistent with our standard reaction to anything even vaguely controversial appearing on TV. We are after all the same society that has been having a reasonably earnest discussion about racism in Game of Thrones.

Maybe Chris Lilley has passed some threshold in our perception of racism, a kind of ‘can’t see the forest for the racial stereotypes’ situation. Are we are so used to examining the half-said, implied racism that we have sadly become somewhat accustomed to that we simply fail to register when something is this obvious?

Regardless of the content of the show, simply by choosing to wear ‘racial drag’ Lilley has put his work in the company of pieces of entertainment history as regrettable as the Al Jolson Minstrel Show. Yet for the most part we seem at peace with one of Australian TV’s favorite sons doing something that we would not, and have not let anyone else get away with.

The Red Faces blackface incident was only in 2009, and obviously that was a different level of racism entirely – but we’ve hardly become more tolerant of racism in the intervening years so explain to me the difference that justifies the polar shift in levels of outrage. We even managed to muster a reasonable reaction when Lilley wore blackface to play S.mouse in 2011’s Angry Boys. What has changed?

All Lilley’s characters are figures of ridicule. They are all deeply flawed human beings that the audience spends most of their time laughing at, not with, and even when it comes to Jonah this is to make a deeper point about the society in which we live, but there are structural problems with portraying a racial stereotype in this way.

Because racial drag is a genre as much as it is a type of make-up or wardrobe, it connects any performer that utilities it with a long, incredibly offensive history of racial exploitation for the purposes of mass entertainment. Many will argue that Lilley’s intent is not simply to profit from racial stereotyping but to criticise Australia’s comfortable racism through satire; that this is the point of all his work. Whether or not this is true, Lilley risks a lot with Jonah, and not for himself. At best, he manages to reach a small portion of the community with a message deeper than ‘people who talk differently to us are funny’; at worst he is actively perpetuating a racial stereotype.

I don’t think we are a nation that is tolerant of racism, especially when it is openly displayed in the media – our track record would certainly support this – but at the same time we seem to have let this slip through the net of public criticism a little too lightly. Of course Lilley should be allowed to be as controversial as he wants to be, but just because somebody is controversial for a living does not mean we quietly chuckle and say ‘Oh Chris…’ when he steps over the line.

97 responses to “Is Chris Lilley too funny to be called racist?

  1. People r freaks. Is Eddie Murphy a racist when he does white guys? Grow up! He does MANY white stereotypes too it is called comedy. What morons!!

  2. What is inherently wrong with a performer wearing make-up to play a character? Nothing. This is different from a performer wearing make-up in order to make fun of a race. It is amazing that Chris Lilley plays a realistic (though obviously exaggerated) young boy in two series. These series, as far as they involve him discuss youth issues in incredibly clever ways. Clinging to race as an issue is a critic’s way of cheaply ignoring what he is really talking about.

  3. Um, where were all these people when Summer Heights High debuted 7 years ago and no one complained and it was a critically acclaimed show. It had Jonah as one of the 3 main characters btw.

  4. Lilley is hilarious, everyone needs to get a life and just run with it, let Lilley take you on a journey of hilarity and drama as you watch Jonah.

  5. It doesn’t really matter what we think – this is what we know.

    abc code of practice
    Section 7
    Harm and Offence

    7.7 Avoid the unjustified use of stereotypes or discriminatory content that could
    reasonably be interpreted as condoning or encouraging prejudice.

    Having read the thread of comments above – there are definitely people who feel this character is a stereotype.

  6. Simply portraying a character of a different race – even if you belong to a dominant race and the character belongs to a minority – is not in itself racist. The context, the intent and the characterisation are critically important to the question of whether a performance is racist. Is “Ja’mie” sexist because Lilley portrays a teenage girl in an exaggerated fashion? – But would that not make all drag queens (not transgendered, only the men who identify as men and cross-dress for fun and to perform) sexist? Meryl Streep doing a shitty Australian accent is then “racist”. Adult actors performing as caricatures of children should be condemmed as “ageist”.
    No action should be deemed as “racist” or “sexist” or any “-ist” just because of it’s technical link to a history that featured discrimination ie brownface. Practices change and develop – ‘queer’ was once the worst of slurs for the LGBTIA community, now it’s a convenient catch-all term. The stealing of rock from black artists was decidedly racist in its time, but white people performing rock today? Music is now understood as culturally pervasive.
    When those labels are applied, they need to be carefully considered because racism and sexism (and ableism, classism, cissexism, heterosexism) do a lot of damage in society so we need to get our terms right and be clear about what counts and what doesn’t. Then we can figure out what to fight against. Something we don’t like that has a racial element to it isn’t necessarily racist.
    Lilley’s is well executed satire, I argue, not racism.

  7. That commenter Mr Starling sounds heaps smart. If you want to read a comment that doesn’t make you blush then read that one. That is the guy who should be writing articles about social justice in Australia. The actual article above it stinks.
    Chris Lilley making a whole show out of that one good skit from his other show was a terrible idea anyway, though. Creatively lazy; very hard work.

  8. The first time I heard the term ranga was when t abbott called j guillard a ranga .to me chris lilleyjonah shows succinctly how nasty politians can create racism . To me the mob of rangas show the complete silliness of all racism

  9. It’s just not funny, simple as that. It’s boring isn’t that clever which at least his earlier shows were (just) . Little Britain worked because it was several clever sketches with its set characters. But imagine if it were just one of these characters drawn out for a whole 30mins ( is it 30 mins long or 1 hour, I found it too tedious to find out). I love the ABC but this show is just bad crap and leading the race to the bottom of poor taste. I cringe that this is Australian comedy paid for by my taxes to reinforce our racist and dumb stereotype image which just damages us internationally. Sure we have to laugh at ourselves all worthwhile cultures do but is this seriously meant to be a portrayal of us? I also don’t get the Tongan angle, I have always found them to be honourable, decent family oriented people. I think ABC management should hang their heads and know better than this.

  10. Did you object when Lilley played Jai’me, accusing him of being biased against women? Do you think Barry Humphries should be criticised roundly for playing Edna Everage? I agree with the feeling that the first program of this series wasn’t really up to dramatic standard but I think Lilley more shows up how off, especially teenage, males can be than Tongans.

    1. The thing with Barry Humohries & those that created proper caricatures they were specific to that particular creation, there’s a big difference between developing a character & lazily stretching out skits that define certain personalities that exist within Western society. j’aime ( his female character) I found far too close to the bone for those who have been bullied & demeaned by this type of personality. Yet this character was still given air time when the reality is that they cause a whole world of misery & hurt to those they bully & torment, these are I would suggest part of the reason why our youth suicide level is so high but yet, the concern is always for the racial issues that sit around the portrayal of certain caricatures, surely these productions need to get their priorities right before they give these shows the go-ahead .

  11. I wish Chris Lilley had appeared wearing bright red budgie smugglers, a baseball cap worn back to front, purple board shorts slung around his knees, large chopsticks sticking out of an inside pocket, a sari wrapped around his head and sporting a Collingwood t-shirt. Then everyone could have trouble working out whose carefully constructed stereotypes on him as being ‘worthy?’ (PC point of view.)

    Does anyone remember Kath and Kim? This was one of the most brilliant depictions of the Australian middle-classes ever to have gone to air. Everything from the repulsive shoes worn by a certain type of man; our preoccupations with places like Target, the hopeless snobbery of the female of the species, tawdry jewellery shops.
    Deadly bridal boutiques, Camberwell market-which does at least have some style. One’s nearest mega-market and some of the appalling food(?) available there.

    Their depiction of the Melbourne Cup was hilarious, with its assorted drunken parties, and deadly clichés was mind bendingly accurate. The annual Christmas drift off to the beach-it was all there. A butcher shop was no longer a butcher shop; our preoccupation with sport. All in all it was the most incisively astute commentary of a ‘Bunning’s customer, a Mitre 10 customer, a pub goer, and a man cooking the BBQ on a sunny afternoon.

    The public loved the show. Clearly they didn’t recognise that they were the ones being lampooned. Which is where Chris Lilley comes back into the equation. To solemnly accuse him of doing blackface denigrates Lilley almost as much as it denigrates the people making the accusation. Using this kind of woeful stupidity the politically correct would have us believe Will Shakespeare was a racist for writing Othello. Was The Moor a cutie pie actor wearing blackface for the audience’s amusement? Or was a a dignified, vulnerable and tragic figure who was having his strings pulled by an evil, evil Iago?

    In case the PCs can’t work it out…There are different races of people on this planet. Some have dark skins, some are light skinned….Are play writers now compelled to have only the fairer skinned people showing the full range of man’s character? Which would mean anyone with a darker skin could only present as perfect, and perfectly boring people.

    Chris Lillie is an artist, not a footy player.

  12. He’s donning brownface and performing a cartoonish mockery of Tongan culture. How is this NOT racist? Lilley could have performed a white fourteen year old with the same ‘behaviour issues’ for the same laughs. I haven’t seen the character/s he plays since a friend persuaded me to watch Summer Heights High and won’t watch this.

    Lilley hides behind the, “oh, but it’s SATIRE” argument.

    If Tongans find this racist? It’s racist.

  13. dare I say it…the public school Jonah attends runs on white middle class rules which Jonah consistently refuses to follow or take seriously…he is a law unto himself…and I think this is what the true “joke” is…Jonah is refusing to be civilised by any authority…Lilley is tepping outside his own ideology by “browning up”…I still can’t stand his private school perspective though…another Barker College alumni…have a look at their list of former students…now that is a good satire…

  14. Caught this on UKs BBC3 last night, and don’t have Lilley’s earlier work to compare.
    “new comedy series” etc blurb caught my attention so decided to give it a try.
    Wish I hadn’t bothered, in the first 10 minutes I think the only thing that even slightly raised the corner of my mouth was the nut shot in his cousins groin before Jonah ran off. But that’s probably more down to just slapstick “The Young Ones” type humour.

    Didn’t find it funny at all, which is probably why it got stuck on BBC in the first place.
    and after starting to feel a bit uncomfortable at the local little kids who were filmed around “Jonah” as he mouthed off – I turned it off.
    Is it rascist? quite likely, but it was also utter crap and I can only wonder how someone thought this would make good viewing

  15. Sir Leigh… it doesn’t really matter what you think as it doesn’t affect you unless you’re Tongan! I have never found Lilley funny and even less now. As a Tongan, I find him and his show quite offensive. At the end of the way, these non-Tongans saying we shouldn’t be offensive blah blah blah… you can have your opinions but please do NOT assume to tell us how to feel about some Australian with no ties to Tonga and our culture brown himself up so he can make fun of us, our youth and culture and then hide behind comedy and satire to disguise it!!!

    1. Im a teenage girl and he satirised the shit out of us with Ja’mie, in fact most of our culture satirises teenage girls – how many times have you seen a guy do a high pitched voice, pout and stick out their chest, pretending to be us and mocking us. People criticise us for wearing revealing clothes and being easy, but then put down girls who aren’t sexually available to guys. Demographically we are some of the least homophobic people in the country, but Ja’mie is horrid to lesbians. She’s a narcissitic bitch and she’s meant to represent us. Was his work with Ja’mie sexist?

  16. Is the Jonah character a vehicle for racism or deliberate insult to Tongan culture? I don’t think so.

    On the contrary, Jonah is a mixed up kid who offends everyone in an intensely juvenile rampage against a world over which he has no control. His childish jokes and graffiti tags that make no sense to anyone other than his peers are classic juvenile humour.

    Lilley takes us to the school yard and exposes all of the immature selfishness and little horrors that pervade all school yards but all along we all know how we want him and his peers to turn out. We want them to find their way through their messy lives and find ways to get on with each other. Whether they do or not is why we’ll go along for the ride because Lilley makes us care about these people (and makes us laugh along the way).

  17. When Britain canned the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ in the sixties though we had finally got ride of the blackface minstrel shows which played a significant role in disseminating racist images, attitudes and perceptions. Chris Lilleys’s unfunny stereotyping of Tongans will only increase prejudice and hostility, towards a very fine group of people. It will take many years before the. Tongan people can rid themselves of this inaccurate stereotype. Shame on you ABC!

    1. The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on BBC TV into the late 70’s during my childhood so where you get any of your information and whether it is relevant is anyones guess.

      Try reading this

      before you make any more inaccurate comments.

      And to be quite honest, as an Englishman, I find the reference to being British extremely offensive.

      Someone who is British could come from England, Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. If you check our British passports, you will find that they are more specific inside as to the actual country you come from.

      Do New Zealanders have Australasian accents because they come from the same continent as Australians…No…….So be a bit more respectful of someone elses heritage.

  18. Let’s face it I watched the first show last night and I’ve never been so disgusted being Australian with a Tongan heritage. Let’s face the facts! The show is definitely a misrepresentative of the Tongan culture! The real concern is not the actors, it’s definitely the writer that you need to question? Since when is every second word swearing, bullying, racial remarks, violence, disrespectful behaviour funny? This show is putting thoughts in today’s teenagers that it’s ok to behave like animals let alone the teacher’s and the father’s characters! I guess we then wonder why teenagers turn to machine guns and shoot everyone down because society has come to a stage that this behaviour is funny or until a gang/group of Tongans bully/smash others or use violence, which happen theses days then it wouldn’t be so funny!
    I would invite the writer to get out of his box and learn about the real Tongan culture to finally write something good and real funny because your foul and derogatory languages in your scripts is not even funny! I’m sure you are an intelligent individual, use that to make a difference in guiding teenagers into a better world! Now if you don’t understand it then happy to give you the truth of what would happen to Jonah in the real Tongan culture!

  19. I think this show demonstrates that blackface is NOT intrinsically racist – nothing is. Context and intent are extremely important, and ignoring them is extremely lazy and rather dumb.

  20. Dear author, please educate yourself about Al Jolson . Jolson was Jewish, being in an ethnic minority, he had somewhat of a poetic licence to do black face & was actually embraced by African Americans. I don’t think we can really compare any black or brown face performances of today to the ones of yesteryear because they are within a totally different time with different attitudes.

    That being said, i didn’t find Jonah funny this time. I loved the original Summer Heights High & i think Lilley got away with alot of un pc humour because there was a diversity of characters wheres this show focuses on one of them & makes us analyze it more. It being unfunny also doesn’t help, its amazing what people can get away with when its genuinely side splittingly funny. Lilley needs some new ideas as its the same thing rehashed, almost as bad as Kath & Kim season 4 on ch7, flogging a dead horse.

    1. jolson ‘had somewhat of a poetic licence to do black face’

      no – no he didn’t. he portrayed blacks as simple-minded ‘sambos’. ‘mammy’ – come on.

      how does being an ethnic minority give you poetic licence to be racist? bear in mind that whites in the US are no longer an ethnic majority – what licence do they have?

  21. It’s incredibly racist for a white person to brown themselves up and pretend to be from a different culture for the amusement of other white people. As you can see in these comments Tongans are very offended by his character as am I.
    And to pull out the card about overzealous PC when these discussions are had is really just very annoying.

    1. anyone who uses the term “PC” is annoying. It’s just a US neo-con way of saying ” I’m all for homophobia, sexism, racism and the glorification of the straight white male and I have invented this little acronym to reintroduce and reassert my bigoted views into contemporary conversation all over again.”. As soon as someone uses it, I just glaze over.

    2. As a stereotypical “White” person, I’m particularly flummoxed by this response. Does this mean that Michael Jackson bleaching himself white is offensive or does the offence only apply when it’s being done by white people?

      The movie “White Chicks” was 2 “Black” men “Whited” up..

      Lenny Henry “Whited” up to make fun of Steve Martin.

      Eddy Murphy has “Whited” up on several occasions too.

      Do any of these things cause offense to “White” people? The answer is NO because people like you only say the opposite is that you can sit in the camp of the self righteous.

      Chris Lilley is simply “Unfunny” no matter what he does and the sooner people stop playing the racism card to defer an argument to what they want people to hear, the better.

  22. As a Sydneysider originally from Tonga, I am highly offended by Chris Lilley’s Jonah of Tonga. It does an injustice to the culture, the people and the nation of Tonga. This is disrespect at its worst and its portrayal of our youth is abusively derogatory. At a time when our young people are struggling to make sense of their identity and to find acceptance within Australian society, the ABC allows this mockery, a stereotype of Tongan youth, that is doing more harm than good. In this country, there is no tolerance for racial vilification and racial discrimination. How is Jonah of Tonga allowed to be screened on Australian television?

    1. Finally…..All white people who have nearly exclusively commented…. Listen to this person. Our family don’t watch the show because it reminds us of the ‘nigger’ comment or the ‘abo’ joke which we are exposed to regularly in Australia. Jonah is depicted as a loser. He is also a white actor who has painted his face black, taking the piss out of a minority within a minority.
      It matters little how deeply you analyse this issue because it needs to be analysed at face value. At the end of the day there is likely to be a child in this country who is vilified because an ignorant person watched the show and decided to act on it. If that happens once then its a tragedy.

  23. If the viewer assumes that Lilley is depicting Tongans, then maybe it’s the viewer that’s racist.

    I don’t see Jonah and think “this is funny because Jonah is a Tongan and Tongans are like this”, I laugh because I recognize many of his traits as exactly what I saw at my school. A school that had no Tongan (or Islander/Maori) students. I’m a typical anglo-saxon white male and I see myself in him. He doesn’t depict Tongan people, he depicts headstrong, self-righteous, teenage boys. The character he adopts has Tongan heritage but that doesn’t define him or make him fundamentally different to a “white” kid.

    Why do people assume he’s a character designed to denigrate? I like him without any feelings of condescension or superiority. Except, perhaps, my feeling that if I took a couple of classes in breakdancing I’d be a hell of a lot better than Jonah is.

    1. I’m with you on the teenage boy thing, but the reason he’s perceived as a stereotype of a Tongan teenage boy specifically is because he has no foil.

      In the series (from what I can remember) Jonah has a group of other Tongan boys who egg him on, but they’re two dimensional, and there aren’t examples of more well behaved students from the same culture. Thus, it comes across as a race issue even if it isn’t intended that way.

    2. Twisting my hair and chewing gum … but like … but like .. but like … but like isn’t it called Jonah from Tonga? (comedy can have a lasting impact)

  24. Wabi,

    your logic is irresolvable. Showing Deference towards the Anzacs is a distinctly different phenomenon from racial entitlement inasmuch as the Soldiers who fought at Gallipoli were comprised of a range of different Ethnicities, Including Indigenous. They are commemorated for meritocratic achievement and sacrifice. Totem such as this is inclusive, whereas genealogical qualifications are separatist –in fact precisely the inverse of entitlement based on genetics. And further, both you and I, and everybody else, accepts ahistorical concepts of and perceptions without thought every day. If we did the opposite in an alternative universe, people everywhere would be jailed for the crimes of their parents, and the descendants of ANZACS would be awarded Medals of Honor despite never having fought to earn them. This plane of existence would be an abomination of Justice. No; the reality of inherited action and criminal responsibility is patently horrific–perverse. It is only in the strange, redefined dimension of race and ethnicity that reason seems to be utterly ejected.

    For example, would you walk up to an Indigenous person in a crowded metro cafeteria, and ask them as to which method is best to shape a spear, or to catch a lizard, how to process toxins from native plants to make these edible, how to start a fire from the dried stems of grass trees? Wouldn’t this be a spectacularly absurd cultural assumption? Why would they know how to do any more of these things than you, when they live and operate and perform in same society as you? You see, here comes the ethical trap; so long as Identity is framed in genetics, it is effectively impossible to view anybody through anything but the lenses of inferential bias–that is, it is impossible not to be racist.

  25. I’d be interested to hear a South Sea Islander’s view on this. It is part of the arrogance of the white person that they feel they can confidently say what is and isn’t offensive to non-whites.

  26. I think that Chris Lilley is the bottom of the barrel
    Why the ABC persists with this garbage is beyond me .
    This is not comedy satire or any other description other than garbage.
    Shame on the ABC

  27. Oh how I agree that its time we agreed that the best people to entertain, stimulate and provoke us are privileged white men. Why have female actor-esses play females when men are so awfully clever and ironic doing that? Anglican british men make for much better jews and arabs – just look at Lawrence Of Britania! Why allow people who are not white men take white male actors jobs? All this political correctness is so awfully embarrassing (while it does allow people like Lob to have a vent which is probably good for his/er mental health) for PLU.
    I love seeing private school boy graduates populate ‘our’ media. The rest of you can off!

  28. The majority of comments posted here are in favour of Lilley’s unique depiction of Jonah – those that have some outdated notion of PC I suggest you get out more. You can always use your remote and allow those of us who can appreciate the talents of Chris Lilley to watch the series in peace.

  29. Do you (anti Lilley types) want Jonah to walk around with an Ocker accent or a plum in his mouth?, (I know you would rather he just go away), I think the real judges of the racism or otherwise should be judged by Tongans, personally I think most would be pissing themselves laughing, although as I don’t know any Tongans I wouldn’t really know. Black comedians can take the piss out of white’s and we can laugh at ourselves, and that probably is a sign of either maturity or sycophantism towards black people. If a person of Scottish descent (say 5th generation Aussie) takes the piss out of Scots is that racism?.

    1. No because Scottish people don’t care who attempts to take the piss because Scottish people are the best in the world at extracting the urine.

  30. “Racist drag” captures it all. I’ll accept Chris Lilley is racist when those who call his performance as such also accept that men pretending to be women are sexist. After all, they almost invariably use the act to exploit a demeaning stereotype of women. In the meantime you can’t consistently condemn the one and not the other.

  31. Minstrel shows dehumanized African Americans by portraying them as brutish buffoons. Chris Lilley’s character honours the experience and humanity of Jonah. I think you’d have to be oversensitive to find this work offensive.

  32. Possibly someone has said this already but Chris Lilley, two shows ago, struck me as someone who had exhausted a fairly small talent bank. Maybe he has come good but I really can’t be bothered finding out. He was never funny and I think it’s stretching a point to describe what he has done as satire or even pathos.

  33. I, too, have reservations about the racist issues, not the least of which is that he has people of Pacific Island background as his fellow characters. Do they not feel at least compromised by the ‘jokes’? Especially, does no-one notice that this character constantly refers to ‘pussy’? This is objectification of the worst kind because it’s supposed to be funny. Let’s hope not too many young men watch the show. Hmmm.

    1. He refers to dicks much, much more often than he does to pussies. I reject the argument that expletive words that refer to female genitalia are objectifying, whilst those that refer to male parts are benign. I believe this argument hearkens back to old notions of women being too fragile or demure to hear cuss words, which is an idea that has more insidious power than any one word does. And the often attendant argument that it’s unfair that c**t and pussy are the *worst* *possible* *words* only has power because of all the women who clutch their pearls every time they hear it. Unleash the p and c-bombs wherever you like, I say. If you want to rail against words that are objectifying to women, save your energy for “baby bump”, “bikini body”, “thigh gap”, et al.

  34. It would be very difficult for an actor to portray a person of a different race without the aid of some kind of make-up. Is Chris really denigrating the Tongan people? I don’t think so. Casting another actor to play the part is not really an option as the nuances of the character are unique to Lilley. Where do we draw the line anyway? Second, third, fourth generation Australians? When are actors actually free to portray people of various ethnic backgrounds?

  35. Interestingly, the aspect of Lilley’s shows I’ve enjoyed the most is the work of, and his connections with, his co stars. I don’t think that’s an answer to any questions about racism or sexism, but it makes me think there’s quite a lot going on in the work.

    1. I agree. It is the supporting cast that win these series. I constantly marvel at the seriousness with which they address the task, from Nan the correctional guard to Jáime and Jonah, the supporting cast make the show. In this series do people honestly think that the people playing Jonah’s family and friends are stupidly falling for Australian racism, or are they in actual fact showing how subliminal it is in our white privileged homes. We are the ‘rangas’, it seems.

      1. It is an interesting question. When I watched the show I felt like there were actually two shows one that the islanders were portraying and one that Chris Lilley was portraying and they were totally different. For example an islander sees a room full of kids sleeping together they see family supporting each other non-pacific islanders see an over crowded room. How the mass Australian audience sees it, I’m not sure. But a perception of how Tongans are will exist once the show is finished and I doubt any Australian with Tongan heritage will escape it.

  36. If Lilley was ethnically, or biologically, of Islander Origin, could this article have been written? Was their a public outcry when the Boys from the Fat Pizza series portrayed hyperbolised Lebanese Youth? Why not? Because genetically the creators and actors were middle Eastern? If you answer yes, then you, my friend, are an essentialist. You are in fact a racist. The reason being this is just pure logic; you’re making a qualification about somebody’s right to do something based on their premise of their genealogy. Whether that assumption grants an entitlement, or removes one, is irrelevant. The mechanism by which this assertion has been made remains unchanged.

    You see, the rhetoric of essential ism and Ethnicity and the relationship between either is a slippery slope. Let’s put this into perspective:

    What we are taught in the egalitarian society of Australia, is that it does not matter what you are, what is important is who you are. That is, people are defined in terms of what they do–not what they are, ethnically. It’s a good system. Fair, and meritocratic.

    However, genes are simply genes. In fact, most racial typification is done around the basis of phenotypes. Genes simply are. Alleles simply are. They neither qualify, nor disqualify, behavioral traits or cultures. Not in general terms; it is understood that particular cases of behavior are underwritten by biology, but this cannot be extrapolated beyond the individual towards an entire ethnic group.

    So tell me, then, why is that Indigenous person, for example, of mixed ethnicity, is granted privileges beyond those of a non-indigenous person on a percentage basis of his or her genes? If essentialism is racism, and racism the business of qualifying behaviors, attitudes and cultural preferences and practices on the basis of genetics, then surely Indigenous entitlement is a racist policy?

    Why, for example, should I be expected to apologize on sorry day, to Indigenous people, as a whole, collective noun, who are living in the same society as I am, when neither myself, nor anybody in my entire lineage inflicted any act of subjugation or violence towards any Indigenous person, ever, through the history of the world? I am as disconnected from that time, and those acts, through the web of life and time, as anybody possibly could be in the material universe we occupy.

    Now, you might say something like ‘As long as we continue to profit from the conditions of the past, we are doing wrong’. Well, by that logic we should all commit sepukku. And what’s more, we profit from the evil pof the present all the time. Every time you drive a car, you are supporting a petrodollar regime that results in war, and the wholesale slaughter of women and children, every day. And you’re buying into destroying the earth. Every time you buy a coffee, you’re deadstopping money that could have prevented a child in sub-saharan Africa dying of starvation in the dirt. Every time you buy a pair of Nikes, or anything from China, you are supporting the most bleakly Dickensian and Horrific institution of labor exploitation imaginable. Tell me, what is worse–to profit from the conditions of the past, or the present?

    Such things as sorry days, and the ilk, exist for the sole purpose of expunging and absolving the guilt of societies. They are about the absolution of the inheritors, and nothing more.

    I will not say sorry, because I didn’t do anything. I will not say sorry because I have a brain, and I am sincere.

    Why is that a person of mixed Maori and English ethnicity is expected to identify with traditional maori lifestyle? It is equally salient to suggest that this person should learn croquet as it is to suggest they should learn the haka.

    It is all very, very silly. What defines a person culturally is not ‘In the Blood’. It is in the world that person has grown in; it is this that defines their subjective self in the way that a trellis shapes the vine espaliered against it (That’s payworthy, thanks).

    1. This comment is far more worthy of analysis than the article that prompted it.
      Sterling, mr Starling

    2. Thoughtful, well-written piece, but the destruction of indigenous peoples is essentially an act of one culture upon another. I have no idea how the author views Anzac Day but the ahistorical sense expressed here – I have no responsibility or connection with what took place before I appeared in the world – suggests that Gallipoli is as equally remote and irrelevant as the 19th century destruction of aboriginal societies.

    3. An incredibly articulate response overall, but your logic fails on the issue of saying ‘sorry’ to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Australians.

      Read the ‘Give us a break!’ mythbusting publication found here:, and especially the re-print of Chris Graham’s piece on pages 13-15.

      You are not so disconnected from that time as you might like to believe. If it was so long ago, there would be no one left to apologise to. The fact is these policies ran up until the early 1970s.

      Depending on your age, you may not have been part of the problem but like many ‘good’ Australians – and certainly, your ancestors – you may have stood by and let it happen. For that you owe an apology.

      You – and your predecessors – may not have intended any harm, or known any better at the time, but that doesn’t get you out of the consequences or the need to apologise.

      And regardless of your role at the time, you – like all Australians, including your lineage – benefited greatly from these policies, by way of all the completely unpaid work undertaken by stolen children, for the government (aka ‘the stolen wages scandal’). For that, you owe an apology.

      No one is asking for ritual suicide. And no one is perfect – many of us drive cars, and drink coffee, and buy sports shoes.

      But none of that has the slightest impact whatsoever on whether or not it’s appropriate to apologise to the Stolen Generations. The fact that other wrongdoings exist doesn’t make this wrongdoing okay. This was wrong, and we now know it was wrong, and we should apologise.

      Put half as much energy into finding reasons to be compassionate and peacemaking, as you do into finding excuses not to be, and you will do yourself a great service.

  37. I decided Jonah would be a programme to avoid because it’s not funny. And maybe racist.

    The problem here is that discussion about racism has become so bogged down in political correctness that it’s impossible to have a rational discussion about it.

  38. Oh come on! You Inner West types! So serious. So politically correct. I bet that out in the western suburbs the Tongan audiences are splitting their sides and savouring Jonah because Chris Lilley has “nailed” him so well.
    If you want to get het up about something that really matters then start complaining about, for instance, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in what is left of their land.

  39. My entire family finds Chris Lilley’s portrayal of a Tongan extremely offensive. We are NOT going to watch this program.
    I am very sad that those of us who do not find humour in denigrating a racial group are dismissed as being “PC”.
    It is very difficult for white people [of which I am one] to recognize racism when they do not themselves pexperience racism every single day.

  40. I’ve made the same point in a couple of other places. I won’t be watching this series largely because, given the historical use of blackface to denigrate black people, I can’t find it funny or ironic or subtle enough. OK, haven’t seen the show but Lilley didn’t really produce something of such outstanding genius on his last outing that I’d be confident that he could somehow critique the use of racial stereotypes. He really needs to go back to the drawing board. The first programme he made was far and away his best.

    1. Black face has zero cultural relevance in Australia. It is a largely American phenomenon expressed in minsterel shows that stereotyped and denigrated plantation blacks. We’ve got enough of are own past to be ashamed of without importing it from another country. If Chris Lilley appeared on TV blacked up, wearing a pair of footy shorts and carrying a flagon of port I’d be the first to condemn him.

      1. You’re dead wrong about the lack of relevance in Australian context. Minstrel shows were never exclusive to North America.

  41. “and that Lilley’s decision to ‘brown up’ rather than playing Jonah without make-up, or casting another actor in the role was taken to further his incredibly astute and nuanced critique of Australian racism.”

    My powers of assumption are not infinte, Sir

    Chris Lilley is phenomenally untalented. Why he has garnered favourite son status after two schoolboyish series that led to him appearing in brown face is a better question. I am yet to raise a smirk at his shows.

    but hey, like, whatever ……………………….

    1. Actually, he’s into his fifth series now, but don’t let the facts get in the way of your story ;)

      Humour is obviously very subjective. His phenomenal success so far suggests a very great many people feel differently to you!

  42. I almost fell into the trap of condemning this show when the ads first appeared as Chris Lilley taking the piss out of Pacific islanders living in Australia. Then I stopped myself. What I think he is actually doing is, in a satirical way, taking the mickey out of our society’s percieved stereotypes of pacific islander teens. He’s highlighting ingrained racism as opposed to adding to it. I don’t think this would be as effective if he had gotten an actual pacific islander to take the role. Sometimes it needs to be someone dressing up in a ridiculous manner to highlight how ridiculous a situation really is. Don’t forget, our history of “black face” often involved Aboriginal entertainers dressing up as “whiteman” to highlight just how foolish our behaviours and attitudes could be.

    1. This is brilliant satire and Lilley is totally opposed to racism. The funniest and most observant show I have watched for quite a while.

    2. Agreed. I guess your view though involves something a little deeper than an initial kneejerk reaction.

      Jonah is a dill. Do I feel more entrenched in my perceptions of Tongans after last night (whatever they might be)? No. There were a variety of different Tongan characters on the show who contrasted the stereotype portrayed by Jonah. I dunno, it seems pretty obvious to me that this is what satire is meant to be.

  43. Some people need a daily dose of outrage in order to feel better about themselves. If you want outrage go read up on the Nigerian schoolgirls. That is something worth getting ouraged about.

  44. Oh please get a grip. Are there no limits to the narrowmindedness of PC-ness? It’s worse than bigotry. Please keep a sense of perspective along with your soh.

    Nine paras of pointless worthiness.

    1. I don’t think anyone here is really playing the PC card. The big question here is Art : Is he funny? Why and what is the point of it? At the moment its not much more than pithy accurate depictions. But to what end? Otherwise you aren’t doing much more than laughing at a performing freakshow.

    2. I agree with Julian. Does his depiction of Ja’mie mean that he is saying all teenage girls are selfish, racist, lazy and narcissistic? I don’t think so. He is creating an individual character. And believe it or not, some people said Fawlty Towers was racist! And violent!

      1. Fawlty Towers was actually funny. Cheese and a piece of chalk. Not fit to be mentioned in the same sentence…

    3. I’m with Julian – get a grip, you nancies. Where were the howls of derision when Lilley played a narcissistic rich private school girl (should he have got a real girl, and should Barry Humphrey palm Dame Edna off to a real Moonee Ponds housewife circa 1950)? Should Robyn Nevin have desisted from a fantastic performance of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar – should she have deferred to a male? There are many more important things to be wound up about than if Chris Lilley wears ‘brown face’ – as someone said below, try those Nigerian school for a start.

      1. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Chris Lilley playing a Tongan, I just don’t think the character reflects the reality of a 14 year old Tongan. You’ve only got to compare him to the real Tongans playing alongside him. None of them appear as aggressive or menacing.

        1. well they are actors reading scripted lines, so i’m not sure they necessarily tell us the ‘truth’ about real-world 14-year-old tongan boys.

    4. Seems playing the ‘lighten up you are too PC’ card is an attempt to shut down this conversation. Ironically, this move is itself a type of political correctness.

      I don’t find Lilley’s shows funny anymore, and question whether any intention to use stereotypes to critique them is lost in the reception of his shows.

  45. Are we seriously suggesting Chris Lilley isn’t demeaning south pacific islanders when he plays Jonah? I have always thought this character was racist and inappropriate – at last someone is pointing out the emperor has no clothes!

    1. is the *way* he plays the character demeaning, or is it simply the fact that a non-Tongan is playing the character – and in brownface?

      and is it patronizing to south pacific islanders to lump them into an undifferentiated mass? would it be demeaning if a samoan played a tongan? or would it not matter because, you know, they’re all brown?

      1. I think if Chris Lilley was a Tongan the show would not have had as much publicity and their wouldn’t be huge posters on any buses. There are Tongan comedians and other pacific islander comedy shows but the humour and portrayal is totally different because it comes from a different cultural perspective. A white man painted as a gollywog is not the same as a black man painted as a gollywog but either way it is demeaning. It is not uncommon in Australia for pacific islanders to be ‘lumped into an undifferentiated mass’ cultural perspectives between the pacific islands is very similar. Are the other Tongan characters Tongan (except for the ones that speak Tongan even then who really knows)? so I’d be surprised if non-pacific islanders can tell which pacific island they are from.

  46. ‘Racial drag’ – whatever that is – isn’t necessarily the same thing as minstrelsy. Minstrelsy is a way of demeaning African-Americans – and by extension all people of African descent and perhaps any person of color – to make them, in Harry Connick Jr’s words, ‘look like buffoons’: childish creatures of appetite.

    Is that what Lilley’s doing here? I don’t think so. And if that’s the case, how is it any different from playing a teenage girl in drag?

    1. In answer to the two questions you end with:
      1) Yes.
      2) It isn’t, and that is part of Peter Green’s argument – Lilley seems to think that simply portraying a stereo-type is funny, but it takes more than that.

    2. I agree with Sneedy.
      There is a difference between dehumanising and satirising. It’s a fine line but it is a line nonetheless.

      For example, if he recreated the old hartlepudlian legend and dressed up like a chimp in french sailor’s details… Would that be racist to the French? I think not.

    3. I’d like to hear an opinion from high school-aged students of Pacific Islander heritage…and their parents. I suspect depicting Jonah and many of his friends as crude, unruly, immature, unintelligent and almost impossible to educate would have an effect on the way other students view boys from similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds on campuses across Australia. Lilley’s Jonah works to perpetuate existing stereotypes and further refine them. I’m betting there are real kids in the real world who are paying the price.

      1. I am Australian born with part Tongan heritage. My eldest daughter is in year 7. If your question is does this impact my daughter … the answer is a definite YES.
        I think Mr Lilley exploited the ignorance of pacific islanders who have no real understanding of the historical or cultural context of the show. I don’t believe that what is being laughed at by Pacific Islanders if they do see the show as being funny is the same thing that is being laughed at by non-pacific islanders because the cultural perspective is different. The most personally disheartening aspect of this show is that it pin-pointed ‘Tongans’ and as an Australian with Tongan heritage I have been working hard to instil in my children a sense of Australian Identity with acceptance of their heritage which is extremely important to any teenage child. In this one show not just my effort but the effort of a lot of people (teachers, parents, community leaders) had been undermined. My daughter now has to prove that she is not like Jonah or any other character in the show, ignorant people and there are MANY who don’t know her will perceive her as a ‘bafoon’ before she even opens her mouth, another stereo-type that she and many other Australians of pacific islander heritage will now have to over come on top of all the other hurdles that they face. I think this is a high price for any teenager to have to pay for a few laughs.

        1. I agree. I’m not from a Tongan background but know enough of the Tongan people to know this isn’t an accurate portrayal. Take the accent away and the brown paint and Jonah could be a troubled boy from any culture or background. Sadly the influence has started already. My son told me tonight about a Tongan boy who mimicked Jonah in class.

        2. When he first played Jonah in Summer Heights High, I thought it was clever and well done because for me (as a teacher) it felt like the people he was making fun of was the teachers and adults around Jonah who clearly made so many mistakes in the way they worked and related to him. I would be laughing at the teachers (especially the female one who Jonah asks if she has her period), but then they would say something that sounded like me, and I would cringe. It made me question my own teaching and the way I relate to students.

          I don’t feel the same way about what Lilley is doing with Jonah now. It feels less like he is using Jonah to shine a light on those around him and more like he is turning Jonah into a joke.

        3. On the same day this article was written I also wrote an open letter to Chris Lilly. I cringe and feel sorry for him. I have had the same experience as you.

          Dear Chris

          On a sunny Sunday in Adelaide as I sit here in church with Tongan mums and dads and their 30 kids aged 4 to 16 dressed in the whitest shirts and dresses, looking proud and thanking the local community for their support in the first Sunday in May, I am ashamed to be Australian and I am thinking of you.
          You and I have never met. I understand your skit Jonah from Tonga, like a car crash, is compelling viewing. So bad it’s funny. Yes,. I am guilty, I have guffawed. I understand you need to make a buck and are on to something. Possibly in the same way Pauline Hanson is.
          As a mother of a ten year old Australian Tongan boy, having spent 15 years with many Tongan people, what I don’t understand is knowing a bit of what you would have really seen from the people is how you can feel ok about creating a brand for a Country that they will be labelled with in Australia for ever. If you were going to poke fun at someone why wouldn’t you just call it Jonah and leave it at that.
          Instead you have created an image that could not be further from what these proud, hard working parents strive for. They would have shown you kindness beyond your experience. In return you have single handedly wiped out any self-esteem or cred that might have been built in Australia over the last 50 years.
          In my family alone, I’ve seen my son after being shown the show by other kids on YouTube, as he thought your show was something to aspire to. I’ve then had to tell him why someone has made a show about a boy and a dad– that is the opposite of everything we do and believe in. I’ve just dropped him at school and I can see like a coming of age thanks to you he is now feeling the frustration of unfairness.
          As I watch these Tongan parents in church, who have much less than me but work much harder in bring up their children with the greatest respect for Australia, who are the first ones in the Anzac parades and Australia Day Parades, who raise money for our footy and rugby clubs, who put older people and our community first. I am thinking of you and I hope you do something to make this right, for your own benefit while I spend my life being in awe of the most incredible race of people I have ever come across.

          Kind regards

        4. Dear Louisa,

          thank you for sharing your comment. I am currently writing a piece for an Australian student magazine about how this show re-inscribes negative racial stereotypes. I was moved, although sadly unsurprised, by your comment above, and am wondering if you or your daughter would be willing to make a comment for the piece similar to your one above (you may do so anonymously if you’d prefer).

          Please let me know via comment or email address.

      2. You are absolutely correct Janeagain. The Jonah character is directly based on a boy in an ABC documentary series called ‘Our Boys’ about schoolboys from Canterbury Boys High and as such it is particularly offensive. Not only is it a betrayal of the trust and honesty shown by that boy but it is a sickening caricature of what was a very interesting and intelligent boy who is now a man living in our community. I hate to think what this does to him having to watch it.


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