ANGRY BOYS TOO CLOSE TO THE BONE
Huge damage can be wrought by incorrect labelling, particularly if you’re being treated for demonic possession when you are in fact a) homosexual, or b) epileptic.
I raise this in particular reference to Angry Boys, Chris Lilley’s third comedy series which has just wrapped on the ABC.
I think calling it a ‘comedy’ was a category error.
Not being snarky here – I watched mesmerised every week – but I don’t think misdirecting the viewers by implying it was going to be frigging hilarious did anyone any favours. Angry Boys wasn’t much funny at all, which would have been fine if people weren’t sitting there waiting, like expectant labradors with chocolates on their noses and a master who won’t give the signal, for laughs which didn’t come.
Angry Boys, as the title, let’s face it, suggests, wasn’t an ‘entertainment’.
It was a satiric character-driven drama, and was bleak, confronting, slow-moving, and moving; I wept more than I laughed, and from a quick poll amongst friends the final episode had people in floods of tears.
Comedically, though, it danced far too close to the Australian male bone for a local audience to find the humour.
People bitching about the swearing, dick jokes and racism missed the point; this is who we are. One of the most poignant moments, for me, was when the man-child surfer Blake Oakfield, wondering how to get his wife back and missing the point by the distance between Manly and Bells Beach, mused he just needed to get his empty ballbag filled with fake testicles.
To treat the show as the important social document it is (and risk sounding like a right ponce), I’ll say that the show put me less in mind of, say, Kath and Kim, and more of the oeuvre of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s plays The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters nailed the decline of aristocratic Russia to the wall at the turn of the 19th century, and, interestingly, The Cherry Orchard was written as a comedy but is generally considered a tragedy.
Not much happens in Chekhov’s plays. Plot is secondary to the characters who are trapped in denial, nostalgic for the past, rearranging the deckchairs of the present, and hopeful of a future that cannot eventuate. Time passes, the sisters don’t get to Moscow, and the cherry orchard cannot be saved. Every week I watched Daniel and Nate, S.mouse, Blake, Jen, and the boys in the lock-up, frustrated, confined by their character and limitations, not understanding that resistance is futile. Angry Boys, for most of its 12 episodes, was raw, uncompromising existentialism, and truly compelling.
I’d call it ‘great’ television, in the original sense of the word. But a comedy? Not so much.
The difficulty we run up against in Australia is that our television industry has all the nuance of a Jager shooter. Or, more pertinently, the genre sections at an airport bookshop. We’ve got a very limited number of ‘boxes’ – Reality. Doco. Panel. Drama. Current Affairs. Comedy – and if a show doesn’t fit comfortably into one of them we’ll smoosh it in regardless. ‘Comedy’ is simply the box shaped least unlike Angry Boys (also the box most likely to attract viewers and sell dvds, and there’s nothing wrong with that).
There does, actually, seem to be a new genre forming, which is ‘Wednesday night on the ABC’.
It’s become this kooky haven for creatively daring, adventurous shows which aren’t quite comedy, aren’t quite documentary, aren’t quite anything, but are really worthwhile if you suspend your mainstream expectations. Besides Angry Boys they’ve recently screened series three of Hungry Beast, which was stunning, but utterly defies categorisation, Lawrence Leung’s daggy but immensely likeable Unbelievable, and now Judith Lucy’s promising Spiritual Journey.
All of these shows contain comedy and/or are hosted by comics, and might reasonably be expected to be ‘funny’. None of them particularly are; in fact the times where we take a ‘gag break’ tend to be the least successful moments (a nun pole-dancing in Spiritual Journey? Why, FFS?). But they’re all excellent examples of creative minds stretching, probing, interrogating the world, and using humour to belie the serious nature of the material.
The ‘comedy’ in all of these shows, really, is only the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Under the veneer of humour in Angry Boys lay a great deal of pain, and it’s no wonder a lot of viewers were wondering what happened to the thigh-slapping Mr G, and finding ‘Slap My Elbow’ a bewildering substitute. Chris Lilley delivered rather more than we asked for, but if we’d known we were getting depth instead of escapist funtime hijinx from the beginning, maybe there’d be fewer snotty blogs complaining it’s not Summer Heights High.
It’s not meant to be. But it made me cry. And it was great.
*Fiona Scott-Norman is an Australian arts writer and performer. She has taken her one-woman shows to the Sydney Opera House, the Woodford Folk Festival and all over Australia from Alice Springs to Karatha, and in New Zealand and Hong Kong. Her latest offering is “Disco: The Vinyl Solution. Saving the world one dance floor at a time”. Her website is www.fionascottnorman.com.au