‘Unfunny, boring and utterly unrelenting,’ says the Guardian’s one-star review of Chris Lilley’s new sketch series Lunatics (Netflix). And if that’s not incentive enough, our woke critical chum goes on to declare the series ‘problematic’. That’s a weaselly way of saying ‘this triggered all my snowflake sensitivities’ but in such a way as to make it sound like a loftily objective judgment.
In truth, Lunatics is only problematic if a) you have no sense of humour and b) you’d prefer all comedy to be politically correct, inoffensive and utterly devoid of satirical edge. Sometimes, Lunatics is so cruel that it’s almost too painful to watch. But this isn’t because — yet another complaint being levelled by the wokerati — Lilley is ‘punching down’. It’s because this reclusive, perfectionist Australian writer/comic is a satirist in the Swiftian tradition: scabrous and unforgiving in his gleefully misanthropic scrutiny of the human condition.
Lilley made his name with Summer Heights High, the 2007 mockumentary set in an Australian secondary school, which introduced us to such characters (all played by Lilley) as the camp, heroically inappropriate drama teacher Mr G, Ja’mie the bitchy snob girl on exchange from a private school, and the crude disobedient Tongan student Jonah Takalua.
Jonah was the least funny of these but I was glad he was there, cheerily giving the middle finger to all those professional offence-takers who get a fit of the vapours whenever a white actor plays outside his race. But Lilley probably couldn’t get away it now, not even on Netflix. Future TV historians may well conclude that the cut-off year for that kind of caper was 2010 when Matt Lucas and David Walliams played what now seem like impossibly bad-taste stereotypical Pakistani and black characters in Come Fly With Me.
While Lilley’s comedy is quite redolent of Lucas’s and Walliams’s Little Britain — a parade of grotesques, many played in drag — what’s different is the demented intensity. Lucas and Walliams are just hamming it up. Lilley, on the other hand, inhabits his creations so fully that, though he’s a fortysomething bloke, you can almost believe he is a 17-year-old schoolgirl. Or — in the new series — a frizzy-haired South African lesbian pet psychic to the stars, or a former porn star turned extreme hoarder or an incompetent real-estate agent with an improbably huge arse who dreams of becoming a famous DJ.
His mastery of girly mannerisms and intonations and fatuities is uncanny — to the point where the real young female actors who play his various companions interact with him as if he were one of their own. He’s equally good at doing blokes — sullen, loutish teenagers; twentysomethings on lads’ nights out. I defy any male to watch the scene where Quentin (the estate agent) eggs on his mates in an evening of shot-chasers, desperately inane banter and excruciating failed chat-ups without wincing in appalled remembrance of similar sessions from their own personal hell.
Possibly this series’ most painful creation is Gavin, an incredibly obnoxious Aussie 12-year-old obsessed with sex and testicles, who — deliciously un-PC premise, this — is being groomed to inherit an English country estate because the proper son and heir is mentally handicapped. Like a lot of Lilley’s comedy it’s at once absurd, grotesque and horribly plausible — made real by the dead straight acting and the superb attention to detail: Gavin leering at the prim older teenager, Ingrid, who comes to exercise the horses; the despair of Gavin’s adoptive mother, trying hopelessly to instil responsibility in him by encouraging him to name and feed the animals on the petting farm.
If you prefer your comedy a bit more gentle, I heartily recommend the charming Huge in France (Netflix). Gad Elmaleh —known as the Seinfeld of France — more or less plays himself as a massively successful French comedian who moves to LA and has to come to terms with the fact that in the US he is a complete nobody and that his jokes just don’t translate.
It’s another of those ‘meta’ comedies like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, only with slightly more surreal, indeed jarringly weird subplots like the one in which the failed actor lover of Gad’s blonde American ex-wife wanks himself to exhaustion at a sperm bank to raise money so that Gad’s 15-year-old son (whom he adores, but not in a pervy way) can get the chest implants he supposedly needs to become a top model. The episodes are only half an hour and you soon become hooked: I watched five, back to back, and loved every moment.