The Many Faces of Chris Lilley

Chris Lilley is a master of disguise. The Aussie multi-hyphenate creates, writes, directs and stars in mockumentary-style comedies in which he plays a collection of diverse characters — sometimes all at once.

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Jonah from Tonga
Jonah from Tonga

Chris Lilley is a master of disguise. The Aussie multi-hyphenate creates, writes, directs and stars in mockumentary-style comedies in which he plays a collection of diverse characters — sometimes all at once. After giving us face in We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High and Angry Boys, Lilley has been narrowing his scope by focusing on just one of his many beloved characters for solo series; Jonah from Tonga (10 p.m. Fridays, HBO) is the latest.

Lilley shines when he shows off his skills as very many, very different characters all in one universe. With just one at the center, it’s a bit easier for his work to be misconstrued. (Lilley’s previous single-character offering, Ja’mie: Private School Girl, paled in comparison to Lilley’s portrayal of the mean girl in an ensemble.) Viewers have been either offended by his caricatures or enthralled by them for surface reasons. But, at his core, Lilley is a keen satirist, and Jonah is a perfect example.

Jonah first appeared in Summer Heights High as the school troublemaker. We catch up with him here after a summer in Tonga as he starts a new chapter at Holy Cross High School. 

Lilley commits to a character all the way, doing ample research and picking up on the nuanced mannerisms of different types of people — subtleties that can be overshadowed by his decision to play seriously flawed characters or to take on different races. He portrays stereotypes and caricatures not for cheap laughs, but deep ones. Sure, Jonah’s bawdy humor and naughty behavior is funny — this is a comedy, after all. But we aren’t laughing at the notion of a nice white man portraying a bad Polynesian boy, we’re laughing with — and connecting to — Jonah, that boisterous, fidgety bad boy we all know from our school days. Lilley manages to create an outrageous persona based in humor and make him real and relatable, a sympathetic character.

Looking at Lilley’s full body of work, it’s clear he’s not mocking any one group of people — except, perhaps, us as an audience. He examines characters and forces viewers to consider their own preconceived notions of people, all while making us laugh.

This week: After documenting their antics online for the world to see, Jonah and his crew are persuaded by youth worker Kool Kris to make an anti-bullying music video.


Lair of the Mega Shark (8 p.m., Discovery Channel) – Shark Week continues through Saturday with Zombie Sharks, Sharkageddon and other interesting programming that stretches the definition of “documentary” as far as the depths of the sea.

Wilfred (Series Finale, 10 p.m., FXX) – In back-to-back final episodes, we finally get some answers about the mystery of Wilfred and Ryan.

The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail (12:30 a.m., Comedy Central) – Love and romance; performances by Maria Bamford, Gabe Liedman, Jenny Slate, Michael Ian Black and Reggie Watts.


Project Runway (9 p.m., Lifetime) – The designers transform retro men’s suits into contemporary women’s wear.


The Knick (10 p.m., Cinemax) – Thackery calls for a surplus of cadavers to practice new surgical methods. Luckily, with his patients’ death rates and an outbreak of typhoid fever, dead bodies aren’t too hard to come by.


True Blood (9 p.m., HBO) – So I guess all those unbearably boring Civil War flashbacks gave Bill the sads because now he’s all, “Meh, I think I’ll just die from Hep V after all.” True Blood: Where storylines wrap up in the least satisfying of ways. At least it looks like Ginger may be in for a happy ending …

The Leftovers (10 p.m., HBO) – Kevin continues to lose it and Meg breaks. Anyone have a spare copy of the May 1972 National Geographic?


Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (9 p.m., HBO) – Before the sensationalized trials of Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias, there was Pamela Smart. This documentary focuses not just on her court case (she was convicted of conspiring to kill her husband) but the media frenzy that surrounded it. In 1991, Smart’s trial was the first fully televised case, paving the way for today’s “must-see” court circuses.


Nathan For You (Season Finale, 10:30 p.m., Comedy Central) – Nathan’s final business ventures lead him to help a toy company market to children and convince a movie theater to institute a no-sharing snack policy.

CONTACT JAC KERN: [email protected] or @jackern

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