Australian comedian Chris Lilley wants to make you laugh, but he also wants to make you uncomfortable.
His latest mockumentary television show, Angry Boys, is sure to achieve both. Lilley plays several characters in the show, including a pair of twin teenagers, a woman who works at a youth correctional facility, and a Japanese mother who is forcing her skateboarding son to be gay.
With the show set to premiere on HBO Canada on Jan. 1, the Globe reached Lilley, 37, in Sydney to discuss the show and his brand of humour.
How would you describe the show to someone who’s never seen it?
It’s a fake documentary. It’s a pretty unusual show. You’re laughing one minute, crying the next. This one’s a little more dramatic than the last two shows I did. But then it also has really outrageous stuff, like the character Jen, the Japanese mother who is bossing her son to be gay. And the character Gran has some real tearjerker moments. I wanted to focus a bit more on the reality of it this time, to go to a lot of trouble to make the world seem very real.
You play not only Jen and Gran, but several other characters. How do you come up with these characters?
This show started with the characters Daniel and Nathan. I just really liked their characters and wanted to bring them back and do the next part of their story. And once I came up with that I had the idea of doing this really epic show on a huge scale where you didn’t know where you were going to go.
In the show you play a rapper named S.mouse. I don’t know what the attitude towards blackface is in Australia, but here it can be kind of a touchy subject. Have you ever gotten in trouble for doing the character?
It’s just as much of an issue in Australia. Everyone was up in arms about it. Part of me knows that that was going to happen, that outcry of “you crossed the line!” This is the third show I’ve done. It’s nice to push the boundaries a little bit further each time. And also, once you watch the show and you get involved in the characters you realize very quickly that it’s not a joke about a guy being dressed as a black guy. It’s not meant to be offensive. And I like humour that is shocking to watch and uncomfortable to watch.
Stuart McDonald, a director you’ve worked with, recently described you to the Telegraph as a “natural provocateur.” Is that how you see yourself?
It’s definitely the motivation a lot of the time. The motivation is to create something that’s funny and entertaining and compelling. But I want to provoke people throughout the whole process. I’d rather do something that people have a strong reaction to. I like people to go, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that on TV.”
There are few if any jokes in the show in the conventional sense of having a set-up and a punchline. What do you think makes it funny?
The documentary style gives it a very real feel, so I think it’s just the idea of everyone else playing it in a straight way and then my characters step in, and they’re usually the one that the documentary is focused on. I think there’s something funny about these characters in a “real” environment. When I’m editing, if something’s too jokey, I’ll usually cut those bits out. I try to focus mostly on the reality and what would actually happen if a documentary was there.
You’re two previous shows, We Can Be Heroes, about a group of people vying for the title of Australian of the Year, and Summer Heights High, a parody of life at a high school, were both mockumentaries. What is it you like about the format?
I like the boundaries, the kinds of conventions of a documentary and having to work within that. And a lot of what I like to do is having that juxtaposition of having an interview with someone who is very conscious of what they say and that they are on camera.
You’ve been called the Ricky Gervais of Australia. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it’s a good thing. I think he’s really funny and has done some really cool stuff. I think it’s really different stuff. I think people mean it as a compliment.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Angry Boys launches Jan. 1 on HBO Canada at 10 p.m.