For a guy who has never been to New York City, and is a star only in his native Australia, comedian Chris Lilley is getting a lot of attention on our city’s streets—like from the crew of skinny dudes walking down First Avenue who stop and turn and crane their necks to make sure they are really, truly seeing the creator of the Aussie TV show Summer Heights High. “I think they were Australian,” says Lilley, whose show debuted on HBO this past Sunday. “I heard one of them say, ‘I reckon it’s gonna be mad!’ ”
Mad is one way of putting it. Summer Heights High is, for lack of a better description, like Amy Sedaris and Ricky Gervais spawning a child who grows up to star on The Hills. And Lilley—who plays the three main characters—is here trying to explain it on a super-low-key promotional tour. “HBO wanted me to do all these morning talk shows, but I’m just not good at it,” says Lilley. What he is good at is slipping into creatures like Ja’mie King, a teenage private-school snob visiting Summer Heights (a public school) for a semester; Mr. G, an overzealous, tantrum-prone drama teacher; and Jonah, a 13-year-old from Tonga with a foul mouth and a lousy academic record. Each is an attention-seeker of the most painful kind, characters deeply aware of their own irrelevance—which doesn’t stop them from behaving very, very badly. Lilley’s got the sort of innocuous and androgynous looks perfect for such sorcery: His blue eyes are large and slightly mournful, and his thin mouth lends a hard edge to an otherwise kind face.
Playing a girl wasn’t the biggest challenge—that would be playing Jonah, an often repulsive thug, who also happens to be Lilley’s favorite character. But Ja’mie is the most celebrated by fans. He plays the vainglorious teen with astonishing realism (teen magazines have actually asked “Ja’mie” to write columns), perhaps because she’s based on a real person. “There was this 16-year-old girl I knew who was just so abusive to her parents,” says Lilley. “A mini woman who screams at everyone yet has no idea what she’s talking about.”
“The high school experience really translates,” says HBO’s Entertainment V.P., Casey Bloys, of picking up Summer Heights High. “I went to high school in Pennsylvania, and there was definitely a Ja’mie and a Jonah there.” The cable network made Lilley an offer after seeing his first solo TV show, We Can Be Heroes, which satirized the annual Australian of the Year awards, a hokey community-service award taken to a national level. Lilley had already turned down multiple Stateside offers. “Someone said to me, ‘Spend three months here, then rewrite the show and make it about Americans.’ Not only would I not be that good at it,” says Lilley, “but it’s a bit insulting to have an Australian come over and take the piss out of you. Everyone thought I was mad for saying no.”
Given the failure of Kath & Kim (another Australian comedy remade in our image), it wasn’t so crazy. Still, there are challenges: No Australian TV show has made it over here (HBO’s Flight of the Conchords is from New Zealand, and has a tiny following), and comedy is particularly challenging. Aussie humor is broader than our own, and so are the accents—yeah, they speak English, but it’s so slang-ridden it has its own unofficial name: Strine (“povo,” for example, means poor; “bogans” are, well, white trash). But Lilley isn’t worried—perhaps because he was weaned on our TV. An obsessive fan of The Brady Bunch, the highlight of his U.S. trip was visiting the show’s house in L.A. “New York has nothing on the Brady Bunch house,” says Lilley. And for a brief moment, the bashful, laid-back man is a squealing teenage girl, complete with “Oh my god!”