HBO to premiere racist Australian show featuring actor in anti-Pacific Islander brownface

Australian comedian Chris Lilley portrays Jonah Takalua, here while still living in Tonga.
Australian comedian Chris Lilley wears brownface to portray his character Jonah Takalua, living in Tonga.

Oh, HBO, how could you do me so wrong after I sung your praises so loudly regarding this season of Game of Thrones? How could you betray me after I just recently discovered the HBO-Go SmartHub app on my does-everything-but-start-the-morning-coffee smart TV?

On August 8th, HBO will premiere an Australian show called Jonah From Tonga. The show’s 6-episode first season (structured as a mockumentary) originally ran in Australia in May of this year, and has since been picked up by HBO, along with BBC (another disappointing turn for an otherwise stellar network). The show stars (White) comedian Chris Lilley in brown makeup and curly-cued wig, playing the show’s 14-year-old eponymous protagonist, a wayward thuggish high school student recently returned to Australia from the Polynesian islands of Tonga (trailer after the jump).

Aside from the fact that 39-year-old Lilley is in obvious — and highly offensive — racial drag, the show relies predominantly on ethnic humour to forge its punch lines. Jonah and his Pacific Islander friends are portrayed as criminally violent, ill-behaved, lazy, uncontrollable bullies. Jonah is frequently cast as homophobic, hypersexual, and misogynistic. Show characters also normalize ethnic slurs targeting other groups; in one scene, Lilley in brownface lists the other races of students attending his school and includes a litany of slurs including “fobs”, “wogs”, “curries”, “filos”, and “ching chongs”.

Chris Lilley, sans racial drag makeup.
Chris Lilley, sans racial drag makeup.

With makeup smeared over his face like shoe polish, and a mop of black hair in place of firetruck red, Chris Lilley has engineered a modern day minstrel show where the punchline is how weird Tongans (and all other people of colour) are. If Lilley’s intention is to subvert Australian racism (which we in the States got a fuzzy cellphone video example of earlier this month), he has missed the mark. His use of brownface overshadows any satire that might be in his portrayal of the Tongan-Australian experience, and his reinforcement of disturbing anti-Pacific Islander stereotypes lack context or purpose. Jonah From Tonga appears to be nothing more than Chris Lilley cementing his position as yet another comedian using comedy as a poor excuse to engage in masturbatory revelry of the racially taboo.

What disturbs me beyond the mere fact that Jonah From Tonga has received HBO airtime — a network decision that has caused me to seriously consider my HBO subscription — is that Chris Lilley has made a career out of ethnic humour, some equally as bad as his Jonah Takalua persona. Chris Lilley dons full-on blackface in his S.Mouse persona, an African American rapper from California.

Chris Lilley in blackface as character S.Mouse.
Chris Lilley in blackface as character S.Mouse.

And another popular character of Chris Lilley’s is Jen Okazaki: Lilley wears yellowface and drag and adopts a stereotypical Asian accent (yes, he slurs his r’s and his l’s) to create an abusive, homophobic Tiger Mom pastiche who jokes about Asian female suicide (and that’s after making it through the first 3 minutes of this mash-up). I wish I were making this up.

If there is something compelling that Chris Lilley is offering to the cultural zeitgeist justifying the broadcast of this racist trash on cable tv’s premiere channel, I’m missing it. I expected better things from the network responsible for such stellar, intelligent, and richly conceived works as Game of ThronesThe Lonely Heart, The WireBig LoveOzCarnivale and more. Jonah From Tonga barely belongs on Fox, let alone a network I pay an extra $10 a month for. I don’t think it’s too much to set my expectations for this network a little bit higher than, say, brownface and anti-Asian ethnic humour.

HBO: it’s not TV, it’s a minstrel show.

Read more: New HBO show doesn’t sit well with Utah’s Tongan community

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  • Nate

    Chris Lilley has built a career on parodying stereotypical Australian characters. I haven’t seen any of his work except for his first show, “We Can Be Heroes” where he portrays all white characters (bimbos, hicks/bogans, con artists etc) and one international student, Ricky Wong (Lilley in yellowface in 2005).

    His most popular character was J’amai King – a rich, highschool mean-girl type. I found this character really funny and so inappropriate but good entertainment in many ways. And when Ricky Wong appears in the next scene, you find yourself having to accept that this guy’s work is built on unfair portrayals and nothing is sacred. I personally didn’t take Ricky Wong that seriously as it was clearly inaccurate and fantastical, but it also never occurred to me that portrayals like this perpetuate the wrong kinds of attitudes in the ignorant.

    The humour in his shows are so Australian, I really don’t see the point in HBO screening it to a US audience. It’s literally like the Hong Kong variety shows and spin off movies – you won’t get it if you don’t live there and it will just read all wrong without any context.

    I get more upset about Australian media going nuts for guys like Flynn Liu (William Hung type) and how the only Asians to be written into the Neighbours script ate their dog…

    I’m not trying to defend Lilley. Your post has made me question Lilley’s work which, up until now I never really took seriously. It is true that Australian media is frustratingly casually racist (which is why I don’t watch TV anymore), and I guess the fact that Lilley gets funding for show after show is evidence of this.

  • Hi Nate, thank you for your comment! I also question why this show (of all shows) was picked up by HBO and BBC. You very astutely point out that — brownface aside — the cultural context is clearly going to be lacking.