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”.
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.
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 Thrones, The Lonely Heart, The Wire, Big Love, Oz, Carnivale 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.