Watching Netflix’s latest stab at edgy comedy, Lunatics, is like scrolling through Instagram at 3 am. Fragments of lives flicker by—self-aggrandizing, specific, bizarre, sometimes obscene. Pretty soon, they all start looking fundamentally, headspinningly the same. We are, the show seems to be suggesting, the many faces of Chris Lilley.
The new Netflix comedy is strikingly similar to the Australian comedian’s previous work. Like the popular Summer Heights High (and its spinoffs, Ja’mie: Private School Girl and Jonah from Tonga, which was pulled from the air in 2017 for being racist), Lunatics is a mockumentary following a bevy of characters all played by Lilley. In place of unseemly students and teachers, the characters are a celebrity pet psychic, a boy Instagrammer, a 7′3″ YouTube star, a porn star turned hoarder, a realtor with a very large butt, and a sexually experimental fashion designer. The tone of the humor—let’s gawp at the ridiculous horrible people!—is the same. If you liked Summer Heights High (and I liked it well enough at the time), it follows that you should also enjoy Lunatics.
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of internet culture for WIRED.
Well, important qualification: Summer Heights High came out in 2007. I was 15. A lot has changed for the world, for culture, for comedy, and for me in the intervening decade-plus. The same can’t be said for Chris Lilley, and that’s pretty strange. The biggest and perhaps only concession to the time is making two of the characters, 12-year-old Gavin and college freshman Becky, aspiring social media celebrities. Lilley’s producer has already had to clarify that—even though Lilley’s South African pet psychic has tanned skin and an afro—“Lilley is not portraying a woman of color” but rather “a white woman with huge '70s-style curly hair.” Which would be more convincing if Lilley didn’t have a history playing characters blackface and brownface and yellowface—and not apologizing for it because he finds only playing Australian white men limiting.
Portions of the show carry the same full-body cringe I experienced while rewatching an episode of Summer Heights High. It’s a bit like finding an awkward photo of yourself in middle school, but instead of braces and acne, the embarrassing bits are the casual racism, homophobia, and sexism you used to accept and maybe even find funny. Lunatics and Lilley haven’t quite popped all of their privilege pimples yet. The dizzying parade of weirdos flashes between biting satire of the present and easy, coarse jokes from a time I wish was more distant.
The strength of Lunatics is the strength Lilley brings to all his projects: The man has range. A keen observer, he inhabits each of his characters so fully he can sometimes make you forget they’re all played by the same person. Quentin, the large-rumped realtor, is a sharp sendup of bro culture—perpetual frattiness, vaping, horrible DJing and all. The fashion designer unabashedly fondling his cash register, which he calls Karen, while commenting on her curves, texture, and innocence brings to mind My Strange Addiction (and specifically, iDollators). The ex-porn-star thinks the birds are filming her and that her toys might come to life—who doesn’t know somebody just a little bit like that? Child Instagrammer Gavin is Lilley’s take on Lil Tay, but rather than screaming about flexing, Gavin’s bellowed refrain is just “ballsacks.”
Putting Lilley’s face on each of the wildly different characters does carry a bit of social commentary. We all contain multiple selves, and those selves, especially when refracted through social media, become both stranger and more similar. Instagram has taught many to sing the song of their own greatness with tin ears, which has always been the joke that binds Lilley’s personas together. They’re all socially unacceptable in their behavior and appearances but blissfully, boastfully unaware of it. The joke is that they don’t get the joke.
Fact is, it’s a mean joke. Lilley’s whole schtick is punching down. He’s a member of the in-group who makes a habit of skewering the out-group. The joke of Becky the YouTuber is that she’s confident even though she’s very tall, somewhat overweight, and has a man’s face. The joke of Joyce the porn star is that she’s mentally ill (which is tragically common in her industry) and has let herself go. Then there’s horrible Gavin. Having a 44-year-old man play a satirically gross version of a little boy can be watchable—that’s the premise of Big Mouth. But watching a 44-year-old man playing a 12-year-old boy sexually harass a preteen girl who’s walking by in her school uniform? It’s disgusting, and in the pilot. Chris Lilley should not be allowed to ask little girls about their vaginas.
It’s important that comics be able to poke fun at society’s ugliness, but Lilley’s continued lack of empathy looks far uglier than anything he’s satirizing. Trying to live your best life despite your struggles isn’t lunacy. A comedian refusing to evolve his sense of humor is.