Jonah from Tonga: genius or racist?

Chris Lilley (centre) as Jonah from Tonga.

Chris Lilley (centre) as Jonah from Tonga.

Chris Lilley is either the bravest Australian comedian currently working in TV or he is a national disgrace who insists on trivialising marginalised social groups; Giles Hardie gives his view …

Chris Lilley, who famously created the character Jonah in his first hit series Summer Heights High, has returned with a new series starring the Year 9 Tongan reprobate played by Lilley, who is notably not of Tongan descent.

Which, almost on cue, has prompted many to ask: is this comedic genius or the sort of casual racism that helped kill vaudeville?

While Lilley is quite obviously not Tongan, he is also notably not a girl, a twin, a father, a grandmother or a black American rapper, but he has played all of these demographics in the past. He is a comedian, a very rare form of satirist and amateur sociologist, and an auteur who effectively writes, directs and stars in all his work, albeit with the assistance of a highly skilled team. So you can most certainly hold him responsible for Jonah From Tonga. If Jonah is a barbarian, so is he.

There are some comedians, some of the best, who stand and stare at the edges of polite society. They don’t look out, but in: they tug on the threads; they question the assumptions; they challenge us. They force society to laugh in recognition at an unacknowledged reality and, while it laughs, to engage in some healthy introspection. That is what Lilley does. And he is one of a handful of comedians in the world who do so.

It is easy to label Jonah as a form of Blackface, however that is disingenuous.

Blackface originated as a 19th-century vaudeville and minstrel practice. The technique of using make-up to change the appearance of a Caucasian performer to that of an African or West Indian, then later other ethnicities, was used by the likes of Al Jolson, Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in a then-acceptable, now clearly unacceptable, form of mocking stereotype. The heart of Blackface comedy, then and now, is a patronising caricature. The late, great Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi character in Breakfast At Tiffany’s a perfect example of such cringeworthy (at best) lampoonery.

There is, however, a world of difference in the hair’s breadth that lies between such mimickery and genuine satire. One is a social putdown, the other a social comment. It is a semantic distinction, but a vital one, and one that must be earned – but one that must also be recognised.

“Jonah From Tonga plays with stereotypes, but it’s doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters.”

Greg Richie’s Mahatma Coat on Channel Nine’s Footy Show is a recent, sadly popular, example of such condoned mimickery. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat are examples of satire.

Lilley has earned the right not to be labelled a minstrel.

Essentially, if the effect is to infer a patronising observation to the effect of “aren’t those coloured people funny”, then it is a deeply concerning act. If the effect is to laugh at a societal norm otherwise unaddressed – the truth behind the stereotype – it’s a blessing.

To surf that line is incredibly dangerous. Robert Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder is a recent example of a performance that, however talented, probably sits in the minstrel category.

It is inaccurate to call Lilley’s Jonah Blackface; to lump him in with the performers in the infamous 2009 Hey Hey It’s Saturday Red Faces routine. In the words of Rick Kalowski, the ABC’s head of comedy: “Jonah From Tonga plays with stereotypes, but it’s doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah’s own. Indeed, prejudice by and against Jonah is clearly shown to be at the root of the problems he faces in the series.”

Jonah From Tonga does not invite us to laugh at Tongans, but at the characters and their views. We are, if anything, invited to laugh more at rangas (Caucasian red-heads). The show is quite blatantly racist – playing on the cultural traits and responses to an ethnic community – but this is shotgun racism, hitting a variety of ethnicities and in doing so lumping us all in together.

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As for calls that Lilley should have cast a Tongan actor in the title role, the auteur in Lilley would never allow that. But if he did, would it be better, or worse?

Meliame Fifita, an SBS Tongan broadcaster who assisted with research on the show, has now been quoted condemning it. She suggests the show will “create a stereotype of Tongans as troublemakers”.

Jonah From Tonga isn’t creating the stereotype, though; it is challenging an existing one that is found in society. The comedy then emphasises how wrong it is.


Warning: Trailer content may offend

In the first few lines of the first episode, we are informed – by a Tongan character played by a Tongan actor – that, quite simply: “Jonah’s like a f***ing idiot.” In the ensuing few scenes, Jonah drops the: F-bomb, P-bomb, S-bomb, H-bomb, D-bomb, and the lesser-known K-bomb (the only swear word he’s learned in Tongan).

Fifita notes that “swearing in Tonga is very taboo; it’s not OK to swear”. Lilley’s exaggerated swearing makes exactly the same point.

The prejudices in Jonah are reflections of existing aspects of real-life society, not the seeds for new ideas. Otherwise the comedy would not work. We do not laugh in recognition at the unfamiliar.

Audiences laughed enough at Jonah in Summer Heights High to prompt a spin-off series. So let’s not shoot the messenger.

It is fantastic that people are accusing this show of being racist, because that is exactly the way to start the relevant and important conversation.

The outrage has ensued with column inches and talkback hours dedicated to labelling Lilley and his show in a variety of ways. Fantastic, for if Chris Lilley has dragged us all to the edge of society to question the barbarians for even a moment, it’s a job well done.

Watch Jonah From Tonga. Challenge it. Ask questions: Is it funny? Will its willful use of racism change anything? Is it something you want to watch again?

Just don’t dismiss it with a label.

Giles Hardie is a TV critic. This article was first published on The New Daily.

Jonah From Tonga screens again at 9pm, Wednesday, May 14, on ABC1.


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