Australian comedian Chris Lilley has made an entire career of out endlessly spinning off his own TV shows. His latest,Jonah From Tonga, revisits the renegade teen Jonah Takalua who found himself kicked out of school at the end of Lilley’s 2007 comedy Summer Heights High, which in turn featured the effeminate drama teacher Mr. Gregson from the previous series Big Bite. For Lilley, who seemingly has an endless supply of bizarre characters like Jonah and snotty, rich school girl Ja’ime, the six-episode series was a chance to fully delve into a world that is wholly outside his own experience as a hyper-successful Australian celebrity. The series premieres on HBO on August 8 and showcases the 39-year-old, white Lilley as a believable 14-year-old kid from Tonga.
We spoke with the comedian about how he’s built a comedic empire by creating an ever-expanding comedic ecosystem populated mostly by characters he plays.
Have you actually been to Tonga?
No. And we had to shoot on another island because it’s not very well set up for tourists. They’re quite religious so it was difficult to go there with the content of the show and not have people be upset. The opening sequence and closing sequence of the series are set in Tonga but shot elsewhere. But there are a lot of Tongan people in Australia. There are enough that I’ve met quite a few.
Do you remember when you first conceived of Jonah as a character?
Yeah, it was wanting to do someone new. Mr. G. I had done [before Summer Heights High] and I wanted to do a show that was his story and his life in a school. I thought that was too boring and I needed other characters. It couldn’t just be him. I just thought, “It’s got to be a naughty kid.”
He means to have fun. He’s not a nasty kid at all, he just doesn’t fit into the system. He’s a square peg in a round hole.
When you’re playing these characters does it ever occur to you just how ridiculous it all is?
Most of the time I’m laughing to myself going: “This is insane. You are a freak.”
When you first started doing comedy did you imagine that creating long-enduring characters would be the thing you’d be known for?
I didn’t. It was a really good turning point. I was in a sketch show and I had two characters to do. I remember saying to a guy that was a director on the show, “Well, I’ve kind of covered it. I’ve got the younger character and the slightly older character. That’s kind of all I can do.” The director said, “No, your ideas are limitless. You can do whatever you want to do.” I honestly believed that was all I could do. So what he said really had an impact on me. It stuck with me until now.
That’s why it frustrates me when people say, “Oh, when do you think you’ll get to an age where you can’t play these characters?” It doesn’t matter! You can do whatever, whenever. I’ve never looked like a teenage school girl.
Do you have a sense of your level of fame in Australia?
I don’t get how I’m perceived anywhere. I get recognized a lot in the States and it always surprises me. People come up to me a lot. And I don’t know if it’s because Americans are more likely to come up to someone, but it’s hard for me to gauge my impact. In Australia, I don’t know how important I am. All I know, is that in Australia there is a viewer-voted TV awards. It’s like our version of the Emmys but it’s a popularity contest. It’s called the Logie Awards. This year I won Most Popular Actor.
Will you continue writing and performing your own characters or would you ever be in a movie or TV show you didn’t create?
I definitely would appear in other stuff. I do get asked occasionally, but you have to get in the world of auditioning and I don’t do auditions. I can’t imagine doing that. I’m the guy who auditions people. It would be hard for me to put myself out there to be judged like that. But it would be really fun. It would be so much easier than conceiving and creating something. Just roll up on set and be like, “Where do you want me?” So if someone offered me something, yeah.
But I don’t want to audition.
We’ll put that out into the universe: You’re looking for offers.
Yeah, just give me a call. I’ve made five shows. You can watch them. That’s my audition.
Photos by HBO