Trigger warnings: racism, homophobia
Comedy is great. The gut-wrenching, muscle-tensed feeling of laughing so much you’re struggling to gasp for air is a welcome feeling. Give me slapstick comedy, unapologetically cheesy and packed with pun-ny punchlines; give me dry and sarcastic humour; give me even the occasional knock-knock joke any time, any day. Comedy is a genre that is known for testing the boundaries of comfort, after all. But what happens when it’s been stretched too thin, only to leave you painfully cringing and shifting awkwardly in your seat?
In late November, HBO welcomed the return of Chris Lilley with “Ja’mie: Private School Girl”. The series is just six episodes and follows Ja’mie (née Jamie) King, a spoiled teenage girl in her senior and final year at Hillford Girls Grammar School. Lilley’s Ja’mie embodies the fundamental characteristics of the Teen Queen archetype — the ruthless and spoiled ringleader of a classist and elitist group of girls. He satirizes the compelling world of teenhood as a young girl from adapting razor sharp smiles and insults cloaked in niceness to intricate relationships (from friendships to enemies to a mixture of both, frenemies) and the hierarchical social structure of secondary school.
In Molly Lambert’s article on the series, she hails Lilley’s comedic skills while tracing back his problematic history of tackling race in ways “that are not really his to satirize.” She writes,
“It’s an extremely thin line between jokes about racism and racist jokes, and Eastbound & Down surfed that edge on the regs. While the ostensible joke about Ja’mie’s constant flippant racism is the ignorance embedded on the insulated upperclass, it’s easy to imagine Ja’mie’s most horrible quotes GIF’d into contextless hatred, reinforcing the very behaviours the show means to criticize. Lilley has donned blackface, brownface, and yellow face to portray characters on his previous shows We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High, and Angry Boys. Lilley’s desire to portray specific characters outside of his white male experience may not have been malevolent, but it is very ill-informed.”
Lilley is not the first (nor will he be the last, unfortunately) to use racism and homophobia as the punchline of a Joke. (Recall the James Franco celebrity roast from September 2013.)
The problem lies both in the boundaries that are being crossed between the notion of laughing with versus laughing at and the harmful repercussions coated in laughter. When Lilley’s Ja’mie throws careless insults and purposely excludes students in year 12 because of either their assumed sexuality or race, we’re supposed to laugh at the ridiculous, blatant homophobia and racism present in the joke. Likewise, when James Franco becomes a subject of gay jokes during a roast, ultimately the insult is not directed to him, but to gay (and queer) people.
There is an old proverb that says, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” Can we simply excuse racist and homophobic jokes as a simply more “acceptable” way of being racist or homophobic? When do we draw the line? When stereotypes are made into a joke, these stereotypes are reinforced and legitimized. Then comedy becomes harmful, dangerous, and ultimately, oppressive.
(I’ve been there. In the middle of a lighthearted conversation amongst friends, someone — usually a white friend — would make a racist joke. Everyone laughs, and I’m left uncomfortable, offended, and not wanting to seem like a humourless, odd-one-out killjoy. So I force myself to join in, rendering myself voiceless.)
To simply excuse racial and homophobic jokes as a more “acceptable” way of being racist and homophobic would be wrong. It’s not just a joke when it becomes harmful to groups of people that have been subject to marginalization and oppression. It’s not just a joke when these people are stripped down to just constructed stereotypes and are made to be the “butt of a joke.” Comedy shouldn’t be guarded by laughter and safe from criticism — some things are simply not funny, no matter how they’re presented.
Frankly, these punchlines start to become redundant, recycled over and over again. At a certain point, it just becomes lazy. It’s time to get new material, Lilley — and everyone else, take note as well.