Moriarty Takes Some Advice And Checks Out HBO’s SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH And The New Book THE TIMEWASTER LETTERS!
Published at: Nov. 13, 2008, 5:32 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
One of the fringe benefits of spending time with professionally funny people is that they are constantly recommending things that make them laugh. TV shows. Films. Books. Stand-up comics. Things from around the world, some old, some still unreleased. Two such things, both of them highly recommended to me by people whose taste I trust, finally hit my desk recently, and to my great pleasure, both of them more than lived up to the advance word I’d heard.
A friend of mine spent a season writing for SOUTH PARK last year, and he was the first person I heard mention SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH while he was still on the show. At that point, it was still only really known in Australia, where it originated, but since then, it was aired in the UK, and now it’s been picked up by HBO, who premiered the series on Sunday night. It’s been quietly building a cult following, and I was surprised to see our own Hercules The Strong dismiss the show the other day. I’m hoping more people don’t make the same mistake, since this is an eight-episode limited-run series that really rewards the investment of time. Created and written by Chris Lilley, who also stars in the series, the shorthand version of describing the show would be “LITTLE BRITAIN meets THE OFFICE in a high school,” but that does it a disservice. Yes, there is a tradition of comedy that SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH falls comfortably into, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a derivative work or an imitation. I think it’s actually got a voice of its own and, with at least one of its characters, it’s a pretty remarkable character piece.
Lilley’s been building his reputation as a sketch comedy performer over the last five or six years on shows like BIG BITE, where he created the “Extreme Darren” character seen here...
... as well as the “Mr. G” character, who he also played on on HAMISH & ANDY...
... and then he made the show WE CAN BE HEROES, which focused on six different characters competing to be recognized as “Australian Of The Year”, including the teenage girl Ja’mie King...
... all of which has led in a very logical way to SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH. Both Mr. G and Ja’mie show up again as characters, and he also plays Jonah Takalua, a Maori kid with some behavioral and learning issues who has been through four schools in three years. He’s a surly little semi-illiterate breakdancing thug at first glance, but like each of the characters Tilley creates, there’s more to him. SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH doesn’t rely on easy punchlines or even on what I would call “jokes,” but rather depends on character and attitude. The further Tilley peels these characters open, the deeper and more honest the laughs become.
Mr. G, for example, is a pretty familiar stereotype. In fact, HAMLET 2 pretty much plays out the exact same storyline that Mr. G does over the course of SHH, but the difference in how they play out is dramatic. Mr. G is the school’s drama teacher, a flamboyant ex-performer who has channeled all of his personal frustrations with show business into the self-scripted musicals that he performs every other year at the school. When the head of his department is called away on personal business, possibly for the whole year, Mr. G takes full advantage of the situation and becomes a tyrant over the drama department and over the cast of a new show he creates. I know from my own experiences in high school and college that there is nothing worse than a teacher who doesn’t want to be there, who feels like their dream never happened and so they’ve had to fall back on teaching as a last resort. It’s amazing how they take it out on students and other faculty, and how people just have to take it. I had one teacher in particular, and I have no idea what she really wanted to do with her life, but I can guarantee that teaching wasn’t it. She was a monster to everyone she came in contact with, her dissatisfaction like a physical thing she carried with her. And as I was watching Mr. G, who likes to feel like he’s the teacher the kids all like even though it’s just patently not true, he didn’t seem like a stereotype at all. Lilley shows you what’s going on under the surface of this guy’s sunshiney bullshit, and it really works.
Same with Ja’mie, who is a fairly biting satire of the modern teenage girl. Yes, there’s a long tradition of guys in drag in comedy, but Lilley doesn’t play it as drag. He tries to play Ja’mie very real. It helps that every other cast member in SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH is real, whether the students or the other teachers, and that reality works to make Lilley seem even more grounded and less outrageous. Ja’mie is sent to Summer Heights High, a public school, as part of an exchange program between her private school and the public system. She dominates the other girls from the moment she arrives, desperately trying to manipulate the teachers to do whatever she wants, and she’s constantly throwing money or manufactured drama at every situation. There’s a lot of self-loathing in Ja’mie, just as there is in Mr. G, and if there’s one thing that SHH is “about,” it’s the way these three characters he plays all show one face to the world while doing their best to keep their real faces private.
My favorite of the characters, and the real soul of the show, is Jonah. He’s a rowdy little bastard from the moment we meet him, a little maddening at times, but Lilley invests so much energy into showing us what makes Jonah tick that I almost wish he’d spin him off into his own series in the future. I don’t think he’s tapped this particular character out yet. Jonah’s struggling with the way people see him, and he lives down to expectations even as he quietly works to prove to himself that he has more potential than anyone sees in him. Jonah’s 13 years old, and he can’t read, and Lilley never once plays that as a joke. It explains a lot about his impatience in the classroom, though, and when you see teachers flip out at him and lambast him, it becomes more and more difficult to watch. It’s almost like the system is designed to fail a kid like Jonah, and it becomes sort of heartbreaking to watch the situation just get worse and worse for him, leading to a really bittersweet final episode.
And yet, despite the fact that I’m talking about all of this subtext, SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH is very, very funny. I hope people give this one a try over the next seven weeks, but I sort of wish they’d held onto it to pair with Jody Hill’s EAST BOUND AND DOWN starring Danny McBride. I think they could have made one of the most piercing hours of comedy in recent television memory. If this is the sort of show that HBO is willing to take a chance on right now, then maybe people are counting the network out too soon.
“Robin Cooper” doesn’t actually exist, but Robert Popper does, and for the last year or so, Edgar Wright has been preaching the gospel of Popper to everyone and anyone who will listen. He was a writer/producer on LOOK AROUND YOU, a scathingly funny English show from 2002, and a writer on the more recent THE PETER SERAFINOWICZ SHOW. He was also a producer on PEEP SHOW, a series that I adore. Now, with THE TIMEWASTER LETTERS, Popper’s alter-ego Robin Cooper has made his debut as a published author, and the results are powerfully, undeniably silly. And like with SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH, I can point of other people who have taken similar comic paths to Cooper, like Ted L. Nancy here in the US or Don “Guido Sarducci” Novello and his Lazlo letters, but Cooper’s voice is his own, and that’s what makes this book so bizarrely funny.
Basically, he’s a prankster. He writes these gentle, innocuous (and completely insane) letters to people, and the original letters and the responses are all reprinted here. And it’s the strangely benign tone of the letters and the wacko biographical details that creep into the letters (Cooper’s wife’s ankle is practically a co-star in the book) that makes it all so cumulatively funny. There’s often an undercurrent of malice in pranksterism, but Cooper’s about as far from that as possible, and as a result, the book ends up offering up this odd portrait of a very sweet, very crazy man who just happens to spend a lot of time writing letters. People almost always handle him gingerly in their responses, and it’s actually touching to see how hard they work to make sense of him and to respond without offending him or upsetting him.
You can poke around Cooper’s website for a general sense of what his sense of humor’s all about. There are some phone calls there as well, and if you like what you see, there’s a lot more Popper/Cooper on the way in the near future. He’s working on a new series for Adult Swim, there are two more TIMEWASTER books that were published in the UK that are still set to come out here, he's one of the writers on Sasha Baron Cohen's new film BRUNO, and I would imagine a guy with this kind of wild imagination has a lot more he’s brewing as well. THE TIMEWASTER LETTERS is slight, and as with SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH, it’s probably not for anyone who demands that their comedy be broad and obvious and easy, but I don’t think my time spent with the book was wasted in any way, and I hope to see more from this guy soon.
Okay... off to bed so I can hit that early morning screening of CHE and then rush home so I can post my review of QUANTUM OF SOLACE as soon as possible tomorrow.