(Erik kindly invited me to post here, and I repaid the kindness by basically never writing at all. I plan to fix that in 2012, in part by writing in manageable chunks. If you catch me going over 500 words, you have my permission to flog me.)
Angry Boys is a new comedy on HBO from the mind of Australian comedian Chris Lilley. The first two episodes aired on January 1. Lilley plays a variety of characters, including Nathan and Daniel, foul-mouthed small-town Australian twin teenagers (Lilley is 37), Gran, Nathan and Daniel’s (lesbian?) grandmother, a foul-mouthed guard at a boys’ prison, and S.Mouse, a foul-mouthed black (Lilley is white) American rapper in the Bow Wow mold, fantastically wealthy on the basis of a dance-craze single called “Slap Your Elbow.” There are additional characters still to come, including a Japanese mother and a star surfer.
I think the heart of a comedy review is this: does it make me laugh? Why or why not? There are different ways to accomplish humor — Larry David makes you laugh via discomfort, Community (over?)relies on reference humor, Modern Family at its best puts fully developed characters into a messy situation and watches them work out of it — but the goal is still the same. Unfortunately, I don’t find Angry Boys terribly funny. Daniel’s anger that his brother is being shipped off to a deaf school is touching, but his tantrum was just a tantrum. Gran’s concern for the well-being of a boy who sexually abuses animals is sweet, but the repeated visual joke about superhero pajamas she’s sewn for the (hardened criminal) boys didn’t work the second or fourth or sixth time.
And S.Mouse … well, let’s talk about S.Mouse. As I said, he’s black, and Lilley is white. But it’s complicated because it’s not 100% clear what Lilley is making fun of. Pop-rap? Rap? Black culture? American culture? I think Lilley is aiming for that last, shooting at our materialism and obsession with authenticity, but it’s quite possible that he thinks these are particularly black concerns. Also, S.Mouse is, as in the history of white performers in blackface, a caricature, an exaggerated version of what white people who don’t know any black people see in rappers.
Oh, and he totally says the n-word. (Some of you will mock me for using “the n-word” but you’ll have to forgive me: I’m not comfortable quoting it, no matter whether it ends in “a” (as it does in Lilley’s usage) or “er.”)
I try not to be a prude about racial humor. Perhaps I protest too much, but I thought a scene in the first episode where Gran separates the boys for a soccer game into light-skins and dark-skins, even telling one (quite white) boy “I know you’re aboriginal, but you’re a light-skin,” was funny when intercut with other staff at the prison discussing Gran’s general lack of PCness.
I still felt discomfort in the S.Mouse scenes, though. Maybe they just weren’t funny. Maybe they weren’t funny because they crossed a line. Either way, I hardly laughed. As I said, that’s what it comes down to. I’m not the morality police, declaring that Lilley has acted in poor taste and ought not to be on TV. I can only say that I wasn’t amused.