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Moriarty Takes Some Advice And Checks Out HBO’s SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH And The New Book THE TIMEWASTER LETTERS!

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.


Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 13, 2008, 5:32 a.m. CST

    Summer Heights and Look Around = good. Timewaster = not good.

    by Henry Jones Sr

    That is all.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 7:12 a.m. CST

    The Great Thing About SUMMER HEIGHTS...

    by Mr. Winston

    ...is that, unlike other sketch shows where you have one performer (or a couple of them) playing a slew of different roles, this one actually has a narrative. It's sketch comedy with a framework behind it. <br> <br> It's not LITTLE BRITAIN and it's not MONTY PYTHON - those shows were funny in their own right, but they're always playing for the laugh. That's fine, but that's DEFINITELY not what SHH is going for here. It's funny as hell, and that shouldn't get lost in the equation. But it's also layered and a little bit painful, and - especially with the Jonah character - there's some real heart buried in there. I found it completely unique in the way that each character was approached as just that - a character, not a caricature that we've become used to in shows like this. Somehow Lilley is able to inject a strong amount of authenticity into his performances, being zany and hilarious all while convincing you that these are real, fucked-up people. It's a feat. <br> <br> I've only seen two episodes, but if the other six are anything like them, this is HBO's best show in years.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 7:26 a.m. CST

    From a Melburnian's point of view,

    by Yosh

    It was extremely depressing to read Herc's write-up of the show. Especially after the recent slaughtering of 'Kath & Kim', I was hoping SHH would give the US a taste of what quality Australian comedy is like (and believe me, we have a LOT of crap over here. SHH is pretty much the best thing in years). Unfortunately, it seems a pretty high percentage of critics, at least, just didn't get it. I'm not saying the show's for everyone, but to say it's 'just not funny' is preposterous. I can't believe that the cultural gap is that wide. So thanks, Mori. It's nice to hear someone whose taste I trust supporting this show over there. Puck you, Miss! PS — for anyone who's seen the show, I was recently involved in campus elections at the University of Melbourne, and one of the women counting my vote (at midnight or so) was the actress who played Jonah's cruel English teacher. We were all being rowdy, and she kept getting flustered and telling us to be quiet. It was very appropriate.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 7:43 a.m. CST

    Yosh...

    by drew mcweeny

    ... she's fascinating on the show. She really does lose her shit with Jonah, and it's not fair. Her final class with him, she gets cruel and ugly about it, and yet somehow, he's wrong. I thought at first that their relationship would be funny and that Jonah getting her to blow up would be milked for laughs, but she really does seem to just hate this poor kid and have it in for him. Maybe she was picked on by a Jonah, but whatever the reason, she just abuses him mercilessly.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 8:31 a.m. CST

    It really only makes sense to Australians

    by most excellent ninja

    and it's not because they have a certain type of humor, but because much of this is social humor relevant to the east coast cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The maori kid who thinks he's a thug into rap and breakdancing, massive cliche' in Australia that completely rings true. So they are stereotypes only familiar to Australians.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 8:33 a.m. CST

    I'm surprised you got it Mori

    by most excellent ninja

    I'd have thought you grew up in Melbourne which is where I spent time.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 9:03 a.m. CST

    Jonah's Teacher

    by terrytips

    I find this element really interested. The first time I watched the season, I was more on her side, thinking about how frustrating it must be trying to teach soemone like that. However, on my second viewing (especially knowing what was to come), I was much more on Jonah's side, and found myself getting very angry at her. I even perhaps sensed a slight bit of racism from her, but that could just be me getting overly-emotional.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 9:07 a.m. CST

    and as far as the social relevance

    by terrytips

    I have never ever been to Australia (I'm English), but found this to the most realistic portrayal of modern school life I have ever seen. You don't need to be Australian to 'get it'. I think this is one of the best new shows in years.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 9:16 a.m. CST

    Both funny

    by Celtican

    Loved We Can Be Heroes but preferred Summer Heights High. The Timewaster Letters is extremely funny but hardly new, been out for a few years now

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 9:31 a.m. CST

    How about THE HOLLOWMEN?

    by Darth Kong

    Look it up.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 10:13 a.m. CST

    What is it with brits/aussies and men in women costume?

    by ev1ldead

    btw. The pilot of East Bound and Down sucked donkey balls.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 11:16 a.m. CST

    Timewasters is brilliant

    by henrydalton

    As is the second book :)

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 1:09 p.m. CST

    God I hate laughtracks

    by DRACULA_WANTS_THE_AMULET

    The BMX shit was predictable and lame. Tried to watch the coming out vag sheet shit but I.. Fuck it, fuck this.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 1:24 p.m. CST

    the english teacher was a cruel fucking bitch

    by Holodigm

    i only have the final episode left to watch, and after her tirade in the second-last episode i wanted to smack her and lock her up in a basement until she died. she crossed the line and treated him like no teacher should ever treat any student.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 1:39 p.m. CST

    SHH

    by The InSneider

    great show. i watched the whole series and really liked it. jonah is the best character and i love the scenes with his father and the guidance counselor.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 1:51 p.m. CST

    Mori gets it! Do you foreign blood in you?

    by Damien Chowder

    Yes some dues paid to this great show! Also people need to see how good all the secondary actors were! Everybody seemed so real they were by far better actors than professionals.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 3:01 p.m. CST

    SHH is not _that_ good or popular here in Australia.

    by Amy Chasing

    It may have won an award or something, but that's because there were bugger all other new Australian comedy shows on at the time it aired. Kath & Kym has a larger following here in Australia, but even its fans think its had too many trips to the well (the danger with this kind of "cringe humour" - it quickly stops being funny and starts just being cringe-worthy). <P> Australian comedy used to be sooooo much better. Shows like Frontline and The Games were witty and insightful while being gut-bustingly funny at the same time. I venture to say the only decent Australian comedy recently has been The Sideshow, but that was basically a rip-off of The Big Gig (for those who remember it). <P> Basically if you don't like The Office or Little Britain, you probably won't like SHH. But then I like Chuck, so what would I know.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 3:01 p.m. CST

    SHH is not _that_ good or popular here in Australia.

    by Amy Chasing

    It may have won an award or something, but that's because there were bugger all other new Australian comedy shows on at the time it aired. Kath & Kym has a larger following here in Australia, but even its fans think its had too many trips to the well (the danger with this kind of "cringe humour" - it quickly stops being funny and starts just being cringe-worthy). <P> Australian comedy used to be sooooo much better. Shows like Frontline and The Games were witty and insightful while being gut-bustingly funny at the same time. I venture to say the only decent Australian comedy recently has been The Sideshow, but that was basically a rip-off of The Big Gig (for those who remember it). <P> Basically if you don't like The Office or Little Britain, you probably won't like SHH. But then I like Chuck, so what would I know.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 4:44 p.m. CST

    So what was that about a Quantum of Solace review?

    by epitone

    Moriarty, you might be the only critic in America whose opinion I really trust on a Bond movie, so I'm desperate to see what you think.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 4:56 p.m. CST

    Epitone...

    by drew mcweeny

    ... almost done with it now. Just wrapping it up.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 5 p.m. CST

    Thanks Mori

    by Happyfat73

    ... It's good to see Australian product getting a red hot go across the pond in its original form. It's been a good year for Australian comedy at the ABC - SHH, Hollowmen and Very Small Business were all crackers (although Hollowmen really became a one-joke show).</p> I quite like the very un-PC angle of SHH... At first, I thought it was a bit too much of an ego-trip for Chris Lilley playing all those characters, but really, he does some pretty fearless work in the show. Especially with Mr G and Jonah. My personal favourite is Mr G's attitude to the Special school students.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 5:42 p.m. CST

    The Sideshow was shit Smithys.Bark?

    by Amy Chasing

    The Sideshow was a variety comedy hour. Basically it was a bunch of live stand-up. So if you think all live stand-up is shit, then I may be on drugs but you've been inhaling the vapours while cooking them. Maybe you didn't like the format of the show, but that's different from not liking the comedy. <P> SHH is known in Australia, don't get me wrong. But quoted (a lot in your normal day to day life perhaps, but then I'm guessing so was Fat Pizza)? Not as much as Kath & Kim. Popular? Not as much as The Chaser. High DVD sales? Big deal, so did Underbelly, which was a crap show. <P> Australian comedy has many great shows each decade. This probably only gets a mention to fill the gap in 2007.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 7:13 p.m. CST

    Amy Chasing

    by Happyfat73

    I think Kath and Kim is quoted more because it relies so much more on catchphrase humour (all that "Look at moi, kimmy" crap).</p> I can't stand catchphrase humour, and it's why I despise shows like Little Britain and Catherine Tate - you have to put up with muppets around the office saying "Computer says no" ad nauseum.

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 9:22 p.m. CST

    Amy Chasing and Excellent Ninja

    by watch_the_world_burn

    Here in Perth the show was very popular, I don't believe it's just an "east coast" thing - as evidenced by Mori's review, even a "dumb yank" can get it if they try (just kidding, Mori!). When the DVD came out, the number of people clamouring for it at my video store was remarkable.<p> I think it's almost universal - we've all had a teacher like Mr G, we all knew (or laughed at) a down-trodden ethnic kid in class. My sister, who hung with the popular crowd at school, said the behaviour of Ja'mie and the other girls was almost note perfect. And I'm sure there are cheerleader bitches in the US, prep school bitches in the UK etc.<p> Like the UK version of the office, it can get a bit uncomfortable to watch, but that shows it works. I think this and We Can Be Heroes was leaps and bounds ahead of shit like Kath & Kim (funny in small doses). But nothing's better than the Chasers :)

  • Nov. 13, 2008, 11:27 p.m. CST

    smithys.bark

    by Happyfat73

    The Chaser boys have just signed on for a 2009 season of the War on Everything. Justice prevails.

  • Nov. 14, 2008, 12:29 a.m. CST

    The final episode of SHH is awesome ;)

    by Vader's Leash

    ..and the perfect antidote to High School Musical. I loved this show and as a teacher who has worked in schools a long time .. the obsevations on teachers and students are spot on. Check out this naughty song from the finale http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=N_me4RCDP2o

  • Nov. 14, 2008, 12:32 a.m. CST

    Jonah's not maori...

    by Citizin_insane

    but it's was a good guess. better than say... afro-aussi, or kiwi-eskimo. But yeah, it really was massive here. I see Jonah's 'dick-tation' tagged all over the place, plus I heard a bunch of schools had an offical ban of the term "puck you"

  • Nov. 14, 2008, 3:32 a.m. CST

    Sorry

    by drew mcweeny

    I guess I assumed he was. His family are all Pacific Islanders of some sort, and based on location, I made the leap. <P>I'm glad to see other people thought the last episode was the Lebowski Rug of the whole thing... "it really tied the room together, man."

  • Nov. 14, 2008, 6:56 a.m. CST

    hollow men

    by roxyprime

    watch this!!! its great!! brilliant political satire...awesome and rings true no matter where you are from. i loved the episode with the big pharmaceutical company and the new drug...please watch, and pray it does not get a shitty remake!

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