Responses to Lilley article

by various writers

The publication in this website of the article “Chris Lilley is a legend – he will not be cancelled” by Mike Retter a week ago (June 15, 2020) elicited a strong response from various people on this Facebook post, who expressed dismay and more at its contents and its publication.

I followed this up with an "Editorial on Mike Retter" in this website on June 17, 2020, in which I detailed my reasoning in publishing the article, and also my own personal thoughts and feelings in relation to people's responses.

I then opened up this website for anyone to submit responses that could be published in this format, on this website, rather than just residing within the ephemeral space of Facebook.

The responses now follow.

Bill Mousoulis, editor/publisher, June 22, 2020.

Contributions from
Liz Burke, Rolf de Heer, David King,
Bill Mousoulis
Heather Jean Moyes, Andrew F Peirce,
Christos Tsiolkas, Lia Vandersant and Jake Wilson.

from Liz Burke, filmmaker and teacher:

Mike Retter’s article is an intellectually shoddy piece, full of factual inaccuracies.  It’s just clickbait.  Is it a parody? Comparing what’s happening to Lilley’s work with Nazi Germany?  The white snowflake fragility is strong with this one.  My advice is the writer should talk to some Pasifika people.  I’m more interested in POCs’ response to the wider debate; and it’s an interesting and complex debate to have.

A question for Bill Mousoulis:
Why don’t you post an article by a Pasifika person about why Lilley’s work is harmful?   I’m pretty sure Netflix wouldn’t have taken it off if it had been rating well.  What I’d like to see them do is commission a series made by Pasifika filmmakers.  But, they’re not likely to do that.  The main problem I have with Lilley’s work being dropped is that we don’t get to see the Pasifika actors who were in the series, and who get very few opportunities.  But, apparently Lilley is the one we should be upset about.


Bill Mousoulis, you can choose to amplify racist texts, or you can choose to amplify non-racist texts.  Indigenous people don't have the luxury of this debate.  It's life and death to them.  This article is racist, and that I find it sad that you’ve posted it.



from Rolf de Heer, filmmaker:

It is perfectly reasonable for Pure Shit to have published Mike Retter’s Chris Lilley contribution.  I say contribution because a useful contribution was made to a number of debates we need to be having.


from David King, filmmaker and ex-journalist:

As I read Mike Retter's article, I believed he was making a case for comedians to have the freedom from persecution to lampoon whomsoever they wish and for them (comedians) to rise or fall on pubic approval and/or laughs.  Not on social or political correctness. 


The comedians of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s lampooned everyone equally.  If they made fun of a black person, they would, in the very next sketch, make fun of a white person.  If they made fun of a bum, they would make fun of a billionaire next.  If they made fun of a politician, they would next focus on the over-pious social worker.  Etc. 


Some wonderful comedy resulted from the likes of (the pop-eyed) Marty Feldman and laconic Charlie Drake, for example. 


Marty Feldman had this almost feature length one-off comedy program on the BBC (or maybe it was ITV?) in the ‘70s depicting the taxi drivers of London being like Spitfire pilots during WWII going out on sorties and running down pedestrians.  They painted their 'kills' on the side of their taxis.  And they didn't always win.  Sometimes they'd be stopped at a red light and a whole mass of aggrieved pedestrians would overwhelm the taxi and drag the driver out to massacre him.  You had the Ops Room speakers go suddenly silent as 'another one bit the dust'.  It was stunningly effective, brilliantly directed and shot and not really 'comedy' at all.  It was something I'll never forget.  Would such a thing even be 'allowed' today? 


You had Charlie Drake as 'The Worker' who every day went into the employment office and was sent on a job but always managed to spectacularly stuff it up and end up back in the employment office again.  Great training for someone who was going to spend quite a bit of time on the dole!  The excuses and stories Charlie Drake came up with as to why he lost the job were total masterpieces.  You nearly died laughing at some of that stuff.  I remember rolling around on the floor at my parents’ place screaming "Stop it! Stop it!" convinced I was actually going to die of laughter. 


In Australia in the ‘80s, we had the Comedy Company with the likes of Con the Fruiterer.  A lazy, semi-literate con-man who would do anything for a buck and not give a shit about the consequences.  And that was their depiction of Greek immigrants in Australia.  But were the Greeks offended?  I happened to know a couple of Greeks at the time who LOVED Con the Fruiterer.  He was the funniest thing they'd seen in ages.  They weren't offended because they didn't take it seriously. 


Oh, and in the ‘50s, there was a movie called The Clown with Red Skelton as a clown who adopted a street kid and taught him the trade.  You were laughing your head off at the antics of these two, and suddenly Red dies and the kid is all alone.  And it's no longer funny.  It's tragic.  From laughter to tears in about 10 seconds.  Masterpiece!  A terrific lesson in how to turn comedy into tragedy.  But the kid goes on to become one of the most successful clowns in the world.  From tragedy to triumph!  Never forget it!


You want comedians to be free to do this sort of thing.  To nearly kill us with laughter or leave us siting there like stunned mullets, unsure of what we've just experienced, or take us from laughter to tears and back again. 



from Bill Mousoulis, filmmaker, critic and programmer:

It will be interesting to see how far these cultural and ideological wars will go.  I’ve a feeling we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far.  Everything is getting faster and smarter, peace and modesty are fast fading, and there will be shades of grey in everything that happens, and too many perspectives (which won’t be shaded) on everything that happens.  It’s well and truly the “me millennium” we are in now, with perhaps Wikipedia the only platform that at least tries to be neutral and have the absolute facts.  Everywhere else it’s all skewed with particular perspective.


Currently, the right-wing are clever.  The “alt-right” version of the right is a very savvy mutation, they are the ultimate arrogant beings, because they think they are smarter and funnier and hipper than everyone else on the planet (on all fronts, not just political).  In some cases, their targets are easy (for example, ridiculing the reverse discrimination of the PC left, or railing against corporations), but let’s not forget their core values, which are indeed classic fascist ones (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.).  Somehow, they think that the left are really dumb:  that we would fall for their argument about “freedom of expression”.  What they really want is freedom of their voices to be heard, it’s as simple as that.  If they came into power, watch how much freedom of expression they would give back.


Censorship and de-platforming?  As Heather Jean Moyes says (next entry), it’s really a case-by-case matter, depending on what your criteria are.  If I was in charge of Netflix, I’d probably ban a third of the things on the grounds of racism, another third on the grounds of sexism, and the remaining third on the grounds of poor art, and be done with the whole thing!



from Heather Jean Moyes, filmmaker and drama teacher:


Offending is inevitable and I don't think we need protection from it.  I always thought the vilification and inciting violence conditions set in the broadcasting regulations covered it.  Then where do we go with insulting, demeaning, can something be degrading? – very murky and: yes, it is a negotiation.  Most entertainers are trying to maximise their audience numbers so have very good reason to think before they act and generally do.  Facebook comments are uncontrollable, although Trump has had a go at Twitter now – very scary that is.  And ..."Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts" – Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Perhaps we should be more concerned with facts, like the very real rates of inequity and deprivation in the world and remember one rule – don't punch down.


Re Lilley – I feel he was acting as an entire character not just a race, but it does feel awkward as the punching down element sits there alongside the very funny caricature of a snotty nosed yob.  The writing is great and he acts well.  I wonder, had he been able to find the appropriately talented Tongan would it have been even better?  I have commented above that this is a tricky negotiation.  I abhor both censorship and racism.  Deciding which choice is the most damaging when viewing any performance is best dealt with case by case.  We can't blanket ban or always endure.  I think contextualising is important, is a simple fix and should cover most instances.


Regarding everything from the statues to the TV shows, each needs to be considered on its own merits.  Some need to be left as is, and some need to chucked in a furnace,  but most need some contextualising.

Fawlty Towers, for example:

Manuel is the Zanni of Commedia dell'Arte (look it up).  Yes he is played as a Spanish speaking immigrant but The Zanni comes from the countryside and is known to be a "dispossessed immigrant worker" and more importantly I think he is always the person that the audience is rooting for.  Similar to the original Melodramas, the audience identify with the victim: they are on the Zanni's side.  Hitting and starving and sleep deprivation were common endurances for the Zanni and this was seen as funny because of its extremity, the talented way the artists used physical performance techniques and the obvious fakery of the events.  It also made the audience side with them and wins achieved by the Zanni, and any discomfort the Master felt, gave audiences satisfaction.

Of course in traditional Commedia, the Master (Basil Fawlty) should get his comeuppance.  As it is a series and not a film the finality of the penalty is limited.  He (Basil) cannot die but he must feel some pain.  And the Zanni must have a win – so not a perfect Commedia but very close.


Lastly – History Lesson 101 – Don't destroy the evidence.  Keep it and comment.


from Andrew F Peirce, film critic and publisher of The Curb website:


Bill Mousoulis, I just wanted to say, that while I vehemently disagree with Mike Retter's article, I do feel that you're right in having published it, even if the text itself is, at times, actively toxic. While the sentiment within it wasn't what I believed in, I do feel that there needs to be discerning voices from sides that I personally disagree with available. Not only do these help elucidate and inform what the 'right' are saying in relation to culture and art, but it helps inform, or reaffirm, my political and cultural stance. 

There needs to be an active engagement on discussions about culture from all sides of the political spectrum, and articles like this feed into that engagement. A disagreement with the text within Chris Lilley's shows is a personal one, with Lilley's brand of comedy having never been in my field of interest, and yet, as Liz Burke mentions, there is a wealth of great Pasifika actors in his shows. Does that make his work right or valuable? It's not for me to say. 

What is clear is that blackface is not acceptable, and never has been, and Lilley's brand of comedy has often engaged in the art of punching down, and it's a filthy art at that. We often seek out the art or culture that affirms our own beliefs, and it's clear that for many Lilley supporters - Mike being one of them - that the 'punch down' racist comedy of Lilley's work is one that resonates with their worldview. This reminds me that it's up to the viewer to reject and vocalise their viewpoint of art, as well as celebrate what they enjoy. 

What has been interesting is the flurry of discussion that has taken place about the publication of such a piece, as if such a piece reflects on the owner/editor of the site, rather than the actual author who wrote it. I find that concerning from an audience perspective, that you were tarred with the same brush as Mike, merely for having published the piece. Do audiences really believe that websites need to have a uniform belief across the board? I guess so, and I guess that's something that I would struggle to deal with if I were presented with the same request. 

I understand the discussion about deplatforming, and the removal of these kinds of voices in the critical sphere. I don't know how beneficial that is, but I say that as a white man, knowing full well that having an article like this on the internet means that a wealth of discussions and articles spring up in its place to decry the words of the writer. I say that knowing that my words do little to uncover the decades of hate and anger that BIPOC have lived with for generation upon generation. It's easy for me to write that, and say that it's all beneficial to the critical discussion, but without actually hearing from BIPOC, then the discussion becomes pointless. It's almost all hot air. 

Regardless, this long reply is mostly to say, I applaud your decision to post the article, and your resilience and fortitude in maintaining your stance.


from Christos Tsiolkas, novelist and film critic and someone who loves to argue. He believes that one cannot be both artist and censor. You have to choose.

I detest cancel culture (which I consider narcissistic and self-indulgent) so I appreciate Mike Retter writing this piece and Bill Mousoulis publishing it.  My partner, Wayne, said the other day a propos the Chris Lilley stuff that the difference between the left and the right nowadays is that the right are not sanctimonious about their totalitarianism, don’t pretend they are doing it for “our own good”.  I thought that was very wise.

“Novels are not humanitarian reports. Indeed, let us be thankful that there remains sufficient cruelty, without which beauty could not be.”
                                 Miracle of the Rose, Jean Genet

from Lia Vandersant, costume designer:

There is no going round the fact that blackface is no longer socially acceptable for good reason.  I really don't know in what world Lilley thought it would be a good idea to go blackface for a laugh.  It's just offensive.


Change is slow.  That's why there is rioting in the streets over black deaths in the USA right now.  Privileged white people aren't going to give up their privileges anytime soon, and, judging by some of the Jonah from Tonga fans commenting on Facebook, that apparently includes the right to wear blackface.


Regarding things like pulling down statues, I'm all for statues of tyrants being pulled down, they are offensive to the extreme, especially to people oppressed by these despots.  Keep the tyrants in the history books by all means, but don't celebrate their evil ways with statues.


from Jake Wilson, film critic The Age:

1. Retter’s article is junk, of a familiar kind: go to any popular YouTube video, scroll down the comments, and you’ll come across similar screeds recycling similar catchphrases (“the thought police…the politically correct mob…champagne-socialist …Nazi Germany...”). The gist of this stuff, on the face of it, is “How dare anyone hold me accountable for my tastes or views?” The undertone of paranoia is also typical of such rhetoric, but in this instance the implications are too vague to be worth addressing: I have no clue what Retter thinks “corporations and billionaires” might have to gain from going after Chris Lilley.

2. Even if Lilley never appears on TV again—which is highly unlikely—he has made half-a-dozen shows over the past fifteen years with a great deal of creative freedom, a longer period in the sun than most comics, or artists of any kind, get to enjoy. Moreover, his work has not been “banned,” nor is freedom of speech at stake in any legal sense. If anything should cause alarm here, it’s the notion that the responsibility of safeguarding Australia’s cultural heritage now lies in the hands of Netflix. Taking a broader view, the fact that streaming services are so easily able to edit the past is cause for some concern. On the other hand, the expectation that TV shows will stay available for an indefinite period is a relatively new one—and the portion of the global TV archive available via streaming services, or even YouTube and Vimeo, is a drop in the bucket compared to what remains out of reach.

3. I was a fan of Lilley up till a few years ago, when I started to feel he was running out of steam (I skipped his last couple of shows). One of his great coups—or so it seemed to me at the time, as a white viewer—was the segment of We Can Be Heroes that had Lilley's character Ricky Wong starring in a self-penned musical about Indigenous history and, naturally, getting everything mixed up (to the disgust of a couple of Indigenous audience members who left at interval). Here was a satire on cultural appropriation performed by a white actor in yellowface—a wilfully confounding gesture that might be said to summarise Lilley’s wry take on national identity (a central subject for the show, which was subtitled “Finding the Australian of the Year”). However you took it, what could be more horrifyingly Australian than Indidgeridoo?

4. Lilley’s satire is aimed not at any specific race or social group, but at human nature: all the characters he plays are equally grotesque, deluded and self-serving, regardless of colour or creed. There’s something optimistic, even utopian about this approach—taking for granted that in a multicultural society everyone merits equal respect and, by the same token, equal ridicule. In reality, alas, things are not as equal as all that, and so it’s not surprising that Lilley, among others, has faced a backlash. But this is what comics do: they test the boundaries of what their audience will accept. Sometimes they step over the line, causing injury and offense: then they face the consequences, which may include reduced popularity and exposure. This is an eternal cycle, which will continue no matter how community standards may shift. Certainly, the question of what qualifies as “acceptable” is a fraught one at present, on many fronts – but has there ever been a time when this wasn’t so?

5. If I were Bill, I wouldn’t have published Retter’s article. But I don’t doubt the integrity of his motives, and since it’s gone up I’m glad he’s letting it stand rather than erasing it from the record.

6. There are good things on Netflix: for instance, they now offer more than a dozen Youssef Chahine films (like Cairo Station, which I just watched). From that perspective, the glass looks at least half-full.


Published June 22, 2020. © Liz Burke, Rolf de Heer, David King, Bill Mousoulis, Heather Jean Moyes, Andrew F Peirce, Christos Tsiolkas, Lia Vandersant and Jake Wilson, 2020.