Paul Casserly watched too much TV as a child.

Paul Casserly: Racist comedy - what are the rules?

Paul Casserly examines the rules around race-based comedy shows like Chris Lilley's Jonah From Tonga.
Chris Lilley in his new series 'Jonah from Tonga'.
Chris Lilley in his new series 'Jonah from Tonga'.

I laughed out loud many times during the first episode of the school yard comedy Jonah from Tonga, even as I wondered if the mad genius of Chris Lilley may have gone to the same well one time too many. He may have also crossed some line or other.

Actually, it's one in particular. It's a line that is clearly seen by many. It's marked in bold letters: WHITE MEN SHOULD NOT DO BLACKFACE. Or in the case of the comedy currently showing on Comedy Central: WHITE MEN SHOULD NOT DO BROWNFACE.

Lilley breaks this rule as he becomes Jonah Takalua, a 14-year-old Tongan schoolboy who's headed for juvenile detention. Cue, letter and Twitter outrage, and even calls to ban the show as it's about to air in the United States.

It seems a simple enough idea. Surely, the days of the Black and White Minstrels are gone.

End of story. But I struggle with a black and white ruling when it comes to the court of comedy. I laugh at racist things. Don't we all?

I enjoyed Jonah from Tonga, from the basic principle I apply to all comedy: Is it funny? Did I laugh? The answer is yes, and yes, though it is not as funny or satisfying as Lilley's other works, especially the equally inappropriate and delightfully puerile, Summer Heights High.

In that series Lilley plays a bunch of memorable characters, like Ja'mie, Mr G and a Tongan lad called Jonah. He has a gift for making fun of, and having fun with, a variety of stereotypes, some of which are racist or politically incorrect, depending on your politics.

Like many great comedy talents Lilley is largely undaunted by the lines of taste and decency. In his world other people are funny. Other races are hilarious. If we make fun of everyone we can make fun of anyone. If only it were that simple.

Let's look at some of the rules at play.

It's accepted that Woody Allen can make fun of Jews because, well, he is one. Likewise, Billy T James could take the piss out of Maori - much to the delight of many a redneck Pakeha. We get that. But white guys playing non-whites, that's a rockier road.

Remember Peter Sellers in The Party, pretending to be an Indian? I still love that film for all its cultural problems, but it's a comedy of another time. He's forgiven under the clause marked "man of his time".

This rule also applies to Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Benny Hill, and somehow, to Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder.

Pakeha New Zealanders like to think of themselves as being less racist than Australians. It's almost a source of pride, up there on the mantle piece with Crowded House and the All Blacks. But perhaps there is some truth to that notion. I'm not sure how well a middle-aged white guy playing a Tongan boy would have gone down on a kiwi show.

Leigh Hart painted brown and wearing a lava-lava would probably make me laugh, but it would bring tears of rage to many others. If I was Tongan, or an academic, I might be among them. I also doubt if NZ On Air would go there, even if one of the networks would.

Mind you, we loved it when the cast of Bro Town were merciless with all comers, including Aboriginals, Asians and especially South Africans. We love it when we make fun of white South Africans don't we? Of course we do, they are seen as fair game, just like Germans - cue Nazi gag - and God help North Koreans or anyone pilloried by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Some racist comedy we're good with, other stuff, we baulk at.

The most compelling rule regarding racism and comedy is that it's less acceptable when it comes from a member of a powerful majority and it makes fun of a less powerful minority. That's a basic rule of life really - pick on the big guy not the little guy.

And that might be the real problem for Jonah From Tonga, because it doesn't get much more 'little guy' than a troubled teen from a tiny Pacific island nation. Some might point to the law of so-called "reverse racism".

The idea that goes something like, "black comedians make fun of white people so whites can give it back", but that kind of misses the power imbalance point, as illustrated with great panache by this guy.

My guess is that Lilley is playing by the rules of laughs. He's thinking about chuckles and snorts, and by channeling a young Tongan boy he is delivering them with incredible flair, as if the rules of the outside world don't exist, as if he was living in the days of Peter Sellers.

The weird thing is, in small bites, as part of Summer Heights High, Jonah somehow passed our mercurial rules of race and comedy, but on his own, he's making Lilley look a bit a of dick.

* Jonah From Tonga, Comedy Central, 9.25pm Mondays.

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Paul Casserly watched too much TV as a child.

It began with Dr Who, in black and white, when it was actually scary. The addiction took hold with Chips, in colour. He made his mum knit a Starsky and Hutch cardigan. Later, Twin Peaks would blow what was left of his mind. He’s been working in radio and TV since the 1990s and has an award in his pool room for Eating Media Lunch.

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