Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Ja'mie and the Men In Skirts

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After the debut of Chris Lilley's Ja'mie, Chris Philpott looks at the history of male comedians donning skirts.
Chris Lilley as Ja'mie King in 'Ja'mie: Private School Girl'.
Chris Lilley as Ja'mie King in 'Ja'mie: Private School Girl'.

Ja'mie: Private School Girl - the latest incarnation of Australian comedian Chris Lilley's crowd-pleasing character Ja'mie King, last seen in hit show Summer Heights High - has caught a bit of flak from reviewers, and I'm not sure why.

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Well, I know why; they're reviewers, they wrote it down.

"Too much of a not-good-enough thing," wrote one reviewer of the length of the season, a comparatively short six episodes. "Centering one of Lilley's most annoying characters in a series to ramble on incessantly," wrote another, "robs the character of its past effectiveness and makes her [the series] almost unbearable to watch."

Though while I understand their position, I'm just not sure it's fair to level such criticism at this particular series.

I think this is some of Chris Lilley's best work, not so much because it is terribly original, but because it can be seen as a rather biting satire of the MTV generation: Ja'mie's self-centredness would be right at home on something like My Super Sweet Sixteen or Cribs - where, sadly, it would be played seriously - while the music and editing choices, especially during scene transitions, are a bang-on imitation of shows like Jersey Shore.

Yes, Ja'mie King is incredibly annoying. But I think that just makes the character more interesting to watch - you end up watching and hoping that something terrible could happen at any moment for your own enjoyment. It's like a less harmful form of schadenfreude.

But as good as Lilley is playing Ja'mie, and as entetaining as Private School Girl might have been, he doesn't come anywhere near my list of the best performances by men dressed in drag. Let's call it "Men In Skirts", and run through my Top 6 men playing women on television:

Tom Hanks as Buffy, Bosom Buddies

The role that launched Hanks' career. Along with Peter Scolari, Hanks is forced to move into the female-only Susan B Anthony Hotel after their apartment is demolished (while they're both sleeping inside). Hanks, of course, moved on to family comedies like The Money Pit after the show ended in 1982, before turning into an award-winning dramatic actor in the early nineties. Bosom Buddies is still remembered fondly - particularly by Parks & Recreation star Adam Scott, who recruited Paul Rudd to recreate the entire opening sequence for his The Greatest Event In Television History series.

Jamie Farr as Klinger, M*A*S*H

C'mon, Klinger donning a dress in an attempt to get booted out of the military was the highlight of every episode in which it happened. Fun fact: Jamie Farr's character of Klinger was originally written as an effeminate homosexual until the writers decided it would be funnier if he was just a straight guy who liked dresses.

David Walliams as Eddie/Emily Howard, Little Britain

Little Britain featured plenty of great characters - Bubbles DeVere, Carol Beer ("Computer says no."), Lou and Andy - but nothing on Little Britain made me laugh harder than Walliams' portrayal of Eddie Howard, a man with a penchant for dressing in Victorian garb under the name Emily, and belting out "I'm a lady" in the worst falsetto voice imaginable.

Gary Anthony Williams as Clarice Bell, Boston Legal

One of the greatest law shows ever made, Boston Legal was well known for its large cast of unique characters. One of my favourites was Clarence Bell, originally introduced to audiences as Clarice, a cross-dresser suing her employer for gender discrimination. Clarence was eventually hired by Crane, Poole and Schmidt as an assistant, before eventually becoming an associate and practicing law with the firm.

David Cross as Tobias Funke as Mrs Featherbottom, Arrested Development
Funke, the world's first ever licensed "analrapist" (part analyst, part therapist) once dressed as a British nanny named Mrs Featherbottom in an absurd attempt to get closer to his family without actually doing anything to get closer to his family. Yes, it was a direct lift of Mrs Doubtfire, the Robin Williams film from the mid-nineties.

Personally, I think Mrs Doubtfire would have been better if it had starred Tobias Funke. Not better, watchable.

Bonus: Kathleen Turner as Charles Bing aka Helena Handbasket, Friends

Okay, Turner isn't a man playing a woman - but she surely deserves mention for being a woman playing a cross-dressing man, right? Helena Handbasket is the name I would use if I were a cross-dresser. Not if, when.

* So, who are your favourite "Men In Skirts"? And did you watch Ja'mie: Private School Girl? What did you think?

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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