Summer Heights High
Sundays, 10:30 p.m.
Ricky Gervais: Out of England — The Standup Special
Nov. 15, 9 p.m.
Our TVs have been filled with imports this season, including Life on Mars (England), Kath and Kim (Australia), The Ex-List (Israel), Worst Week (England) and Eleventh Hour (England).
All popular, acclaimed shows in their home countries. And you know what? The American adaptations are, as the British would say, rubbish. For every series like The Office, which Greg Daniels brilliantly morphed into an American sitcom, there are countless imports that, for countless reasons, haven’t translated.
So why not take the original shows and air them here? Well, HBO is doing just that with Summer Heights High, a hilarious eight-episode mockumentary the Australian Broadcasting Company premiered in 2007.
Summer Heights High purports to be a behind-the-scenes look at an Australian high school. And it begins innocently enough with this explanation: “The following program was filmed on location at a public high school. Three individuals were chosen as subjects. Their daily lives were documented over one school term.”
In fact, Summer Heights High School would be a perfectly normal place, replete with the usual clicks and activities. But writer/star Chris Lilley, who created this series, has inserted three outlandish characters into the mix — all of whom he happens to play.
At times, he’s Jonah Takalua, a troubled eighth-grader who lives to breakdance, punk younger students and make every adult’s life hell. Then he’s Greg Gregson, a massively egotistical drama teacher who calls himself “Mr. G.” And finally he’s Ja’mie King, a spoiled girl who’s at this public school as part of a “swap” program with her private school. “I may be rich,” Ja’mie says, “but I’m not a bitch.”
Lilley is stellar in all three roles, and always for different reasons. As Jonah, he nails the mischievousness and the teenage sulk. Jonah is utterly obnoxious; his idea of amusement is to draw a penis and “tation” on the walls (Dick-tation — get it?). Yet you almost feel sorry for him because clearly there’s something wrong that he’s unable to understand or express.
Lilley’s Mr. G character is hilariously clueless. At one point, he proposes the school build a 10,000-seat theater (yes, 10,000) so they can put on professional-level shows. And, he thinks they should name the theater after him. Through most of the episodes, we see him preparing students for the annual school musical, which starts out to be Anything Goes but then becomes a Mr. G creation called Annabel Dickson: The Musical, named for a student who dies of an overdose of ecstasy. “She’s been sent by an angel to give me an idea for a musical,” Mr. G says effusively. Sample lyric: “She’s a naughty girl / with a bad habit.”
As for Ja’mie, well, we haven’t heard an omigod! type like this since Moon Zappa recorded the song “Valley Girl” with her dad, Frank. Lilley looks like a guy in drag, but that’s OK, because he nails the mean girl characteristics perfectly. “Private schools create better-quality citizens,” Ja’mie tells a Summer Heights High assembly on her first day. “Studies have shown that students from private schools are more likely to get into uni(versity) and end up making a lot more money, while wife-beaters and rapists are nearly all public-school-educated. Sorry, no offense, but it’s true.”
Lilley shot this series in classic mockumentary style (think The Office or This is Spinal Tap), as if a film crew had been let in to view this world. And through the episodes, the stories build. Will Jonah settle down? Will Mr. G be allowed to stage his musical? Will Ja’mie get everything she wants from her public school experience?
It’s well worth finding out.
Gervais’ standup special
Speaking of The Office, Ricky Gervais, a creator and star of the British version of the show, finds himself in front of an adoring crowd in New York to tape his first American standup special. What he comes up with are totally fresh, sometimes outrageous takes on topics such as gay sex, Nazis, Rosa Parks, obesity and America.
“What’s it like to live in a Third World country?” he cracks.
Gervais says he watches the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, so he’s an expert on sharks and Nazis. And what has he learned? That a shark, with its keen senses of smell and sight, “would have found Anne Frank like THAT. Nazis?” he says. “Rubbish.”
He points out that Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, but “I don’t think it’ll ever take off like Christmas because it’s got a wrong vibe about it.” He riffs on Rosa Parks, how after sitting in the front of the bus, she brazenly went on to sit in seats for the handicapped and talk to the driver while the bus was in motion. And he spends quite a bit of time reading from and remarking about an advice pamphlet that deals with alternatives to anal sex.
Gervais’ comedy can be rough, but he’s often the brunt of his own jokes. His obesity bit leads to a discussion of his own excess weight. His mentions of the charity work he does become fodder for jokes in which he’s being greedy, selfish or obtuse — much like his David Brent character on The Office.
You will wince, but you’ll laugh.