Last updated: May 22, 2011

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Is Chris Lilley's Angry Boys funny or offensive?

Chris Lilley

Angry Boys star Chris Lilley in costume as controversial new character S.mouse. Source: Herald Sun

CRINGE fest or comedy? Chris Lilley's new television series Angry Boys has hit a nerve.

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COMEDIAN and writer Chris Lilley has again proved himself as a satirical chameleon who inhabits every one of the cringeworthy characters in his new series Angry Boys.

But have his new over-the-top creations given comedy a dirty name or given us a greater understanding of humanity along with a laugh?

Comedy tends to draw a fine line between reality and fantasy and Lilley's meshing of the two in Angry Boys became a worldwide conversation on Twitter when the first episode went to air this week.

We can either sit back and numb ourselves with vapid American sitcoms or enter a world Lilley creates which satirises the Australian microcosms that surround us.

Considering the knock-out ratings from the highly-anticipated Angry Boys series which aired on ABC1 on Wednesday night, it seems Lilley's controversial new characters have found their niche in popular culture.

The ABC1 world premiere of the highly-anticipated 12-part comedy series attracted 1.4 million viewers nationwide, making it ABC1's most watched program of the year to date and easily winning its timeslot. In Adelaide, a solid audience of 145,190 tuned in.

When Lilley's Summer Heights High launched in 2007 it attracted 1.2 million viewers nationwide.

Lilley's character "Gran" and Angry Boys were both trending worldwide on Twitter as people uploaded instant reviews in 140 characters or less on Twitter.

Angry Boys was the top trender in Australia before the show even began. And it hit the top on Twitter worldwide once it started.

Most tweeters loved Gran's honesty with the juvenile offenders, making them superhero costumes and bed linen.

Gran has no qualms calling prisoners "negroes", and bagged some of them for "petrol sniffing". Overall most tweeters concluded it was "so wrong, but so funny".

Associate Professor of Screen and Media at Flinders University Karen Vered believes Lilley is a master at exaggerating human behaviours for comedic effect.

"It is an astute performance of recognisable stereotypes in a comedic interpretation," she said.

Professor Vered explains Lilley's Gran, who rules the courtyard with tough love, was a creation to enjoy because she is just that, a character made for comedy.

"It's an exaggeration, a hyperbole, it's over the top and that's funny," Professor Vered said.

"She doesn't have just one offensive feature of the stereotype of the female prison guard, she has multiple characteristics. That's why it's laughable, it's unreal. What is funny is the unreality of it. They pack every inappropriate 'politically incorrect' behaviour into the one character."

On Twitter, it wasn't all good news as some viewers complained about the swearing and the politically incorrect nature of the series.

"Load of crap Angry Boys. Not funny. How often does the F bomb need to be slapped in our face. Lost me," tweeted viewer Larry Sixsmith.

Another lacklustre review came from Matthew Ruffin on Twitter, who wrote: "Isn't Angry Boys just Kylie Mole 20 years on? It has its moments, but am I the only one who finds it a bit exploitative?"

Lilley is not the first to make controversial television. He follows a long line of television shows that have offended hordes of people and made the rest laugh, including South Park, Family Guy, Fat Pizza, Jackass, The Chaser and the Ronnie John's Half-hour.

However, Lilley's successful ratings, celebrity following (popstar Katy Perry is a fan) and cult status worldwide shows he has succeeded in artfully marrying comedy and reality.

He creates embarrassing and vulnerable characters who are trying to find their place in the world. They are earnest characters, not politically correct, but are part of an embellished humanity.

Executive director at the Australian Institute for Social Research and Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide, John Spoehr, says the worldwide discussion is not only because "great comedy tends to polarise audiences" but that Lilley's exaggeration of stereotypes helps bring to the fore the troubles boys and men face in society.

"I think that Angry Boys asks audiences to think critically about the stereotypes it presents," he said.

"The satire helps to make a difficult subject more accessible. We are asked to consider what shapes boys in the 21st century. This is unsettling for many because it deals with anger in society and boys' anger in particular."

Prof Spoehr said the series could be read as a warning of anti-social behaviour.

"If we don't recognise the causes of anger as a society and learn how to better manage anger we risk condemning some boys to the bleak future that juvenile detention represents.

"Dealing with that anger as a society is one big message that you might take from the show. Men in particular are challenged to ask what sort of role models they are in helping boys to express their feelings, deal with grief and manage their anger.

"It is edgy comedy at its best."

The 1970s US television show All In The Family had social studies carried out on its litigious character Archie Bunker played by John Carroll O'Connor. "His character was a famous bigot," Vered said. "Research showed that the beliefs people bring to the television show are reinforced no matter what they're watching. The television doesn't necessarily change your views, it just confirms the ones you already hold."

So whatever you think of female prison guards, Lilley's character - or indeed any of his new characters - is not going to change your mind.

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