Standup guy took ‘Big Bite’ to become TV’s ‘Heroes’

Lilley's mockumentary satire a domestic, int'l hit

SYDNEY — If Aussie drama is knocking on death’s door, then Oz comedy is looking a bit peaked.

In 2005, Seven Network’s “Let Loose Live” — a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch skein — was canceled after just two episodes, and Nine’s “Comedy Inc.: The Late Shift” had a tepid latenight bow. But one unlikely bright spot was comedian Chris Lilley, who began his career performing standup in Sydney and doing guest roles on Seven Net’s sketch skein “Big Bite.”

He hit big in 2005 with “We Can Be Heroes,” a mockumentary satire that followed five characters as they vie for the title of Australian of the Year. Skein premiered as six 30-minute episodes on pubcaster ABC.

The characters are Phil Olivetti, a policeman who saved nine children in a bouncy castle accident; Ricky Wong, an Asian student and amateur thespian who puts on a play about Aborigines; Daniel Sims, a country boy who donates his eardrum to his identical twin, Nathan; Ja’mie King, a private-school girl who sponsors 85 Sudanese children; and Pat Mullins, a housewife who plans to roll herself to the center of Australia for charity.

Lilley skewers the overly serious intentions of the well-meaning band in a deadpan delivery reminiscent of Blighty’s “The Office” — but the difference is that all the roles are played by Lilley.

“That was the hook, it was the interesting thing that made people intrigued by the series,” Lilley tells Variety. “It wasn’t just me being self-indulgent and saying, ‘I want to be everything.’ ”

In fact, that people may think Lilley’s played all the characters for ego reasons clearly horrifies the self-deprecating comedian, who completely immersed himself in the characters.

He interviewed teenage girls and their families and researched an Asian amateur theater group. The character of Ricky Wong proved the greatest challenge because, as a Caucasian playing an Asian, he risked sliding into caricature. But it’s a testament to Lilley’s acting skills as well as his scripting that the 31-year-old is as believable as an Asian guy as he is a teen girl.

The series was not only a critical and ratings success for the ABC, but was a boffo DVD seller, shifting 50,000 units, a huge result for the niche pubcaster.

Show — which was nommed for two Australian Film Institute awards — also has been a surprise international hit. Skein has sold to Blighty, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand and will show Stateside on the Sundance Channel, retitled “The Nominees.”

“The strongest response was from the Sundance Channel. I thought Australian culture would be so foreign to them, but they just really got it,” Lilley says. The comedian is also in the early stages of remaking the series for the U.S.

“It would be about finding the American of the Year, and it would be either a new actor or they were interested in me doing it,” Lilley says. “I’m a bit anxious about that. There is the whole culture to learn about, and it would take me a long time. It would be easier letting them translate the script.”

Lilley’s next project begins shooting in July and continues in the mockumentary vein. Set in a high school, it includes a drama teacher called Mr. G, whom Lilley developed in his “Big Bite.”

Does he think sketch comedy in Oz is dead?

“Australia is so small it doesn’t want to take risks with things and they think: How can I replicate (popular ’80s sketch skein) ‘Fast Forward,’ ” Lilley says. “But the audience says: ‘Well, we saw that 15 years ago.’ “

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