A new sketch show on Comedy Central has heralded a new era for Pacific voices. But it’s not all big laughs and dick jokes – it’s much more sophisticated than that.
The trailer for new comedy sketch show Sis, released in late June, is bloody funny. As a good trailer should, it takes some of the bigger, more visual gags and packages them into a fast-paced, colourful comedy explosion. It generated a huge amount of excitement, and rightly so. It was the first glimpse of the first of its kind – a mainstream comedy show portraying satire through the eyes of brown people.
But here’s the thing. The full first episode of Sis, which launched on Comedy Central on Wednesday, is a much more nuanced creation than the trailer suggests.
The meta, overarching narrative is told through a group of Pasifika writers – Amanaki Prescott, Taofia Pelesasa and Sieni “Bubbah” Leo’o Olo – workshopping ideas for a sketch comedy show “for and by and about Pacific Islanders”. The group are led by a problematic Pālagi head writer, deftly played by Thomas Sainsbury, who increasingly frustrates Amanaki and Taofia by dragging racist and transphobic stereotypes about Pacific people out of the 1950s and onto the ideas whiteboard. Sweet, guileless Bubbah, however, is on board with every terrible idea and soon becomes Sainsbury’s favourite.
The actual sketches are threaded throughout, starring Gaby Solomona, Suivai Pilisipi Autagavaia and Hillary Samuela as cousins and day ones Miki, Malia and Gee Gee. While they trade wigs, costumes and ofu lelei in a parade of different characters, often the baseline for a sketch is the three women relating to one another in the entirely natural and hilarious way they do in real life (I assume). It’s the only explanation for such an easy rapport, one that so many brown kids will recognise from their own circle of friends. The insults are brutal and unrelenting. The jokes are filthy. The affection is as warm as an island breeze.
From there, they explore racial profiling, feeling (or not feeling) Sāmoan enough, urbanisation, family histories, church community, self-love, sex and sexuality. My favourite parts are the forays into genre, sci-fi elements that pop up in surprising ways – an illicit ‘ava ceremony that heads into Freaky Friday territory, a karaoke bar in an alternate reality. These are often left tantalisingly unresolved. It’s not all set-up and punchline; it’s far more complex.
It’s also challenging. A particularly on-the-nose skit about being chased by debt collectors features writer and actor Ally Xue (Friday Night Bites, Flat3) as a cloned call centre worker. It takes you right to the edge of uncomfortable and then jumps into the Twilight Zone before you can figure out if someone’s going to get cancelled for it.
Later in the episode, the services of Māori “kaitiaki and mediator” Grayson are sought to help the writers room manage the growing tension. Sporting a Protect Ihumātao t-shirt and a top knot, Grayson is a perfectly affable caricature but I found myself starting to bristle. “Are our wānanga a joke? Is kaitiakitanga a joke?” I thought to myself. At the resolution of the wānanga Grayson drops the congenial front and mutters “fuckin’ hell” under his breath and I realised I’d been had. It had done exactly what good satire is supposed to – made me uncomfortable with the reflection of myself, then released the valve and made me laugh at my foolishness.
Creator and writer Hanelle Harris (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) features briefly as the high-powered television producer the writing team are trying to impress. From woah to go it’s an impressive range of characters, perspectives and voice-y writing.
Harris described creating Sis as “story sovereignty” in a recent interview on The Project, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit bolder after watching. I felt ownership of what I’d seen. But I don’t just love the show because I’m a brown girl, although seeing that friendship dynamic and particular Pacific sense of humour on screen is an incredible breath of fresh air (or the kind of breath you didn’t know you were holding, being exhaled for the first time). I love Sis because it’s goofy, dirty, imaginative, weird and really funny.
The cherry on the sundae is the ending. I won’t say any more, other than that I was surprised to feel such incredible warmth as the credits rolled.
It’s not Chris Lilley’s “provocative” satire, nor is it Billy T James’s blunt observations of race relations in the 1980s. It’s a new and now social commentary with dick jokes and brown women front and centre. I absolutely can’t wait for episode two.