Aaron Yap speaks to trans-Tasman duo Jonathan Brough and Benjamin Law of The Family Law, Australia’s first comedy based around the Chinese-Australian experience.
Last month, spurred on by the recent groundswell of support for the fair, accurate representation of Asians on TV, and my personal interest in the subject as an Asian film/TV critic, I wrote about The Family Law, a sharp, rib-tickling comedy-drama about a Chinese-Australian family of seven living in Queensland.
The piece drew interest from its director Jonathan Brough, as well as creator Benjamin Law, whose memoirs the show was based on. We got together to have a chat about how the show came about, the challenges involved in bringing it to TV, and representing the previously unseen on mainstream television.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the American media about the representation of Asians on TV, and the subject has been gathering a bit of momentum in New Zealand as well. When I read Sonia Gray’s article about it, a lightbulb went off, because, as an Asian-New Zealander, it’s something I’ve never really thought about before. So when I came across The Family Law I thought it would be a good thing to write about.
Benjamin Law: Oh good, good. I’m really glad. I don’t think there are any plans to have it broadcast over there at the moment, but can you even legally get it in New Zealand?
Yeah. Madman Entertainment have released the DVD here.
Jonathan Brough: It’s good to know. People don’t tell us this stuff you see.
How did you guys meet and get into the whole memoir-to-TV project?
BL: At the end of 2010 when the book came out, I was approached about turning the book into a TV series. The book has no structure whatsoever. It’s just a hodge-podge of essays about a lot of things: growing up Asian in Australia, growing up rough.
We needed a structure to it, so we wrote the scripts, then got it developed to a stage where we could pitch it properly to SBS who were interested in what we were doing. When it got greenlit, we wanted to find the best director that there is. Jonathan Brough came to mind very quickly, because he’s done incredible stuff with Australian television that bridges drama and comedy really well.
JB: You’re too kind.
BL: I’m a truth-teller. We were going to cast a whole family of Chinese-Australians, and I couldn’t even think of who they would be. There aren’t that many household names that are Chinese-Australian in Australia, to the point where my mum, when I asked her, “Who should we cast as you mum?” she said “Judith Lucy” [a white Australian comedian].
So you guys were involved with SBS from the very start?
BL: Yeah, very early on. SBS is the multicultural public broadcaster of Australia, so it was a natural home for a show like this. When we pitched it they really liked it. I think they had been looking for a show with Asian-Australian content for a long time. One in 10 Australians have significant Asian background, and that isn’t really seen on screens that often.
The original commissioning editor Caterina De Nave, who sadly passed away while we were developing the show, loved how wrong it was. That it wasn’t this polite representation of a Chinese-Australian family, that these were in some ways vulgar, not-quite-right Chinese-Australians as well.
Even in the very first scene where Benjamin’s voice-over says: “At first I thought maybe it was because Mum was Chinese, and then I realised it was just Mum.” This wasn’t necessarily going to be a show about being a Chinese-Australian in some ways. You’re going to have all that cultural specificity right there anyway, but it wasn’t necessarily a show about exploring identity. I think that appealed to them as well.
That line, when I heard it, made so much sense to me because I could relate to it with my mum as well. It’s something that travels across cultures.
BL: What’s your background Aaron?
Malaysian-Chinese. I’ve lived in New Zealand since I was 10, so it’s like 25 years or something now. Were you born in Australia?
BL: Yeah, me and my four siblings, we’re all born here, and born in Queensland as well which I think is a very concentrated part of Australia. My parents moved over in the ’70s and did what migrants do so well – which is breed prolifically – and they had five of us here.
Would there have been any other broadcasters or networks you would have tried outside of SBS?
BL: We did pitch it to ABC, the bigger public broadcaster. At the time we were developing our show, they had already commissioned Please Like Me, a show by Australian comedian Josh Thomas. Season one was very much about his relationship with his larger-than-life mother as well.
Even though we were Chinese-Australian and they were white, they thought there were a few too many resonances to double up. So SBS came onboard and really championed it. Early on we realised it couldn’t be a commercial network TV show anyway, Not necessarily because it was a Chinese-Australian family, more because there is a woman talking about her vagina…
JB: …constantly, yeah. Interestingly, since The Family Law has gone to air, one of the commercial networks has done a new comedy about a Lebanese-Australian family called Here Come the Habibs which is much broader than what we did. It’s really noticeable that people are looking for stories that they haven’t seen before.
Jonathan, do you feel there any differences between working in New Zealand and Australia? Do you think The Family Law could have been made in New Zealand right now?
JB: There’s no doubt that it could have, in theory. People talk about commissioning shows as if it’s some kind of mystery thing. It’s not. A network just has to back a show and a show gets made. So any of the New Zealand networks could definitely make this show. It’s just whether they have the will, and more importantly, the imagination to make something like this. New Zealand television has a very strong vein of conservatism running through it at the moment. It’s a real shame, because it would be a great time to actually try and be innovative rather than be looking backwards.
What was the process like to find an entirely Chinese-Australian cast?
JB: When we actually came to cast the show, we had to find a seven-person Asian-Australian family. Mum, Dad, and five kids. We auditioned people in Canada, the U.S., China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia. We looked at someone in the U.K. Television here, more so than New Zealand, is really white. That’s something that is changing very slowly – in fact, we’ve all had a lot to do with that. It was probably one of the toughest casting processes I’ve experienced, but it worked.
BL: I’ve been working on a few other television projects now, and you hear sometimes that, “Well, should we go out and cast this specific racial background? Won’t that be difficult because the talent’s not there?” That whole idea that you can’t have diversity because the talent’s not there just isn’t true, and The Family Law showed us that. It’s just that you have to make a much bigger effort and investment of time and resources to do it.
JB: I have heard this excuse many many times, “Oh, we would cast someone who’s non-Anglo but there just isn’t anyone who can do it.” We’re kinda calling bullshit on that now. Something like The Family Law had a huge amount to do with that. It’s happened in New Zealand with the Māori and Polynesian acting communities. You do have to build a community of actors and practitioners. Obviously in New Zealand it started a long time ago, whereas it’s pretty new here.
There has to be a starting point.
JB: Yeah, absolutely. I read a guy a couple of years ago in Sydney for something and he was an Asian-New Zealander. He said it was the first time in the seven years that he’d read for a part that wasn’t specifically Asian. He was just so grateful, it blew my mind. That’s the other problem: Asian actors often get cast because they are Asian, not because of how they can act, and that drives the actors crazy.
BL: Talking to the actors on the show – Anthony who plays the dad, Takaya who plays the neighbour across the road, and George who plays the older brother – all of them say a very similar thing. Within Australia, most of the stuff they go for is because the role calls specifically for an Asian person. They see each others faces constantly at the same casting calls, but when Anthony goes to America for the first time, his competition are White, Latino, Black, Asian actors. It’s a whole range because there are mechanisms in place.
You’ve mentioned responses you’ve had from Asian audiences before, are there any other stories, or even negative responses, that viewers have had?
BL: The first episode of the show actually debuted on SBS’ Facebook page for 72 hours before it went on TV. What was great about that was we could see the comments from Facebook and Twitter. There was this huge tidal wave of Asian-Australian family members tagging each other saying “OMG it’s my family, OMG it’s my family” and we expected that. But what really took me back were non-Asian families saying that. White Aussie families, Greek families, and Lebanese families. It was sort of surprising.
The second surprise was how many people who were mixed race. The neighbours across the road, you know, the perfect family, we just thought were delicious characters, but a lot of kids were like, “we’ve never seen a mixed race family on screen before.” I wasn’t particularly aware we were breaking new ground but clearly we were, as a side effect.
JB: The amount of interest was extraordinary. We got around 1.2 million views on Facebook and had 300,000 watchers over three days. It went nuts. It’s actually the most-watched comedy on the SBS online platform history now i think.
So there were no problems getting the second season greenlit?
BL: I think they greenlit it before the show even finished.
Is there anything else you’d like to add to let people know about the show?
BL: I guess statistically, as I’ve said before, 1 in 10 Australians have significant Asian backgrounds. That hasn’t been represented on television for… forever, basically. What I like about the show is the cast is like 90% Asian-Australian so it’s kind of like a cheeky and aggressive ‘corrective’ [laughs].
JB: Yeah, there were lots of token jokes about me, that it was nice to just have one tall whitey just for “appearances sake”.
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