Pushing boundaries ... Chris Lilley (centre) as Jonah in this latest series.

Pushing boundaries ... Chris Lilley (centre) as Jonah in this latest series.

The comedy of Chris Lilley is a rare but familiar jewel. It is not that the ability to draw laughter from cringe-making tension is unique. Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, the latter especially in his Ali G persona, have been giving masterclasses in the art for years.

But, along with Lilley, they mostly stand alone in television comedy, unchallenged for their ability to push out to the very edge of acceptability and beyond.

Lilley’s latest effort for the ABC, Jonah From Tonga, an essay on class, identity and race in six chapters, will upset and outrage, even as it delights and enlightens. Aunty very generously, and cunningly, released the entire series into the wild over the weekend, making it available to stream via the public broadcaster’s iView app.

But only long enough for the select few who were paying attention to binge-watch the outer-suburban saga of Jonah Takalua, the aggressively moronic, foul-mouthed 14-year-old larrikin islander from 2007's Summer Heights High.

As with Lilley’s previous series, it takes only a few minutes to make out fracture lines along which people are going to split. The obscenity. The racism. The exhausting homophobia. The cruelty. The stupidity. 

Many viewers will never see past them, either because Lilley offends their old world sensibilities, throwing F- and C-bombs around like punctuation marks, or because of his crime against the finer feelings of more modern folk who do not care for the use of the words “retard” or “gay” as an insult. These latter will find the opening episode, in which Jonah is temporarily exiled back to Tonga, especially uncomfortable. Lilley seems at times to be mocking the most powerless and even toying with racial contempt; the hot plutonium of modern comedy, challenged only by getting your hee-haws out of rape jokes.

But the arc of Lilley’s humour bends towards tragedy, not cheap shots. The unease that elicits nervous grins as a precursor to the explosive release of laughter comes not only because of his trespasses against modern manners (sometimes mislabelled political correctness), but also because he trespasses into areas rarely braved by other, safer comedians. Not just of race, sex and culture, but of the hard economic disparities underlying them. Without giving away spoilers, it’s fair to say Lilley lets none of his characters in Jonah get away with their stupidity.

It’s not all dark comedy and the theatre of pain, however. He gives us real character insights, both individually, and into the collectives for which those characters stand. The inchoate rage of Jonah and his “Fobbalicious crew” of Tongan misfits when Jonah’s break-dancing is exposed as a bit ordinary, is a triumph of showing, not telling and one of the most accurate portrayals of impotent teen rage you'll see this year.

Himself a former inmate of endless remedial classes at school, Lilley, isn’t mocking his subjects as much as trying to understand and explain them by osmosis. For the dimmer kiddies in the audience, there are sympathetic guides such as the long-suffering Mr Joseph, who runs the “Lazarus” program (back from the dead, geddit?) at the Holy Cross High School. Driven to explosive violence at least once an episode, the ex-soldier has great insight and patience with Jonah and friends, explaining to camera: “They're teenaged boys. The decision-making part of their brains hasn't fully developed. It's why they do such f---ed up things sometimes."

He wants a fair go for his misfits and losers. Just like Chris Lilley.

Jonah From Tonga premieres on Wednesday, May 7, at 9pm.