The Family Law looks set to be a comedic smash for the SBS when it launches on 14th January. Based on the memoir of the same name it follows the tribulations of growing up gay in an Asian-Australian family in Queensland. The book’s author Benjamin Law spoke to B&T on why he hopes the show ruffles a few TV feathers…
Despite the TV show being about your childhood you don’t actually make an appearance, is that right?
I make a cameo appearance in the opening episode. The script called for a judgmental Asian and I’m like, “I think I know who can play that” and it would be me and my real family.
Can you act?
Not really and I didn’t really have to. It was more silent acting.
How autobiographical is the show?
The Family Law was a book I wrote in 2010 and it was autobiographical, it was a memoir, it was a black comedy about growing gay and Asian in coastal Queensland in the 90s as my parent’s marriage fell apart around me. All classic comedy material, really.
So how’d it morph into a six-part comedy TV series?
It’s really funny because I thought I’d written this quite obscure book but after (it was released) quite a few producers thought there was screen potential. It was a really lovely surprise and one of those producers was Tony Ayres from Matchbox Pictures who made The Slap, The Glitch; they make really high quality dramas and comedies. When Tony approached me I already knew his work and his company’s work and thought it was amazing. Tony really ‘got’ the book straight away but when it came to turning the book – which is a non-fiction memoir – into a TV show, it had no structure. So in order to make a six-part comedy we had to be promiscuous with the actual truth to get the real life emotional truth of what actually happened.
It’s not all comedy though, is it? There’s some tough stuff in there, too – like your parent’s marital breakdown?
You’re absolutely right. But great comedy has an element of tragedy and drama in there. All good drama has an element of comedy in there and that’s true of real life. Life is complicated and there’s never one tone throughout and I think when we talk about writing a comedy where a marriage falls apart all your clues are right there, you’re writing about the grimmest thing and finding truths involved in it. That line between tragedy and comedy has always been quite thin. It’s that old saying that time + tragedy = comedy. You give anything enough time and you can see the humour in things. Tragedy is when I cut my finger and comedy is when I fall into an open sewer and die. It’s all about perspective and in the writer’s room we always wrote the drama first. We wanted to find the truth of these characters and what happened in the separation and what happens when marriages fall apart. We’d write the most brutally heartbreaking scenes and then the comedy would come later either through a set piece or something someone says or something inappropriate happens.
When it came to the actors – after all, they’re playing you and your family – how close were you to being involved in the casting?
My involvement was as a writer and when it came to casting that wasn’t really my job. But at the same time the producers encouraged me to come to the castings. But I think it’s psychotic enough to write a TV show about your family and I didn’t want to be the psychopath that casts my family as well; I didn’t want to interfere. I had the idea in my head what my dad sounds like and what my mum looks like but what we really wanted was the actors to do a good job with the script we’d written them. Look, we’re not making a documentary and that helped free everybody up. It’s an almost cartoonish version of my family.
How did your actual family take the news they were to be portrayed in a TV comedy series?
My poor family! They’ve always featured in my writing and then the book and now there’s a TV show that’s inspired by things that happened to us. I think they’ve always been so supportive of my career than when the idea of the television show came along – and it took a long time for the show to come together – I think there was excitement mixed with this whole “what the hell is going to happen? There’s going to be these actors, these strangers playing us and are we going to be unhappy with what we see?” But that all changed when they started reading the scripts and they realised they were going to be funny and they had heart and there was really wrong humour in it which they all love. And when they visited the set all the actors who play them are a lot younger, they’re playing childhood versions of us, and I think everyone felt quite protective of them.
The previews I’ve seen don’t portray your mother in a particularly flattering light?
I think all the characters do monstrous things in the show but the main thing we wanted to do in the writing was that we knew why they were doing it. It’s monstrous but it’s done with pathos too. We wanted the audience to see themselves in the situations and that you understand the consequences of what they’re doing and the emotion to that and we knew we’d nailed the characters when we’d have arguments about them in the writer’s room. Also family arguments are quite complex, people get upset because they’ve been hurt, they’ve been provoked, so we wanted to make sure all of the complexities of real life including the ugly stuff was there.
Who’s the show’s audience?
Anyone who comes from a family that is inappropriate, anyone who grew up in a family that they were mortified by and embarrassed by, or anyone who grew up in a family where the parents split-up would get the situations as well. Anyone whose family has a pretty inappropriate sense of humour, that’s who it’s for. The stories are for anyone who’s belonged to a family and have found it cringeworthy, that’s what we wanted in there. So the show has a 90 per cent Asian-Australian cast but that’s incidental. The show’s not about racial identity or racial politics, this family is definitely quite Chinese but at the same time how they talk to each other, the things they do to each other, will resonate with any Australian family.
Media, advertising, whatever is constantly lambasted for being very white and middle-class in Australia. Are you breaking new ground here?
It’s a good question. By default we were aware this show would break new ground. One in 10 Australians now have Asian heritage and you definitely don’t see that on TV. Yes, we were aware that we were doing something that you just don’t see on TV a lot. But I think Family Law is firstly about family, but for sure they’re Asian-Australian.
Too often we see clichéd images of people from multicultural backgrounds…
I think if you present a family in all its messy glory then people are going to identify with that. I don’t think the parents, the family in this are good role models. They’re messy, they’re complex. I never indented them to be role models. Jenny goes off the rails, Benjamin does some monstrous things; they’re all kinda freakish in their own separate ways. And so in answer to your question that’s what’s groundbreaking in the show.
To its credit this is something SBS would take a risk with. That perhaps couldn’t be said of the free to air networks?
I’m guessing not. I’ve never dealt with them. I think if you look at American TV at the moment it’s changing a lot – female leads, a lot more African Americans, and these shows are rating their socks off. The whole conversation over there is about diversity and that’s not because of altruism, it’s not that we should do diversity because it’s a good thing, but it also has a commercial component as well. I think when you do anything new it gets eyeballs. I think Australians also crave seeing their neighbours, their cities portrayed in stories no matter the ethnicity of the actors on screen. Australians are ready to have that conversation even if the networks aren’t.