“A malaka can mean so many things,” says George Kapiniaris about his comedy show Malakas with Attitude (MWA) which is part of the upcoming 36th Greek Festival of Sydney.
The legendary comedy performer’s new show follows on from previous Greek Festival of Sydney hits Finding Memo and Zorba the Freak. Even though Kapiniaris, 56, is speaking to Neos Kosmos on the phone, the interview feels almost like a live show when the actor and comedian explains the idea behind MWA.
“What I am going to explain in the show is that a malaka is not only a wanker,” he says.
“It’s a person who is also full of themselves, someone who big notes themselves. But a malaka can also be a battler, someone who is unfortunate, an underdog, someone who has lost money gambling. Or it could mean someone that’s done really well. What a top malaka! When you add the term ‘with attitude’, it’s not a negative word or positive word; you’re just a malaka with attitude.”
While Kapiniaris is most famous for his role as Memo on Acropolis Now and Wogs Out of Work, MWA is all new material including a song about the hottest topical point of discussion for Greeks.
“I’ve written a couple of new tunes that I’ll be doing in the show,” he says. “Such as Malaka Friendship Week and something which is a little bit controversial. There’s a song that the band They Might Be Giants have called Istanbul, it used to Constantinople.
“We’ll I’m reversing it and calling it It’s Makedonia, Not Macedonia, it’s about how people keep stealing our shit. In that song I talk about the name, and I talk how Istanbul is really Constantinople. How the Parthenon Marbles are ours, so give them back to us.”
Besides the songs, Kapiniaris’ show also contains stand-up elements that explore how Greek Australians have changed over the past couple of decades.
“I always have to keep reinventing the picture,” he says.
“In my routine, I talk about social media, I talk about technology, I talk about how things have changed, I talk about how our parents are getting older, how we’re getting older, kids, and all that sort of stuff. As long as you keep applying your humour to yourself, then people will appreciate it. Because the crowds that used to come and see me in Wogs Out of Work and Acropolis Now have grown up with me. I’ve had kids, we’ve had deaths in the family and so have they. We’ve all had life experiences and if you keep talking about your life experience and then there is a communication there or a relatability.”
Throughout the interview it’s hard not to broach the subject of the record-breaking theatre production Wogs Out of Work that debuted in the Melbourne Internatinal Comedy Festival in 1987, and went on to tour for many years across Australia. The play, written by Maria Portesi, Simon Palomares, Nick Giannopolous, and Mary Coustas lead to the follow-on TV show Acropolis Now that ran for five seasons from 1989 to 1992. The two shows not only helped shape Australia’s comedic voice but gave an insight into a multicultural aspect of society that at the time was hardly seen by mainstream society.
Kapiniaris says the success was more by accident rather than an earnest attempt to shape Australian comedy culture or society.
“We didn’t intend to do any of that,” he says. “When I first started doing comedy with Simon Palomares straight out of drama school, we didn’t expect to be holding up the flag for Greece or Spain or multiculturalism. We just told jokes and stories that we thought were funny. In those days Wendy Harmer and Andrew Denton and people like that were telling the Australian stories. So, I was telling stories about what was funny in my house.”
Kapiniaris revealed that to this day people tell him that when they went to university or high school they studied episodes of Acropolis Now.
“It was because it was so ground-breaking,” he says. “That’s fantastic. That’s awesome. I am glad to be a part of that. But I don’t hang my hat on that because what I am is a performer and a creator. And I have to keep creating. Thank you for the acknowledgment but I am not into that. I’m just into pushing forward and doing my job.”
For kids growing up in the 80s and 90s seeing their lives represented on stage and on screen allowed them to forge an identity but over the years Kapiniaris says there have also been critics.
“We had a lot of pressure over the years,” he says. “Some people were saying you can’t say that because it’s racist, but we’re just telling our story. I’m not saying all Greeks are dickheads, but I don’t like it when Greeks are dickheads – which is why I’m doing the Malakas with Attitude show. We’re just telling our stories.”
Kapiniaris gets even more riled up when he hears that some people wish to censor the use of the word ‘wog’ particularly by Greeks themselves.
“People who want to censor certain words have no idea what they are talking about,” he says.
“People who don’t like the use of that word are trying to put fear back into that word, but instead you are actually creating racial tension by doing that. The best come back for us Greek Australians was when we found the word ‘skip’. Because we had no comeback for the word wog. But once we started going, ‘Yeah, thanks skip’ it calmed it down. Once Acropolis Now was on television the Aussies weren’t scared of us anymore.”
Kapiniaris believes that certain sectors of society perceive Africans and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees in the same manner they viewed Italians and Greeks in the 70s and 80s in Australia.
“They were feared,” he says. “They were just youths that hung out in gangs. But when Acropolis Now came on people started saying, ‘hang on, these guys are funny. They are not scary, they are characters and this is great.’ As soon as we did the show Wogs Out of Work we took that word and owned it. Then me, my friends and cousins were calling each other wog because we weren’t Greek and we weren’t Australians, we didn’t belong anywhere and all the negative energy was taken out of that word.”
Kapiniaris is also starting to get grief for his use of the word malaka. But like he has done throughout his long career, he will continue to ignore the critics.
“Most people love the title and cack themselves,” he says. “Then there are those that don’t have a sense of humour that are offended. When I ask them why they’re offended by the title they go, ‘Greeks aren’t all malakas’. And I reply by saying, ‘I never said it was about Greek malakas, I said it was about malakas in general’. Malakas are all over the world. You don’t have to be Greek to be a malaka. By you saying that you’re assuming we’re all malakas and so you’re the one.
“From my experience it’s almost like the word wog. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s how you present yourself to people. If you are a malaka, people are going to think you are a malaka. If you take the shit out of the word and present yourself as a good person; even if you are a malaka or not people will still love you.”
‘Malakas With Attitude’ takes place on Friday 23 February at Bankstown Sports, Canterbury Leagues Club on Thursday 20 March and the final show in Sydney at Rockdale Town Hall on Wednesday 18 April. Sandwiched in between are shows at the Adelaide Fringe 6-17 March.