For first-generation Greek migrants who grew up in a ‘homogenised’ culture in Australia, comedy was a way to share in a common experience that at times included racism and feelings of alienation.
In the 80s and 90s, the experiences of Greek Australians hit the mainstream via theatre productions such as Wogs Out of Work, TV shows like Acropolis Now leading to Effie, Just Quietly and in the following decade the Wog Boy movies.
George Kapiniaris featured in the ground-breaking success of Wogs Out of Work as well as Acropolis Now and the comedian told Neos Kosmos that, decades later, fans still love the character Memo.
“People still crave that,” says the 57-year-old. “I’ve done musical theatre, I’ve done serious plays, but people always come back to me and say ‘when are you going to do another funny show?’ They want us to do these shows. It’s still fun to do retrospective humour and people still love it.”
But Kapiniaris says that as a comedian he can’t rely on his old characters, and if he is to evolve, the same routines aren’t going to cut it.
“If they come and see me and I do my jokes from Wogs Out of Work from 30 years ago, they’re going to go ‘we’ve seen that, why would we come see you if you’re going to keep doing that stuff?’,” he says.
“A lot of the crowd has assimilated to a more modern culture, so we as performers have to update our material and not stick to the same security blanket jokes about food or putting plastic on the carpet.”
However, Kapiniaris revealed that recent Greek migrants to Australia have delivered a new audience.
“You’ve got a community of Greek expats that are discovering shows like Acropolis Now,” he says.
“They are relating to the Memo experience from 30 years ago because they’re going through it as well, in a more modern way of course.”
Following on from Kapiniaris, Nick Giannopoulos, and Mary Coustas are the new wave of Greek Australian comedy performers such as Yianni Agisilaou, Steen Raskopoulos, and newcomer Charisa Bossinakis.
The three younger comics performed at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Before he begins his Sydney run of shows, Agilasou told Neos Kosmos he doesn’t do Greek jokes because it’s too painful.
“I got a bunch of shit at school for being Greek so up until I was a bit older I didn’t like the idea of it. I wasn’t a fan of it,” says the 40-year-old.
“When I was 20 or 22 I didn’t want to be doing wog stuff and I didn’t want to be talking ‘like this, mate.’ It’s what I’ve been trying to avoid my whole life. Really good comedians find out who they are and what it is that makes them unique and put that into their comedy. Also, if you want to make something funny, you kind of don’t want to be traumatised by it.”
Another reason Agisilaou doesn’t do the Greek thing on stage has to do with how he was brought up.
“When I grew up there [weren’t] heaps of Greeks where I lived,” he says. “I went to Scots College (NSW) which was a fancypants private school and there weren’t many Greeks there, so I grew up in a WASPy environment school-wise.
“So that’s why I didn’t feel that I had to say that much on that topic. Most of my friends weren’t Greek. So, if I was going to do that wog humour I was going to do something I didn’t really know.”
Steen Raskopoulos is not your usual stand-up comedian; the 30-year-old’s solo shows are more known for surreal skits and esoteric characters. But the Melbourne Comedy Festival Best Show winner and Edinburgh Comedy Awards Best Newcomer nominee has featured a well-known Greek stereotype in his show – but his style of comedy skews it somewhat.
“One of [the] characters that I play is a Greek priest [who] reviews movies,” he says. “So, I’ll hold the DVD like a Bible, I have a cross and I review the movie while chanting.
“He was in my first show. Since then he’s also reviewed The Avengers and Frozen and during last year’s show he reviewed Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is one of my favourite characters to play. There is stuff that I can do in Melbourne that definitely hits and I can really ham up the Greekness and speak a bit more Greek, unlike when I got to the Edinburgh Fringe where I have to rewrite a few bits and pieces.”
Steen’s father is former Socceroo and Sydney Olympic legend Peter Raskopoulos, and his mum is from country Queensland. Raskopoulos revealed that like many Greek Australians of his generation, the issue of language between himself and his grandparents can be problematic.
“That’s one of my big things, I wish I was taught to speak Greek,” says the UK-based comedian.
“It’s so I could have a bit more of a connection, especially with my Greek grandparents. I don’t think they understand what I do for a living. When I came back to Australia from overseas my yiayia always asks me, ‘Why you go to England? Why?’ I reply ‘Because there are more jobs and opportunities there.’ She says, ‘You can’t you get a job here? Why don’t you work here? Speak to your father.’ It’s weird she thinks my dad can get me a job at a comedy club.”
Charisa Bossinakis, 21, is a third-generation Greek Australian, her parents were born in Australia, and she says her comedy is based on broader aspects of her life rather than her heritage.
“With my comedy, I don’t talk about being Greek,” she says. “I actually made a joke about it at the start of my Melbourne Comedy Festival show. [I say] that even though I’m Greek and I’m performing at the Greek Theatre, ‘if that’s the reason you’ve booked tickets to come and see me and you thought I was going to talk about the plight of being a Greek Australian woman in modern Melbourne then good luck and enjoy the next 50 minutes because I don’t talk about it.’
“But I’m not going to cut it out completely and say I won’t ever talk about being Greek. It’s just at this stage of my life my Greekness is not an issue.”
While Kapiniaris, Agisilaou, Raskopoulos, and Bossinakis have different takes on how they include their ethnic background in their comedy, Agisilaou articulates the shared experience of many Greek Australians.
“The perspective it gave me was one of an outsider [around] both Australian culture and Greek culture because I never really felt I fit, in either,” he says.
“When you are a kid all you want to do is fit in. But as much as I hated being teased growing up, because no 12-year-old wants to feel like an outsider, looking back those experiences held me in good stead. It was a good thing for when I became a comedian because our job is to stand outside the world and commentate on it.”
Upcoming 2018 Sydney Comedy Festival shows:
Yianni Agisilaou Teaching A Robot To Love at Enmore Theatre (118-132 Enmore Rd, Newtown), Thursday 17 – Sunday 20 May at 7.00 pm.
Charisa Bossinakis Boss at The Matchbox, Factory Theatre (105 Victoria Road, Marrickville), Wednesday 9 and Friday 11 May at 7.00 pm.
For tickets for either show, visit sydneycomedyfest.com.au