The title to the show currently playing at the Comedy Theatre is particularly apt, though regrettably, no reference to Star Wars, a genre that lends itself to infinite parody, is made in it. The iconic ‘Wogs’, who subverted a pejorative and propelled a migrant culture triumphantly within mainstream Australian culture, are now no longer out of work. They are no longer ‘Wogboys’. They have grown up, and so many decades later, they have, in the form of Nick Giannopoulos and Mary Coustas, become acclaimed Stars, hence the show’s appellation. These are beloved Australian personalities that have been elevated to the highest point of the comedic firmament, illuminating us all.
A lot has happened since our Star Wogs redefined multicultural politics forever. Early ‘Wog’ work purported to assert a migrant culture that, despite differences in language, religion and tradition, found its commonality in Australian-born or reared ‘wogs’ attempting to decode their parents’ world, while at the same time reconciling it to a mainstream culture that was often disinterested or unwelcoming. Harnessing this trauma, our Star Wogs appropriated what was then a racial slur created by the mainstream and turned it into an identity transcending ethnicity. They taught us to be proud of who we were, in a way grounded within Australian urban reality, rather than our parents’ village memory, in the process, liberating us from the quandary of being stuck between paradigms, through the prism of self-irony and laughter.
Subsequently, in shows like the historic Acropolis Now, they did a remarkable thing. For the first time on prime time mainstream television, they seized control of the narrative altogether, creating a set of complex characters which enshrined a set of stereotypes and cultural identifiers that endure to the present day. What is significant about these stereotypes is that, unlike modern shows that purport to be ‘ethnic’, they did not pander to perceived mainstream expectations of how ‘ethnics’ should be portrayed. Instead, those characters and stereotypes were created by us, in order to tell our own fables to ourselves, satirise ourselves for ourselves and through brilliant humour, make a revolutionary political point about the place of migrants within the definition of Australian culture. Unlike many contemporary ‘ethnic’ comedians who, in their shows, indulge mainstream preconceptions to the extent that they only engage in their culture by demeaning it, creating a set of repellent, amoral and thoroughly self-loathing characters as vessels for what is ultimately an internalised form of orientalism, our Star Wogs imbued their characters with dignity, a moral compass and a conscience, despite their superficial foibles (one ignores the presence of Simon Palomares as the straight, intellectual ‘Spañolo’ at one’s peril: he indicates that there is a multiplicity of wog forms that defy stereotype, thus subverting the whole ostensible stereotypical dialectic), making them thoroughly endearing, and ultimately redemptive, in a manner that was perfected then, and which others have found difficult to emulate ever since.
The Star Wogs‘ comedy has not changed, because the societal causes that engendered it in the first place have not changed either. Instead, intolerance, bigotry, societal polarisation, gender and racial inequality still manifest themselves within our national discourse, in ways similar to those extant in the eighties.
ACROPOLIS NOW AND THEN
Our conception of ourselves as ‘wogs’ in the 80’s, driven in large part by the comedy of Nick Giannopoulos, Mary Coustas and George Kapiniaris, shifted in the 90’s. At that time, the Greeks of Melbourne discovered ‘baraki’ culture, as communication and travel to Greece became more frequent. Slowly, the ‘wog’ identity was discarded for a specifically ‘Greek’ identity that had its roots in the entertainment lifestyle of young contemporary urban Greeks, rather than that of the rural cultural memories of migrants settled in Australia. During this time, young Greeks began to discover differences between themselves and other migrant groups. An emphasis was placed upon Hellenisation, both in language and attitude, rather than revelling in any sort of hybrid culture that was considered illegitimate and no longer socially relevant. Come the new millennium, and that great cultural movement began to peter out. Though still identifying themselves as Greeks, rather than wogs, Melbournian Greeks began to assimilate without realising it. At the same time, the older generation, containing such colourful characters as those that inspired the character Mimo in Acropolis Now, began to fade away, making it difficult for emerging generations to relate to their memory.
This monumental change does not appear in our Star Wogs’ comedy. The self-assured, educated and affluent pontificating metrosexuals of the 21st century, and the permutations of ethnic culture they have created, do not exist in their world. The younger generations of Greeks, who barely speak Greek and whose only exposure to Greek culture is visiting yia-yia and pa-ppoo (syllabised phonetically) in order to eat and get pocket money, are irrelevant to their narrative, as are the Australianised yiayia and pappou who have been here a long time, and no longer feel comfortable in either their parent’s culture, that of the Greeks in Greece, or that of their offspring. Admittedly, these shifts are hinted at by the comedy of Sooshi Mango, whose Italian accents are deliberately contrived and implausible, cleverly signifying just how remote and unapproachable the memories of first generation migrants can be to their descendants, even as they attempt to negotiate their legacy.
Instead, in Star Wogs: The Ethnics Strike Back we are largely treated to a reprisal of our Star Wogs’ most enduring comedy over the years. Well-known characters, such as Miroslav the Taxi Driver and Petroula the Cleaner, make an impressionistic appearance. Though their jokes are well known and oft repeated, they assume a ritualistic, almost liturgical function. We laugh along at them because rather than being figures of derision, these characters are profound and relevant to our contemporary world. At a time where government has consented to the wholesale decimation of the taxi industry, the scatological but wily and resourceful Miroslav determines a manner in which to achieve his comeuppance. Similarly, in an ostensibly retrograde scene, where Petroula visits an Italian family in order to arrange a marriage for her son, a social practice which is now to all intents and purposes extinct within our community, she actually holds up a mirror to materialism and demonstrates fierce loyalty to her progeny. The implication here is simple. We may laugh at her pronunciation, we may consider the scenario dated, but it is the values displayed by Petroula – loyalty, devotion to family, mental agility and tenacity – that form the bedrock of who we are today. Though the elderly are parodied, ultimately, the Star Wogs make them hold their own. Sometimes, we need to look backwards, in order to go forward.
Interestingly, the Star Wogs transcend conceptions of gender, by having male players play female parts and Mary Coustas performs an intriguing portrayal of an emerging Greek ‘type’, the ‘grave kamaki’ – widowers who visit their wives’ graves in order to elicit sympathy and more, from grieving widows. Again, what is significant about these sketches is their total disinterest in engaging pre-conceived mainstream notions of ethnic comedy. This is us, playing just for us, on terms that only we largely understand and within parameters that we create for ourselves, a palpable ‘strike’ against the dictatorship of the conventional.
COMEDY DRIVEN BY TRAUMA AND RACISM
Interspersed between the sketches are what profess to be personal autobiographical monologues by Nick Giannopoulos and Mary Coustas. As is the case with most of the skits in their show, they look back upon a world that has now largely been lost: growing up in migrant communities in the inner suburbs, losing that social cohesion when migrating once more, into the culturally alien outer suburbs and most importantly, enduring racism. There is palpable pain in their voices, as they relate incidents of prejudice. One gets the feeling that there is a trauma here that has not yet healed, even after decades of comedy and this is the primary reason that drives their comedy, explaining why there is need to return to the same tropes again and again. Given that the Comedy Theatre is packed night after night with an elated audience whose average age is between 35-60, causing the edifice to rumble with laughter, it is evident that this trauma, or at least its memory, is shared by a significant section of the community and simultaneously with the hilarity, a good deal of healing and passing on of tradition is taking place, although this process is never finally completed.
An impassioned speech by ‘wog’ icon Effie, who despite her being alluded to as a “dumb slut” by the ABC‘s Late Show, continues to personify (if one looks beyond the surface) in her complex contradictory character traits, neuroses, obsession with virginity and being adored, a complete deconstruction of the feminist paradigm and gender relations within traditional migrant communities, along with a truly ingenious appearance by Pauline Hanson as she has never been seen before, serve to drive the message home. The Star Wogs comedy has not changed, because the societal causes that engendered it in the first place have not changed either. Instead, intolerance, bigotry, societal polarisation, gender and racial inequality still manifest themselves within our national discourse, in ways similar to those extant in the 80’s. By cleverly layering and juxtaposing inter-ethnic insults, the Star Wogs suggest how such racism can be internalised and reproduced among ethnic sub-cultures, once ethnic groups are considered assimilated and acceptable by their mainstream arbiters. As long as these systemic faults within our society endure, the Star Wogs’ well known but no less profound satire, “striking back” as it has done for decades, will not only remain relevant, but perennial.
I counted at least 20 expressions created by the Star Wogs that have sub-consciously been absorbed into my vocabulary over the decades. The migrant world they and I grew up in has changed. Its mores, attitudes and aspirations have broken down and morphed into elements entirely different. The Star Wogs do not claim that the characters they portray reflect the multi-faceted reality of life in ethnic Australia. They merely point to one stylised aspect of them. New comedians must emerge to deconstruct and poke fun at what has emerged from the process of acculturation. But in the meantime, we can rely on their patriarchs, the celestial and exalted Star Wogs to constantly shine from up high, upon the direction whence we came, reminding us of the brilliance but also the burdens of our forebears, prompting us to consider why we are the way we are, lest in the Lethe of modernity, we forget. They compel us, having been made comfortable in our own identity, largely by their work, to understand that each culture has its own inner note and lend us their ears, so we can hear and appreciate their infinite number of melodies.