Nick Giannopoulos, of Wogs out of Work fame, warned that he would take “legal action against comedians using the word ‘wog’ to promote their shows.” The successful stage production Wogs Out of Work debuted at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 1987. It was one of the most successful stage shows in Australia’s history. It ran for four years to packed houses in major theatres and venues. It was the first time that ‘wog’, a racial slur aimed at Southern European migrants, especially Greeks, was subverted by ‘wogs’.
Nick Giannopoulos, Simon Palomares and Maria Portesi wrote Wogs Out of Work as a stage production. It seeded the first ever ethnic sitcom on commercial Australian television, Acropolis Now. This was an astonishing achievement by an ensemble of culturally diverse actors, writers and producers who rarely graced Australia’s stages, and screens at that time, unless of course they played ethnic stereotypes, the grocer, butcher, taxi driver, pizza maker and so on.
Simon Palomares and Maria Portesi were the co-creators and co-owners of Wogs out of Work. George Kapiniaris and Mary Coustas joined the production later as cast members.
The characters who found life in the sitcom Acropolis Now resonated with second-generation Greek, Italian and children of immigrants. For the first time we all saw comedy about us, about our lives that was created by our peers. We recognised the archetypes. It was not Mark Mitchell’s hairy, greasy, ‘wog’, Con the Fruiterer. They were cool in the stonewash jeans and mullet haircut 80s.
We heard ourselves, our malapropisms, and saw our (mis)behaviours. We recognised the characterisations of our parents, working in factories, cafes and milk bars. We laughed at our crassness until it ached and forgot our deep self-loathing and faux aspirations. We laughed at the racism that we, including our parents endured. But we laughed from a position of power for the first time. We gave back as well making fun of the button-up and puritan Aussies, who the characters casually called, ‘skips’.
Simon Palomares’ ‘Ricky’ was the ‘wog’ who ‘passes’. He was European, Spanish, urbane, yet still a ‘wog’ in the eyes of the mainstream. He was the straight man to Giannopoulos’ ‘Jim’, Kapiniaris’ ‘Memo’ and Coustas’ ‘Effie’.
Effie, in her skintight leopard-print dresses, with her huge hair and mile-high stiletto heels brazenly lusted after Ricky. She was an exaggeration a working-class Greek-Australian young woman, in the 80s, the one that didn’t go to uni. She was not the ‘good girl’. Her more educated Greek peers looked down on her. As Effie would say she was seen as, “An embarrassment”. Effie was exotic ‘for Anglo men that lusted for the ‘other’, and the ‘slut’ Anglo women feared her sexual confidence. Effie had no fear – she was dark, extravagant, confident and loud. Most of all she was very funny.
George Kapiniaris’ ‘Memo’ was the salt of the earth new immigrant, a ‘good boy’, the optimist in the face of overwhelming odds. He as a migrant, unlike the others who were born in Australia. He was far away from his home and family. Memo was the ‘off-the-boat-wog’, the real alien and reminded Australian-born Greeks of their roots which they didn’t like it. For the Anglos he was a ‘real wog’.
Nick Giannopoulos’ ‘Jim’ was a suburban Greek boy; a working class fantasy to Anglo ‘chickie babes’ as he called them. He was charismatic, lustful, over-confident and mildly narcissistic. There is no doubt his mother loved him like a ‘Greek boy.’ Jim was loathed by the Anglo Saxon men and regardless of his sexism women craved him – a bad boy from a good family. Jim was tough, shrewd and he always won. A ‘smartarse wog’ – the one that doesn’t know his place. His ethnocentricity and his ability to shonky the system made him an anathema to Aryan manhood. Aspirational middle-class polite Greeks saw Jim as deep stain on the cultural reputation they tried to cultivate. Jim always exuded a sense of possible or imminent violence. This ‘wog’ seduced your girlfriend then slapped you down while scamming you for cash.
Nick Giannopoulos and his peers changed the face of comedy in Australia. No longer was the ‘wog’ on our television screens a benign immigrant’s son or daughter, trying to be a good Aussie. These wogs did not seek validation.
Wogs out of Work and Acropolis Now confirmed that ‘wogs’ were really composites characters born British and Northern European racial fears of the South and the East. Let’s face it, we have never really been that ‘white’, thus we’re ‘wogs.’
Sadly, since then, every reiteration of the ‘wog’ theme by Giannopoulos has been low-grade wogexploitation. Jim, Ricky, Memo and Effie the more nuanced and funny archetypes died. The acerbic wit of the original work written and produced through the collaboration of Nick Giannopoulos, Simon Palomares and Maria Portesi simply evaporated and a Godzilla Wog Boy emerged.
When Giannopoulos tried to break into Britain with his cinematic debut Wog Boy he failed. The racial slur ‘wog’ in the UK is used to diminish other people of colour. In America Wog Boy had no resonance with the large Greek American community, or any other American. A few years later Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding did it all and much better.
‘Wog’ is a venom that can be an antidote when employed for subversive purposes. Otherwise it is just racism. African American poet, Maya Angelou once described the N-word as “poison, whether you take poison from a vial or pour it into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison.”
Giannopoulos since the halcyon days of Wogs out of Work and Acropolis Now merely leverages off the word only to trot out passé one-dimensional stereotypes.
We are middle aged now, and our children use ‘wog’ as a badge of honour, while the harder racism is meted out against African, South Asian and other newer arrivals. The new ‘wogs’.
I on the other hand, never got used to that word, I never saw my family or me as ‘wogs’. So, Giannopoulos can have it and he can use it as much as he likes, ‘farkeen’.