The golden age of Australian comedy

Wogs out of Work and Acropolis Now changed the face of Australian comedy and left a lasting legacy. Mary Coustas, aka Effie, speaks to Neos Kosmos about the era of pushing the boundaries

We owe a lot to the golden age of Australian comedy.

“There wasn’t some pristine, politically correct way of getting our message across. The comedy was in the conflict.” – Mary Coustas

The ’80s and ’90s brought some of the most celebrated and influential Greek Australian comedians to the fore.

Mary ‘Effie’ Coustas, Nick Giannopoulos, George Kapiniaris: comedians who inadvertently changed society’s perceptions of our community while giving Greeks all around Australia a chance to laugh at themselves.

They brought ethnic names onto our screens, normalised a new vernacular and created characters that have lasted the test of time.

Something not many current comedians can say they’ve achieved.

Mary Coustas and Nick Giannopoulos revisit the time and the importance of multicultural comedy in a new ABC documentary series, Stop laughing … this is serious.

Narrated by fellow multicultural comedian and actor, Eric Bana, the series tracks the changing face of Australian comedy, looking inwards at our ability to laugh at ourselves and the power of humour in giving a voice to the voiceless.

It presents Australia’s most loved and cherished characters and shows just how influential they’ve been in creating our national identity and international face.

Think Kath and Kim, Barry Humphries/Dame Edna Everage and of course, Effie.

No one has outlasted the ’80s and 90s age of Australian comedy more than Effie Stephanidis, the big haired, quick talking hairdresser in Acropolis Now.

“Still, every day people come up to me and say ‘Hello good thanks’, or ‘How embarrassment’,” actress/comedian Mary Coustas tells Neos Kosmos.

“Bits of dialogue from us, from Fast Forward, from the Comedy Company still get overused by people every single day.”

Considering more than two decades have passed since Wogs out of Work and Acropolis Now premièred, it’s no small feat.

While it’s easy to look back on success, most of the comedians in that era weren’t expecting to see much of the limelight. They knew from experience that they were facing an uphill battle just to get cast in Australian productions.

“I assumed I would do community theatre for the rest of my life,” Coustas says.

The creator of Wogs out of Work and the hugely successful movie The Wog Boy, Nick Giannopoulos, says he was getting stonewalled at auditions due to his ethnicity.

“I felt like my industry was treating me as a wog,” he says.

“I couldn’t be in Romeo and Juliet because I was a wog. At that point I told the casting agent, you know Romeo’s Italian?”

While Australian political policy was changing to help the rights of migrants, Australian society wasn’t moving as quickly.

Migrants still felt excluded, weren’t being respected or fairly treated and didn’t have a voice to speak out.

Wogs out of Work in 1987 helped push society into the more tolerant culture we recognise today.

“It was the most thrilling time of my life,” Nick Giannopoulos says.

“The characters would wear funny wigs, makeup and costumes and lots of slapstick, but at its essence it was a political movement.

“It started empowering every young kid who’d ever been called a wog, but also a nigga, a slope head. The wog thing became a brand.”

What the immediate success of Wogs out of Work showed was how much this sort of comedy was wanted, and needed.

It gave a voice to multicultural Australia, fed up with being treated differently. Comedy redefined the word ‘wog’. It changed its derogatory meaning by embracing the term, while also uniting all the Italians, Lebanese and Greek members of the community from the post war migration era.

“[Wog] was a brand that resonated with half this country, the half that had missed out,” Giannopoulos says.

Mary Coustas remembers the rawness of the comedy back then, a time where jokes were mined from reality. The Aussie battler had changed from your Paul Hogans to your Papadopouloses.

“There wasn’t some pristine, politically correct way of getting our message across,” Coustas says.

“The comedy was in the conflict.”
Out of the popularity of Wogs out of Work came the hugely successful Acropolis Now.
The sitcom ran from 1989 to 1992, producing 63 episodes and launching the careers of George Kapiniaris, Mary Coustas and Nick Giannopoulos into the mainstream.
It was the first TV show that was unapologetically written for an ethnic audience.
The show even helped popularise the term ‘skip’ or ‘skippy’, a slang term for Australians Greeks and Italians would use, almost like a retaliation for the word ‘wog’.

The appeal of the show was down to the embellished reality of the script.

“If you can make comedy out of the day-to-day stuff, it’s unlimited in terms of how much you can access,” Coustas says.

Effie was a character born out of Coustas’ own observations. Most of her classic sayings were things she’d heard before.

“I’d witnessed Effie. They were called Maria’s back then,” she says.

“They weren’t characters you’d easily miss. Dead big hair, frizzed and teased to the max, tight clothes, thought the world revolved around them.”

Effie was a scene stealer. While most of the actors overdid the slapstick, Coustas mastered her delivery and gave Effie an attitude that resonated so much with the young Greek Australian women of the time.

“I always get told Effie says what everyone wants to say but gets away with it,” Coustas says.

Effie and Acropolis Now weren’t just loved by the Greek community, but Australians all over. Australian audiences felt like they were flies on the wall, getting the chance to see the inner workings of the Greek community. While the humour might have seemed like it was promoting an ‘us and them’ mentality, it was actually opening a conversation between Australians and migrants.

It was bridging the gap between the two groups without it ever getting confrontational.

Coustas says Effie was born out of her own identity crisis as a young girl. She says she sees Effie as what she could have become if her circumstances hadn’t changed.

“There’s a big part of me growing up in Collingwood that could have easily been Effie if I hadn’t been ripped out of the working class and thrown into the middle class,” she says.

“Taken away from the Greeks and thrown in amongst the skips, taken out of high school and thrown into university.”

As Acropolis Now finished its run, Coustas’ popularity grew. She reprised her role in solo shows including the SBS comedy/interview show Effie, Just Quietly and Greeks on the Roof that was based on the British show The Kumars at No. 42.

As trailblazers for ethnic comedy, it was no surprise that other migrant communities would enter the mix.

With the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1972, Australia started taking on a new face, and in turn started producing more multicultural comedians.
The likes of Ahn Do and Hung Le began pushing Australian comedy down a different path, where once again the voiceless were being empowered.
The popularity of the likes of Nazeem Hussain and Ronny Chieng today are proof that the buck is still being passed.

But, as a sign of the times, there’s not much on our TV screens that reminds us of the golden era of skit comedy and local sitcoms.

“It would have been hard to maintain that amount of product beyond that era,” Coustas admits.

She sees a stark difference between the two eras, one where Australia was somewhat closed off to international influences and one that is very much mimicking global trends.

“It wasn’t contrived or imitating a million other things. It wasn’t trying to be American, or cool,” she says of the ’80s and ’90s.

“It seems like everything is just event television or reality TV now.”

Coustas is hopeful and believes there’s room for more Australian comedy to return to our screens with something that blends the two eras well.
“I wouldn’t despair, I think it’s up ahead,” she says.

Stop laughing … this is serious premiers on ABC Wednesday March 25 at 9.00 pm.

Mary Coustas will be performing at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival in A Date with Effie at the Yarraville Club on April 17 and 18.