George Kapiniaris shot to stardom in the early ’80s with his starring role in the hugely popular stage show Wogs Out Of Work.
There are certain taboos in comedy that you can’t even touch. I guess sometimes we get a bit too enthusiastic and carried away. There’s a very thin line.
The engaging performer developed his popular style of ethnic comedy at Rusden College and, with fellow student Simon Palomares, formed the iconic The Tiboldi Brothers, a stand-up comedy duo, in 1985.
It didn’t take long for them to be labelled as pioneers in ethnic humour. Kapiniaris has taken the inspiration he draws from his Greek heritage to a whole different level, luring his Aussie audiences into side-splitting spirals of laughter.
Following George’s very successful Adelaide tour as part of the Fringe Festival with his show End Of Dark Days Trev, comes his Melbourne Comedy Festival gig with fellow comedian Gabriel Rossi, entitled San Memo Festival, a musical comedy show with a European flavour.
The duo showcases two hours of the funniest song parodies, with a lot of subjects raised in the songs relating to their Greek and Italian backgrounds, with hilarious results. San Memo Festival went on stage this Sunday 29 March with abounding multiculturalism and firing up a party atmosphere with delightful word and song plays.
“You can’t avoid doing wog-ish humour, coming from a Greek background,” George Kapiniaris tells Neos Kosmos.
“I’m an Australian man with Greek heritage, I can’t avoid that, and if I do it doesn’t seem like I’m true to myself.”
George has, of course, moved on from doing what he did 20 years ago; the things he currently brings to the stage are mostly related to his daily life and experience, therefore more people can relate, not necessarily just those of Greek descent.
“The jokes that I’m talking about now are about having kids, being married, romance, dealing with my in-laws, schools, all the stuff that I’m going through. I also talk about politics and what’s going on with the world,” he explains.
“I do tend to over-Greek-ify some material and I’m taking a few steps back, as a show is more engaging and open to several types of audience when it comes from a neutral point of view,” he confesses.
“Australia is a multicultural nation and the young Greek Australians are more Australian. We are all dealing with the same issues and there is hardly any discrimination.”
As George stresses, the point in being a comedian is making the audience laugh and enjoy your jokes. Making other kinds of audiences follow you and actually want to buy tickets to your shows is fulfilling.
“I embrace my Greek identity and part of me loves it when the audience out there, be it in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, really want to hear those old stories, to a point where they get upset if we leave them out of the routine.”
“The good thing is that I don’t have a good memory so I can’t remember a lot of my old routines, therefore I constantly refresh my acts,” he admits.
“At the moment I’m writing some new stuff as well for the new show.”
George has a band, has done club dance, musical theatre, been a singer, is a very popular stand-up comedian, does films, TV shows and is a full-time husband and dad.
“Well I don’t know how I’ve done it over the last six years, having kids, being 52. I do help my wife out a lot and I really am a hands-on parent, trying to help out and I don’t want to leave the kids there on the iPads in front of the TV,” he says.
“That really kind of limits the number of hours I can work, though I am grateful for being able to work at night and spend the days with my family.”
He firmly believes that one can still have time to themselves and try something more creative, as long as they love what they are doing. Kapiniaris is always seeking something new and challenging, which is the main reason why he enjoys mixing with younger performers and trying out new material on stage whilst on tour. His favourite crash-test city is Adelaide, as he believes it consists of a very mainstream audience, very middle-of-the-road, not too posh nor too easy on just any sort of material. Even though he is considered to be a source of comic mastery, he has experienced several moments of stage-failure.
“Because I do stand-up as my main way of making a living, I have to try lots of things to see what actually works and what doesn’t. What people love and what they find inappropriate.”
“I talked about the Lindt factory after the siege and people just wouldn’t let me go there. They didn’t want to know. I made a story about how I wanted to get everyone chocolates for Christmas but now I can’t, I’m too scared to go to the shop. And that made everyone really nervous in the audience. It was too fresh. I remember when there was the Gulf War in Kuwait, and I did some jokes about SCUD missiles. They didn’t go for that either, because it was just too soon,” he confesses.
“There are certain taboos in comedy that you can’t even touch. I guess sometimes we get a bit too enthusiastic and carried away that we feel some things are acceptable on stage, because we are comedians, though in the eyes and ears of the audience the same ‘innocent’ puns seem inconsiderate and sometimes disrespectful. There is a very fine line.”
Despite the fact he has gotten himself in trouble a lot of times, George keeps improvising during his acts, constantly interacting with his audience, even when this involves slamming their racist comments or annoying behaviour.
“Unfortunately, more than less there will be someone in the audience that just won’t shut-up, making the performer’s job difficult and giving the rest of the attendees a bad experience. If someone wants to be the centre of attention in my shows, I make sure they get their fair share of ‘fame’,” he says.
“Another thing is, I do swear. If you go to America, there’s not one American comic who holds back. But I’m expected, as a good Greek boy, to not swear. I don’t believe in that.”
“I can’t understand the ‘I don’t like George or John or Mary because he or she swears’ thing,” he says while laughing.
This is his 30th year in the business and he feels more than lucky that he has never been unemployed or obligated to do other jobs in order to make a living.
“I’ve managed to be in the right place at the right time a lot of times. I think I’m pretty good at what I do, but I think luck has had a little bit to do with it aside from skill and talent.”
“It saddens me, however, that 90 per cent of performers and actors in this country are unemployed,” he says.
“In Australia, before someone sees an Australian movie they’ll see an English movie, an American movie and an Irish movie and a Canadian movie, but they won’t look at an Australian movie, they won’t get one from the video shop. I myself can’t remember the last time I borrowed an Australian movie, unless it was something I had to see.”
George thinks that actors have to be trained in doing stand-up comedy, whereas stand-up comedians ‘have it in them’. He has always modelled himself on Robin Williams, as he was an improviser who got into sitcoms, became a stand-up sensation and then a Hollywood film star, with a talent spanning every genre.
“I always seem to believe that an actor or comedian can only prove themselves live on stage or in stand-up comedy, although actors can’t do comedy unless they’re stand-up comedians,” he muses.
“You can’t call George Clooney up to do a stand-up show, but you could call Robin Williams, who has been my idol and role-model.”
“Look at Zach Galifianakis, he was a stand-up comic before he was an actor. He went on stage and improvised, having a fuller understanding of what works on stage and in comedy,” he says.
To hear some of your favourite songs as you’ve never heard them before, George Kapiniaris has prepared a comic-music treat that will go on for two hours on Sunday 5 and Sunday 12 April, at the Comic’s Lounge. Not to be missed.