A weird thing happened in Australia about thirty years ago. A group of young Australian comedians got together and created a stream of comedy which was instantly popular, that has spawned countless stage shows, TV series and big budget movies. It was, in a way, a method of sucking the power out of racial slurs aimed at people from ‘Meditation’ lineage. Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, etc had routinely been vilified with all manner of slang terms for decades. This group of comedians, in the same way African Americans had reclaimed the ‘N’ word in many ways, decided to do much the same thing.
Rather than hide their heritage they celebrated it, the good the bad and the ridiculous. I can’t begin to tell you how shocking it was to see a theatre with WOGS OUT OF WORK in huge letters out the front. It was a way of sucking the poison out of it as a term, reclaiming and re-purposing it, with a celebration of all things ‘wog’. Three decades later Wogs Out of Work remains one of the biggest box office successes in Australian history. People could not get enough of it. Soon there was a TV series Acropolis Now which brought Nick Giannopoulos, Simon Palomares, Mary Coustas and George Kapiniaris into peoples lounge rooms every week for FIVE seasons.
The audience was massive. These programmes spoke to a wide array of people, not just Greeks and Italians, but everybody who knew Greeks and Italians, which is a country with such a multi-cultural population was just about every single person.
The run of live comedy shows (all with magnificent pun titles) continued with Wog-a-Rama, Who Let The Wogs Out?, Il Dago and in 2000 the box office smash hit movie The Wog Boy. In more recent times we have seen TV shows like Pizza, Fat Pizza, Housos and Here Come The Habibs all prove huge hits with massive audiences at home and overseas. George Kapiniaris has been part of this movement since it started and he and three other members of it’s fraternity are debuting their brand new show, Straight Outta Compo in Adelaide as part of the 2017 Fringe Festival.
George answer the phone in the middle of writing a routine for the new show. “We are trying to do as much new material as we possibly can,” he says “and there is four of us writing and so the audience can look forward to a brand new show, and so can we! There is a lot to work out because there is solo stuff but then there are sketches that we are doing all together and everything can change when you get on the stage. With music you have a bit more structure, but with stand-up you can walk on stage and throw everything out and start again.”.
The four are Kapiniaris (Wogs Out of Work, Acropolis Now), Joe Avati (known as the Italian Jerry Seinfeld), Tahir Bilgic (Fat Pizza, Swift & Shift Couriers, Housos, Here Come The Habibs) and Rob Shehadie (Pizza, Habibs).
I guess you are best known for, how do we say this ‘ethnic’ humour?
Well some people say I am part of Ethic humour but I am one of the originators of Ethnic humour in this country. I am one of the guys who started it all. Sometimes I get criticized for doing it but that’s my style. Why do I get criticized for something that is a part of me, that I helped create. Me and a handful of others were the first to try that sort of thing and now it’s really popular and the demand for us to keep doing these shows is huge. It’s like saying why do circus tricks coz they’ve been done since the dawn of time? It’s where the journalists get it wrong I think.
There is an attitude of ‘Why are you still doing this? Ethnic humour is old hat, people don’t want that any more let’s have more jokes about bongs and heroin again. We have to keep re-inventing the wheel though, looking at things from a different angle, not just for the audience but for ourselves too. Nobody is telling Billy Connolly to stop doing Scottish jokes.
The first time I did Adelaide was before Wogs Out of Work, my mate Simon Polamares and I did a thing called Gibaldi Brothers place called The Comedy Room and that’s when we did a talent show called Star Search. We were labelled by other people as ethnic comedians, or wog comedians and we went ‘Oh is that what we do? Okay then.’
I was trying to think of any ‘non-Caucasian’ characters on Australian TV and I could only think of Lex Marinos on Kingswood Country?
His character was a great statement. There was an Italian family on a show called Home Sweet Home, but it didn’t really work. But really apart from that it was Luigi The Unbelievable on the Paul Hogan Show. Around the time we started Acropolis Now, Mark Mitchell started doing Con The Fruiterer on the Comedy Company. But that was a Greek from an Anglo or Aussie perspective and we were coming from our perspective. One lot of material is from outside view and the other is from an inside view. African Americans will sometimes say ‘It’s a black thing’. And sometimes it is a ‘wog thing’ and sometime not wogs just don’t get it.
They don’t get it, they are not a part of it, they don’t crave it. We want to perform to a mainstream audience and guys like Tahir especially, have huge audience not just here but in Canada, the UK, the US and Europe. And when you try and get out of it, it’s like Al Pacino in the Godfather ‘Every time I try to get out they keep dragging me back in’. I see what we do as a celebration, of our lives and history. You get a little chill up your spine, this takes me back to 1975. I remember that wedding I went to. It is what is great about humour, it can make you reflect on your past. Fun moments, embarrassing moments, tragic moments.
When Acropolis came out it was surprising to see the focus on Aussie Greeks. But you didn’t have to be Greek to get it, because you knew those people. You went to school with those characters, went to the football with those characters.
You played football with those characters. It never worked in Greece. It was too Aussie. It worked in Malta, Spain, Zimbabwe, but in Greece they were like ‘What’s wrong with their English – it’s perfect’.
I remember reading when The Muppet Show was shown in Sweden they changed the Swedish Chef into a Finnish Chef, and then the Swedes all thought it was hilarious.
That’s funny. They did the same with the Spanish waiter Manuel character from Faulty Towers, in Spain he was Italian.
Do you think that those critics consider what you do ‘low brow’?
I am sure they do. But it’s about pleasing an audience. I have been doing this for 33 years and I have worked with a lot of great comedians, but some of them look great on paper but when you see them you feel like you should have brought a calculator and Google maps. It’s like quantum physics. Sometimes you can wank a little bit too hard.
Is stand-up still your first love?
I didn’t even want to do it. I just fell into it. I wanted to be a performer. I have a Bachelor of Education in Drama and Media. But there is no work out there. People like Vince Colossamo is on the dole, or working as a brickies labourer and he is one of the hardest working wog actors out there. 90% of actors are unemployed and 99% of all ethnic actors are unemployed. A lot of theatre companies pay actors like $700 a week and we can make more than that in one gig. I wanted to be an actor first, then a musician and stand up is what I do to pay the bills. I’m still not serious about it. My kids are old enough to be in school now, so this is going to be a big year for me writing I think. To have some time and quiet and brain space. So I am hoping this year is when I am going to be kicking some big goals in regards writing and creating.
The other thing people in Adelaide know you for is the RAA ads you did for years. Do people just start yelling out ‘HEY TREV’ as soon as you cross the boarder?
They do, and if I am in Victoria or somewhere and people do it I always say “Are you from Adelaide”, because people get excited about seeing me. People loved those ads and we went for twelve years, which is a really good run. Getting an ad like that is very rare and I’m proud of being part of it and being an adopted son of Adelaide. People say they don’t want to do ads but it paid a lot of bills. Paid off the mortgage and the car. So if anybody in Adelaide needs a guy…
Interview by Ian Bell
Straight Outta Compo is on March 3 and 4 and Woodville Town Hall, Woodville South. Tickets from Fringe Tix.