The audio interview of this transcript of comedian George Kapiniaris is available here.
Morry: If you lived in Australia during the late 80s and early 90s, then no doubt you know comedian George Kapiniaris. An actor by training, George or Kappa or G Kap as he’s known around the block first played the serious part of DJ in The Flying Doctors before creating the comically slapstick character Memo, in the stage show ‘Wogs out of Work’ and later TV show ‘Acropolis Now’. In this School of Hard Knock Knocks Podcast episode, comedian George Kapiniaris discusses stereotypes, playing characters from the underworld, rules of comedy, and his upcoming tour, Straight Out of Compo.
Morry: He also sheds light on the term skip and how he flipped bigotry on its head making this word part of the Aussie lexicon. For those interested in learning standup comedy and want to get personal coaching from the man himself, dates for the November 2017 standup comedy course have just been announced. Go to www.schoolofhardknockknocks.com for information and to book your spot. Now, here he is, comedian George Kapiniaris. Good afternoon George, how are you?
George: Hey, Morry. How are you going?
Morry: Good mate. Good.
George: What’s Morry short for?
Morry: You know Aussies and their nicknames. Everything-
George: Is it Morris?
Morry: Well, Morgan … No, actually I’m a real Anglo. It’s Andrew Morgan is my name.
Morry: How many Georges were there growing up in your class?
George: Well, I originally went to Richmond High School, so it was just all Georges there.
Morry: You must have a nickname, right?
George: I was Kapa.
George: I was Kapa.
Morry: There you go. Same reason. I think there was five Andrews in my year as well. Good, we have something in common. It’s interesting, we’ve just touched on the two cultural differences of our upbringing and that is your background being of Greek heritage. Believe you were born in Australia.
George: Yeah. I was born in Australia. I was born in, funnily enough, Lonsdale Street, which used to be the biggest Greek street in Australia.
Morry: That’s Queen Victoria Hospital, was it?
George: Yeah. The Queen Victoria Hospital, and then they turned it into a shopping centre. The shopping centre was that big, there was no sunlight on Lonsdale Street anymore, so all the Greeks moved from there, and they went to Oakley now, so there’s a big mall in Oakley which if you were there, someone knocked you out, you lost your memory, you woke up, you’d think you were in Athens, it’s that Greek. You wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know. You got to see it. I mean don’t even spend the air fare to go to Greece. Just go to Oakley.
Morry: Go to Oakley.
George: And you’ll feel like you’re in Greece, definitely.
Morry: Beautiful. I grew up with you on TV. You were that stereotypical Greek character. I think a little bit over the top character. Was that the Greeks that you hung around at the time?
George: No. That wasn’t the Greeks I hung around, so that was my parents’ generation. Memo came from the world of my parents, like my dad, my uncle, mums, aunties all rolled into one became Memo. Memo, the character, because when we did Acropolis Now we all had to come up with a character for this café that we all came from or worked in. I actually remember at the time there was a guy, you know, you ever been to is it Pellegrini’s in the city? It’s an Italian café and only serves five types of pastas.
Morry: Yeah. I know it well.
George: You walk in and the head waiter’s always rude to you or the customers. He tells you off. The yuppies used to love going there. They actually love being get told off by this Italian guy who’d just yell at them and swear at them. That’s what I based Memo on, on that character. It wasn’t even a Greek character. When you say he’s a stereotypical character, you’re kind of wrong, because I’ve grabbed a lot of different characters and put them together to make that character.
George: He’s a combination of lots of things. He’s not just the one thing. The other thing with Memo was even though he had a lot of bravado, he was very soft and he had a lot of pathos, and he had a lot of emotion. He was also very masculine character, but he was also very feminine and very sensitive as well. Saying something is stereotypical is kind of wrong in this instance. That’s the way I see myself. When I first started on TV, I played a character, not Memo, I was on The Flying Doctors, and I was asked to play an Italian character.
George: I went, “Hang on, but I’m Greek. Why don’t I just play a Greek character? Instead of his name being Dominic, why can’t his name be Dimitrios, because I’m Greek? Even though I’m a country, so he’s a country character, why can’t my heritage or my background be Greek? Even though I won’t bring it out in every episode, it’s good to have a background.” As an actor you make choices to make the character not interesting for them out there but for you, so you enjoy playing him too. See what I mean?
George: In Acropolis Now, when you say stereotypical wog, or stereotypical Greek, we had three types of wog. We had Simon who played the Spanish Ricky.
George: Who was sort of the non-wog wog, who was too educated or too upper class to be woggy, but he was still a wog. There was Jim who was like the petrol head. He was the characters that I grew up with. He was like probably me, you know that sort, well, Latrobe University sitting at the café smoking cigarettes and drinking coffees instead of going to class wog. Then there was the off-the-boat wog which is where we came from. Then Mary came along which was a character, Effie, who was a very not dominated female, but a domineering female which also went against the stereotypical view of what a Greek woman should be.
Morry: Coincidentally I went to school in Glen Waverley right near where the Greek population is or just down the road with a lady called, we’ll just call her Cathy, but she was of Greek background. Same haircut, same hairdo I should say with the two cans of hairspray each morning before she got on the bus.
George: When we put those characters together, Simon Palomares and I were throwing around ideas, and we came up with the Effie characters. I think this was before Acropolis Now. We had similar characters in mind. We just based it on basically, again, our sisters, cousins, friends, colleagues, people that we went to uni with or to high school with. The bigger the girl, the bigger the hairdo, the more the makeup, all that sort of stuff. These were honest observations. They weren’t made up.
Morry: Definitely. I can confirm for that. Definitely, Cathy, she was the Effie for sure. Now, Simon Palomares who you just talked about, did you go to school with him at Rusden College?
George: Yes. I met him at Rusden. He and Nick Giannopoulos were both there. They were in the same year and they were the year behind me. When I was at Rusden, I got sick, so I deferred a year, and then I ended, it was almost like fate, isn’t it, I ended up in the same year with Simon. Then the first time I worked with Simon, I was more of an actor than anything else. The first project I did with Simon, he was the lighting designer and set designer, and I was the main actor in a play by Václav Havel called Sorry. That’s where we met, and that’s where we started having a friendship or a relationship, colleagues, and all that sort of stuff.
George: Then we decided to do more projects together. The next one was like a theatre in education, community theatre thing. Peter Rosenthal, you know Pete from Kath & Kim, and a bunch of other people, Barbara Waters who ended up being Shelley Scown the singer. A lot of really good people in that class, directed by a guy called Michael Bishop who was a legend at the time and still is. We did this performance, and out of that we came up with a little sketch which was about two very stereotypical Italian characters, very dubious stereotypical, almost Marx Brothers type characters.
George: They were called the Tiboldi Brothers, and we named them after a salmonella poisoning scandal that happened during the time, so Tiboldi salami, so we called them the Tiboldi Brothers, the son was Salmonella. They used to sell test tube babies to members of the audience. Because the show was about in vitro fertilisation, IVF, so we had these dubious characters. That was a two minute sketch show in a uni production.
George: Then as soon as that finished, Simon said to me, “Listen, I’ve been doing a little bit of stand up with this group called Peaches La Crème, so I’ve done a bit of standup. Do you want to maybe try these characters out, and we’ll go to Le Joke and the Dick Whittington Tavern, which were the big comedy venues at that stage in Melbourne.”
George: “And give them a go, and The Last Laugh, and see if we can get some more gigs and paid gigs.” We did bunch of tryouts, not that many. Before we knew it, we were regulars on Le Joke, and the Dick Whit and all these other venues, Prince Pat Hotel. All of a sudden, someone came up to us and they said, “Hey.” It was the guys that owned The Comedy Café in Brunswick Street, which is like a theatre, a comedy theatre restaurant. They said, “Would you like to do a season?” We didn’t even know what we were doing. We just started doing a show called The Tiboldi Brothers, and all of a sudden these guys wanted us to put together a two-hour show.
Morry: How much material did you have at that time?
George: We would have had maybe 20 minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour at most …
Morry: Big jump.
George: … of songs and gags, and what have you. Almost like a Marx Brotherish, sort of Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin style show. All of a sudden we had to put this show together. We called the show ‘The Tiboldi Brothers Worry Beads and Furry Dice’, which immediately painted a picture. We dressed like The Blues Brothers, so kind of like Italian Blues Brothers with dark sunglasses. We put together this show filled with sketches which basically was the prequel. It was the set up for all the ‘Wogs out of Work’ shows and all the stuff that we did later on, because it had characters doing monologues, it had sketches.
George: We had a funeral director called Funerelli. We had a Greek guy drinking Greek coffee, which almost was my Memo character, talking about his kids and his family and where he came from. We had two guys in a Monaro with matching jackets and furry dice on a mirror, and a furry steering wheel driving down Lygon Street. We had a character that was almost like a pompous politician trying to come up with a multicultural festival called National Brotherhood Week.
George: We had all these characters that were basically the set up for ‘Wogs out of Work’. It was a hit. Five, six weeks. The Age came out with the review, they said, “Ethnic comedy arrives at last.” Then to each other we said, “Yeah, that’s what we do. We do ethnic comedy. Right.” We’re just doing funny stuff, but apparently we do ethnic comedy, so let’s wear that hat. That’s where wog humour or ethnic humour was really born in Melbourne.
George: I mean there was Joe Dolce before that. There was other bits and pieces, but we, I think, that show basically was the blueprint for all the other shows that have happened after that.
Morry: You’ve highlighted that you’ve started from a drama background. Today you’ve done TV, you’ve done movies, of course, standup, music as well, I believe. I believe you play guitar, don’t you? Do you sing as well?
George: Well, that’s right. After we do this, I’m about to go and rehearse with my band, because we’re doing a show called The Songs of Countdown, so it’s myself and Tottie Goldsmith and my band, The Flares, which are all the guys from different bands around Melbourne, including Chocolate Starfish and Big Pig and all these players. We’ve put a band together called The Flares. This show is called the Songs of Countdown. That’s starting up soon. You can go to my website which is georgekapiniaris.com and all that info’s there anyway. That’s a really fun show.
George: We did a few of those over Christmas and now we’ve got another four shows coming up, and a lot of interest. In fact, I might put the actual rehearsal on Facebook tonight. See if I can do that.
Morry: We’ll definitely link to that on the show notes underneath this recording for anyone who’s listening that you can click on that button. Excellent. Well, on that note you cover all forms of entertainment, I think that’s fair to say. Do you have a preference?
George: For entertainment? No. I like variety. I like mixing it up. I’ll do some comedy, and then I’ll get over that, and then I’ll do a musical and that’s fantastic. Then I get over that. Then I’ll do an acting part in a series or a film or a one-off, and that’s fantastic. Then you crave the live response from the audience again, and then you want to do some music because it’s just a great feeling to be in the middle of all these instruments and amps and all that sort of stuff. Then after five shows you’re pounded with that. You want to go back to doing bit of standup.
George: For me, variety is what I crave, but I love it all. I love doing it all. It’s what I’m born to do. Can’t do anything else. For the last 33 years that’s what I’ve been doing professionally, and then all the other years. Through my schooling, I was always involved in whether it be the school play or studying something, whether it be Shakespeare or Brecht or putting together a community theatre show. I’ve always been involved in performance.
Morry: Not everyone may know of you as the serious actor, as well, although obviously that is who you are. Of course, you played in the Underbelly. I think it was the first season which came out in 2008, you played a lawyer, George Defteros I think was the character.
George: That’s right. I played George Defteros. With the acting, I see standup comedy as another level of acting. Because I did a lot of theater supports after I finished my course, and theater supports is almost it can lead you into acting or it can lead you into comedy. I never actually wanted to be a standup comedian. A lot of my peers, a lot of you guys are all standup comedians. You’ve had other jobs and gone, “I wouldn’t mind being a standup comedian. I could do that.”
George: Well, for me, it’s something that I was doing to fill in the gaps when I didn’t have work. It’s a great way of actually making money when you’re not working and we’re not acting, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re an actor in this industry, especially in Australia. Only recently, only in the last 10 years I’ve taken this job seriously. I used to do what are my party tricks? I’ll do them on stage. Fantastic, I got through that. Got paid for it.
George: Only recently I’ve started going, “You know what, I really got to concentrate and write some material, and think of something, and all that sort of stuff.” Serious acting is what really I wanted to get into from the word go. Getting a part like George Defteros was great, because basically portraying a real-life character which was interesting.
Morry: He’s still alive too, so do you ever worry that in your research of that character that you got a little bit too close to the Carlton Crew and you might know something that you shouldn’t?
George: He was actually happy for us to have that character in the show, and then all of a sudden the producers came up to me and said, “No. Don’t mention anywhere that you are George Defteros that you’re playing. We’ve taken all the bits out of the show where you actually mention your name. In the title George Kapiniaris is just the lawyer.” Because the day that I was taping the show, I actually asked for someone to contact him and ask him how to pronounce his name, if it was Defteros or Defteros.
George: They were helpful and all that sort of stuff, and then later on Channel 9 said, “Hang on. Back off. There’s some calls being made in regards to this. He doesn’t want to be mentioned.” Which is fair enough. He’s a real-life person. He’s got rights as well. There was a guy that came up to me one day at the airport and said, “I’m friends with George and he knows you’re playing the part. Pretty happy about that.” It was almost I got someone’s blessing.
George: It’s a funny world to be involved in. There was another situation where I was doing my standup show, and in it I had some jokes about one of the characters in the show. I was basically hanging shit on the character, one of the killers, or one of the criminals in Underbelly. I had his relatives come up to me and say, “Hey, can you not make fun of him. He’s our cousin.” It’s funny where life knocks on the door of art and says piss off, or cut it out and all that sort of stuff. That was interesting.
Morry: You’re a serious actor, and I’m sure you’re not the first actor that’s been approached by members of the public. I know another comedian who came from a drama background, Greg Fleet, who you know very well, I’m sure. When he was in England because he killed Daphne in neighbours, the character Daphne obviously, not the real-life human, and he had English people coming up to him getting angry at that fact that his character had killed another character.
George: I also know a comedian, very well-known comedian who did some Gary Lyon jokes after the Billy Brownless/Gary Lyon thing, and he got a text from somebody saying, “I thought we were mates. You don’t do that to your mates.” He had to get rid of that material too. I won’t say who it was. You can probably imagine who it was.
Morry: The difference between tragedy and comedy is time, so he could probably come back with that joke in another decade.
George: If you’re going to hang shit on someone, make sure it’s someone that everyone hates, so Donald Trump. It’s why there’s so much Donald Trump stuff and Pauline Hanson stuff because everybody hates them, so go for it. If they’ve got a personality or a persona that is kind of loved and not liked, you got to be careful a bit I guess.
Morry: I can understand that. That leads me to another question about picking on people, poking fun. Skips, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, when you get up on stage and the stuff that you can see in your videos and people have seen you on stage, they know that you play fun and poke fun. Is there anybody that you can’t tease, or has comedy changed over the years?
George: There’s some rules. There’s some transient or transparent rules, but there’s some rules like commandments with comedy. One, don’t touch the Jews, so stay away from the Jews. Can’t touch the Jews at all. Aboriginal people, Kooris, I don’t think we can even say Aboriginal anymore, so indigenous you stay away from that. Unless you’re indigenous or Jewish, stay away. Gay, don’t go near it unless you are or related to or something, don’t go near it. I can hang shit on my Greek heritage and my Greekness I think.
George: I was told by a Greek audience I couldn’t hang shit on the heroes of Greece, so I was doing some jokes about Helen of Troy and Ulysses and all that stuff. Someone gave me a bit of a lecture about that. There’s a lot of rules and regulations that apply, so I can’t hang shit on Italians, Lebanese. It’s all this sort of stuff where because we come from Australia and we’re all made up of everything, we should be able to talk about everything, but apparently we still can’t.
George: Especially in this day and age, it’s really, really dangerous. We can talk about bong smoking. We can talk about heroin is a great topic to talk about when you’re a comedian. People love it. That doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. You know what I mean? If you’re lesbian, you can say how much you hate men. That’s fine. That’s cool. There’s all these stupid rules about what you can talk about.
George: I had a comic who I thought is a nice comic. I love the comic, is it Justin Hamilton, is that his name? Yeah. I think it’s Justin. He had a podcast, and so we did an interview, and we got along. We did a week in Adelaide and we got along. He goes, “You know, I’ve been watching you.” I thought he was going to say something else, he goes, “You’re really old school.” I thought, “Okay. How many laughs did I get and how many laughs did you get?” I think that’s the only way you can measure how funny a comic is, is how many laughs they get, isn’t it?
Morry: Talking about that, so ‘Straight Out of Compo’, that’s the show that you’re doing. It is comedy, isn’t it?
George: Yeah. We all do a comedy standup piece, and then we all get involved and we’ve got a bunch of sketches in there as well. We got the anger management sketch, and we’ve got the hot seat Who Wants to be a Millionaire sketch, and we’ve got another couple of things, and videos, and all sorts of things. All our standup is different. Of course, my style is different to Tahir’s, different to Joe’s, different to Rob’s.
George: In my standup, so don’t come expecting me to talk about Greeky things, even though I’m Greek, and my background is Greek. I talk about iPhones, like technology. I talk about humanity versus technology. I talk about Pokemon. I talk about fashion. Straight away with me you don’t get what you would have gotten 20 years ago. You get something different. If you go see ‘Wogs Out of Work’, you might get something from them. If you go and see me, my stuff has progressed now to somewhere else.
Morry: There you go.
George: Again, I’m a student of comedy and I’m trying to change things up as much as I can.
Morry: The season for this starts around September, I believe.
George: Starts September 20th, I think, or 22nd, and all over Melbourne, all over Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and maybe Perth again, I’m not sure, Canberra.
Morry: ACT has one show as well.
George: Yeah. No, it’s got two shows now, so it sold out straight away.
Morry: Two now, is it?
George: Now we’ve got another one.
Morry: There’s a couple of months before you start the tour with Straight Out of Compo, which we’ll put a link in, of course. If someone wants to catch you, if someone wants to grab you, if someone wants to get you for a show, being an MC, giving a motivational speech.
George: All of that stuff.
Morry: Getting you to play a non-stereotypical Greek character.
George: Or a stereotypical Greek character.
Morry: Or a stereo, yeah.
George: If you want to write it, we’ll do it. We’ll blast it out as stereotypical as we can possibly get it.
Morry: Excellent. How do they do that? How do they get in contact with George Kapiniaris or-
George: Well, you go to BGM is my acting agent, if they want me for an acting role. They can go to my website, georgekapiniaris.com, and I’ve got a contact little thing that they can fill out. That sends an email to me and then I get back to them. They can get me on Facebook, so George Kapiniaris, or George Kapiniaris Productions, and write me a message. They want to book me to MC a wedding and do comedy at the wedding, I can do that for them, or they want me to MC their function and what have you. It’s easy. In this day and age with social media it’s so easy to catch up with any of us. You’ll find us.
George: Has this been refreshing for you, or stereotypical? Am I being stereotypical today?
Morry: Well, the question is does the audience like you, so hopefully the people that listen to this podcast who are up and coming comedians or thinking about getting into standup comedy, to be honest.
George: Keep writing. I think for you guys out there, you want to get into do comedy, just keep writing about yourself. Keep writing. Whatever happens to you, observation is your best material. Whatever happens around you or to you, everything, everything about you is interesting because people can relate to it, because they’ve probably been through it too. It’s also therapeutic for you and for them talking about it.
George: I remember writing a bit about IVF. In the end we ended up having two boys, two kids from in vitro fertilisation. It’s one of the funniest routines I’ve ever written, because it was happening to me. It was something that was quite strong. That’s your best material, your own. Lying doesn’t help. You can make up shit. Truth comedy we call it. That’s why we do the woggy stuff that we do, it’s truth comedy. Because I’d be lying if I said my name was Dave and I lived in Warrnambool or something.
George: My name is George Kapiniaris and I grew up in Richmond, moved to East Doncaster. I was called a wog. I was calling them skips. That was the world I lived in.
Morry: Did you invent the word skip?
Morry: It became part of the lexicon of Australia.
George: It’s a big lexicon, isn’t it? In some places we said that word, they didn’t know what we were talking about. Some places in Australia an Anglo-Aussie was a dingo, or they had different names. I think ding, some places they’re called, in Perth or Kalgoorlie or somewhere. It was such a relief when there was a word, because I moved from Richmond High, 90% Greek, to East Doncaster where it was me and one other Macedonian guy then. I was called a wog, and what have you, which was an insult. When you first heard it, it blew my mind. Wow, what? What did they call me? What am I?
George: Then a mate of mine, a Cypriot mate of mine who in the end became my best friend and our best man at my wedding, twice, both weddings, he said, “If anyone ever says that to you, just call them a skip.” I went, “Fuck, yeah. A skip.” Like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. That’s a great comeback. Love that. That for me was the best comeback even before I was in standup comedy, “Shut up skip.”
Morry: Well, comedian George Kapiniaris, thank you very much. You’ve certainly delved deep into my childhood growing up with you on TV, teenage-hood I should say, I wasn’t that young, and giving me some ideas into the characters that you’ve produced and the person that you are today, and, of course, the way you’ve been part of a changing Australian culture. You didn’t invent the dim sim, but you’ve done a lot.
George: I did invent. I actually did invent the dim sim. It was called the Jim sim. Jim was too stereotypical a name for it, so I go, “All right, let’s call it the Dimitrios sim,” and it just didn’t work. The Dimitrios Simitrios didn’t work.
Morry: Look, I could believe if you said the Chiko Roll. I think that sounds more Greek, but, no, I can’t believe you invented the dim sim. Mate, it’s been a pleasure.
George: It’s been a pleasure. Yeah.
Morry: Look forward to meeting you in person.
George: No worries, Morry.
Morry: Cheers George. Bye.
George: I’ll talk to you later!