By Michael Nevradakis, Originally for Dialogos Radio
In recent years, one of stand-up comedy’s biggest rising stars is none other than Greek-American Yannis Pappas. The man behind the famous character of Mr. Panos, Pappas has enjoyed a successful career as a stand-up comedian and has branched out into the world of television, on screen and as a producer, with appearances on Comedy Central and Fusion, among other outlets. In this interview, Pappas talks about his comedy, life, and career, about Mr. Panos, and how his Greek-American roots influence his comedic material.
I’m living his dream, so thank you grandfather for working so I can only work an hour a night, I’m fulfilling the American dream.
Nevradakis: Getting us started, how did you first get into stand up comedy as a career?
Pappas: I’m very qualified, which I think is very important for whatever career you do. I was a pretty bad student, I liked to make people laugh and get attention more than I did my schoolwork, and I think for every comedian, their parents didn’t pay attention to them as a kid. My parents were both lawyers and they were both working, they had their own practice, so that’s why I stand up on a piece of wood and try to make strangers smile, because I think I missed a few hugs. So that’s how I got into comedy. And, I’m lazy, it’s just part of who I am. Laying down is probably my favorite thing to do. I’ll lay down anywhere, no matter where I am, on Ubercast, on a park bench, in a restaurant, I’m always trying to lay down. So working for an hour or two hours a night, depending on how many shows I’m doing, is like a dream come true, and conducive to my constitution.
You grew up in Brooklyn in a Greek-American household. How does this this Greek-American background influence your material?
Being Greek-American, my mother was born in Greece, and my father, his parents came over from a tiny island named Imvros, and growing up Greek, you know, we’re an ancient people, so we have convicted values and a high standard, and as immigrants, my parents just both had a high standard for me and for my brothers. And even though I wasn’t good in school, I always had that drive to succeed at something and build on what they’ve done. My grandfather had a restaurant and my father was a lawyer…of course my grandfather had a restaurant, that’s like the Greek passport into every country, restaurants (laughs)…The conduit by which we succeed is, somebody at some point has a restaurant! So I remember my grandfather saying, he worked so hard so that his grandchildren didn’t have to, and I think I’m just fulfilling what he wanted from me, by working as little as possible. I’m living his dream, so thank you grandfather for working so I can only work an hour a night, I’m fulfilling the American dream.
And of course, the famous Mr. Panos is the owner of a (fictional) restaurant, a diner in Queens, the Baby Socrates Restaurant…what was the idea behind this character?
Being Greek-American, I didn’t grow up in a Greek-American neighborhood, I grew up in Brooklyn. I was the only Greek kid in the neighborhood, but I did go to church, I was an altar boy for years and I was at church every Sunday, and me and my family went to Greece, so I was kind of inside and outside the world. As a comedian, we’re pretty much just professional observers, that’s what we do. We spend all day in our own head just observing things that a lot of people miss because they’re living life like a normal human being, unlike us (laughs), who are constantly within our heads. So I was able to witness and be privy to a lot of the foibles of the Greek culture, and I’m a satirist, so I like to express them through satire.
Greeks love a good conspiracy theory, it gives Greeks a chance to exercise their philosophical tradition, you know? (laughs)
Would you say that you knew any people in real-life that you could say are similar in some ways to Mr. Panos?
Yes! My mother, who is Cretan. Mr. Panos is Cretan, and Cretans have a distinct culture. They are proud, and pride can be the biggest virtue and the biggest vice at the same time. For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction, so you have to be careful with it. So my mother is Cretan, and Mr. Panos is kind of modelled mostly on the way she reacts to stuff. Of course my mother’s very different and they have nothing to do with each other, my mother is a lawyer and very educated and has four law degrees, so she’s very different, but just the energy behind them is very similar. Additionally, I had a friend in college who was hilarious and he was Greek, from Greece, and he’s in there a little bit, and there’s this one waiter that I always remember when I was in Greece with my dad and brother, who always talking about conspiracy theories. You know, Greeks love a good conspiracy theory, it gives Greeks a chance to exercise their philosophical tradition, you know? (laughs) Even if the theory is ridiculous, Greeks like to explore it, and Greeks are always looking for “connections”….how does this all connect? So those are the three main pillars that influenced Mr. Panos. It’s just a character that I have fun with and that I was doing on stage live in my stand-up comedy, and then me and my production partners decided to shoot some videos and throw them up on the web.
And of course Mr. Panos isn’t your only character, you have some others as well…
YP: Yeah, Maurica! I mean, I grew up in New York City and I dated a bunch of Puerto Rican girls and grew up around Latin culture in Brooklyn, and that’s what I love about New York City, it’s such a melting pot, and I think it’s just a beautiful thing when cultures come in contact with one another, because that’s essentially how, if you look back through history, those are the cultures that have evolved, as opposed to the ones who have remained stagnant. That’s what I love about New York, and those two characters, Mr. Panos and Maurica are very kind of urban New York characters, they are kind of soaped in that distinctive flavor of New York, and are really two of the closest things to how I grew up and where I grew up.
In recent years you’ve been doing an increasing amount of projects for TV and the web. Tell us, first of all, about the production company that you co-founded, Ditch Films.
Yes, that’s me and my buddy who I grew up with, Jesse Scaturro, he’s probably the most talented artist that I know, he’s a sculptor, he actually sculpted by hand the Baby Socrates status that is in most of the Mr. Panos blogs. That’s an original piece of art, he’s actually sold some, they’re limited, they’re expensive…he’s an amazing sculptor, you can check him out, jessescaturro.com. He’s a photographer, he’s a director, he’s a fine artist, and founded that company together, started doing some online commercials for companies and branded content and started shooting comedy just for fun. That’s been great, though we’re sort of on hiatus now because I left to go do my TV show for a year. But I actually ended up leaving that show now to pursue other opportunities and work on another show and continue to tour, so it’s been busy and I had my Comedy Central half hour special last year, so, it’s been great.
Let’s talk a little bit more about some of the work that you’ve been doing on TV. You’ve been on shows like Fusion Live and The Bracket, you mentioned of course the half-hour Comedy Central special…tell us about these experiences and what it was like to take your comedy to the small screen.
It’s a lot different, a completely different muscle, so I’m very grateful that I was able to have the experience at Fusion to learn how to be on TV. We were doing live TV every day, our show did very well by the network’s standards, we started as the morning show and then they promoted us to prime time, and it was live, and I got to work with two amazing journalists, one of which is a Peabody Award winner, an Emmy nominee and a Gracie Award winner, Mariana Atencio, who was my co-host, and Pedro Andrade, who is a wonderful Brazilian journalist. It was nice to share the stage with them and sort of ruin their careers by them being affiliated with me (laughs), but it’s a different muscle, and the biggest thing that I learned is that when you’re on stage, your gesticulations, you’re projecting to a live audience, you’re playing the room. Television and film and things like that, the screen picks everything up, everything is exaggerated, so you sort of want to make your movements smaller, and you always want to be conscious of what you’re doing. If I was talking to you on the street or in a restaurant and I scratched my face, you wouldn’t even think a second of it, or if I scratched my ear, you wouldn’t even think about it, but when you’re on TV, if you see an anchor or a host touching his ear or scratching his face, you’re like, this guy is a crack addict or his jonesing for a hit of crystal meth, it’s just exaggerated so you have to be conscious and tone everything down a little bit, but it was great.
With all of your TV production work, do you still have time to do any stand-up shows?
Oh yeah, that’s primarily what I do, that’s what I do the most, every weekend I’m on the road in a city doing stand-up shows, and when I’m in New York, every night I’m at some club working on my act, doing short sets, so that’s mostly what I do. The TV work, I would say, is more what I do on the side. I want to do more of it, and movies and all that, I love to do all that, it’s all very intriguing to me, but first and foremost, live comedy, that’s what I do, and there’s nothing like it, it’s magical, it’s my favorite thing.
I mean when you tell Greeks that you don’t speak Greek, they react like you just told them that the world is going to end, they can’t believe it! (laughs)
You probably are aware that you’re quite popular in Greece as well and especially the Mr. Panos character, which is how a lot of people first found out about you in Greece. Do you have any future plans to make any appearances in Greece?
(Laughs) I would love to perform in Greece! I’ve performed in South Africa, for the Greek community there, that was a great experience, right outside of Johannesburg, they flew me down there and it was great. I really would love to go to Greece, and Australia, and all of those places and do comedy for the people there. I’d love to go to Greece, as long as they can forgive me for speaking terrible Greek, I mean when you tell Greeks that you don’t speak Greek, they react like you just told them that the world is going to end, they can’t believe it! (laughs) So I apologize in advance that I don’t speak fluent Greek anymore. It was my first language actually, I knew it before English, but like I said, my parents were too busy working and they were already tired, I was the youngest of three, and I’m the only one in my family who’s not fluent.
What other upcoming projects do you have in the works that you might be able to tell us about?
I’m working on a pilot right now for Comedy Central, it’s my friend’s show and I’m writing on it and am going to be a cast member and I’m really excited about it. She’s really talented, and hopefully the pilot gets picked up. That’s all I can say about it, I can’t give any details about it, but if it comes up, you’ll see me on it and I hope it’s a huge success because the star of this show is extremely talented and I’m very excited to be working on it, and that’s what I’m really focusing on for the next month or so, and then after that, it’s just a lot of stand-up, I’m always doing stand-up, so you can always go and find out what city I’m going to be in and hopefully come see me. And then, who knows after that!