It’s true that Yannis Pappas is a Greek–American comedian. And it’s true that part of his act — a small part — is playing stock Greek characters for laughs. But any similarity to My Big Fat Greek Wedding stops there.
A prolific web video actor/director and occasional VH1/BET presence as well as a hard–touring standup comedian, Pappas is less of a typical ethnic comedian than he is a Brooklyn comedian. Don’t think Nia Vardalos — think Chris Rock.
From his Facebook–and–YouTube–based web videos starring the gloriously narrow–minded Greek restaurateur “Mr. Panos” to his take on what would happen if Derek Jeter were accused of rape (“You can call ‘em New York cops if you want. I call ‘em 30,000 Yankee fans from Staten Island”), Pappas doesn’t shy away from topics that get a reaction — whether laughs or gasps.
Pappas performs two shows at the Hyatt Regency, May 28–29. We spoke to him last week.
People aren’t going to get My Big Fat Greek Wedding when they come see you. You’ve actually cracked on Nia Vardalos a bit in one of your Mr. Panos videos.
Yannis Pappas: Nia Vardalos contacted me after the bit I did about her. She was a really good sport about it, because obviously Mr. Panos didn’t give too flattering a portrayal of her, but she was really great about it.
I love My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but my stuff is a little different in the sense that as much as it glorifies some aspects of Greek culture, it kind of holds a mirror up to show some of the darker side of our culture. Some of the foibles. It really pushes people’s buttons, which is something I really enjoy doing with my comedy.
I enjoy making people laugh, I wanna make them think, I want to surprise them. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. If they hate me – if it’s for the right reasons – then I’m doing my job just as much as if they like me.
A healthy sense of humor is getting hard to find in this country.
Yannis Pappas: There’s a lot of political correctness. Especially when I perform at universities, I get a lot of oohs and aahs. I performed once at a university in Maine and they had a sit–in protest the next day after my show. The show went well, but there was this one girl who got offended by something I said and ran off. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and everybody’s so sensitive and doesn’t want to offend any other culture.
Recently I was at Seton Hall, another great show, and the student body president got scared because I did a joke about religion. Seton Hall used to be a Catholic school, and she complained to my manager even though the show went great. If it’s a person that needs that sort of provocation, then I’m more than willing to provide it (laughs).
That willingness to offend in order to make a point is part of the whole Greek attitude.
Yannis Pappas: We take the moxie thing seriously, no question. Our background is philosophical, that’s our culture. That’s our tradition, to constantly ask questions. It gets passed on almost through the genes eventually.
Your attitude is as much about New York as it is about being Greek.
Yannis Pappas: Definitely. I grew up in Brooklyn in a very diverse neighborhood. I had friends of all different backgrounds. It’s an aggressive place, it’s an honest place. It definitely wasn’t a politically correct upbringing I had. We were all friends with each other, so it was very progressive in that way, but we never spared each other’s feelings.
Has anyone tried to tie you in with the whole Jersey Shore deal?
Yannis Pappas: Nah. I’m not Guido–esque (laughs).
The crowd down here is likely to be more buttoned–down than your typical New York comedy club audience. Will you dial back some of the material here?
Yannis Pappas: I usually don’t dial back at all, but I do get a read on the audience and try to tailor to it as much as I can after I get the vibe and energy of the crowd. I occasionally cross the line as I try to find out where the line is.
I’m certainly not a clean comic. And I’m not one that doesn’t challenge the audience in all ways. Nothing’s off limits to what I do. Anything can happen.
You do political material, but you’re not really political. You have some positions, like opposing the Iraq War, that might be described as liberal. But you despise political correctness, which is a more conservative position.
Yannis Pappas: I’m certainly not a liberal comedian, I’m certainly not left–wing, I’m certainly not right–wing.
One of my favorite words in Greek is Utopia. It literally means “no place.” Anyone who’s signing on to some extreme agenda is utopian. I try to remain a realist. The world will never be perfect and human nature will never be perfect.
I don’t toe any party line. I enjoy poking funs at comedians who do, because once you start that, you cease to be a comedian in the fullest sense, and you become a pundit. You lose your comedy license and your comedy badge. It’s not my job to sign onto any point of view. It’s my job to always question.
What can people expect at your shows this weekend?
Yannis Pappas: Straight–up standup. Otherwise a little bit of everything . Social commentary, political stuff, a little bit of personal autobiographical stuff. I riff a lot, so every show I do is different. It’s a potpourri (laughs).
When: May 28–29, 8 p.m.
Where: Hyatt Regency downtown
No one under 18 admitted