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Celebrating diversity through humour

14 December 20140 comments
Paul Fenech as Franky Falzoni in SBS TV series ‘Housos’ which spawned two films: ‘Housos vs. Authority’ (2012) and ‘Fat Pizza Vs Housos’, released last month.  Photo: Tony Mott

Paul Fenech as Franky Falzoni in SBS TV series ‘Housos’ which spawned two films: ‘Housos vs. Authority’ (2012) and ‘Fat Pizza Vs Housos’, released last month. Photo: Tony Mott

Greek comedian George Kapiniaris didn’t experience schoolyard racism until he moved from the multicultural inner suburb of Richmond to the ‘Anglo’ suburb of Doncaster, in Melbourne’s outer east.

“Richmond High … was ninety per cent ethnic and probably eighty per cent Greek. In year eight … I moved to East Doncaster and all of a sudden there were only two ethnics at my school,” Mr Kapiniaris says.

“So, big culture shock. It was the first time I ever heard someone call me a wog,” he recalls. It was there that the first generation Australian-born Greek stockpiled the retaliatory ammunition to load his comedic gun.

“A really good friend of mine, Artemis … said you know you retaliate to [wog] with ‘you’re a skip’, as in Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. That’s where skip came from in Acropolis Now,” he says.
The ethnic sitcom was a watershed in Australian television. While today’s free-to-air offerings are characterised by a lack of racial diversity, Acropolis Now secured a prime-time slot on commercial television.

That was back in the 80s, which makes it all the more astonishing. Its success raised questions about a lack of multicultural representation on mainstream TV. These are issues, arguably, even more pertinent today, given the significant ongoing inflow of migrants to this country.

Spanning five seasons and 63 episodes, Acropolis Now, the TV spin-off of the highly successful stage show Wogs Out of Work, aired on the Seven Network from 1989 to 1992.

Set in Greek café ‘The Acropolis’, the series starred Spanish comedian Simon Palomares and Greek performers Mary Coustas, Nick Giannopoulos and Kapiniaris. Italso featured a revolving door of guests, including Russell Crowe, Rebecca Gibney and Zoe Carides.

3AW entertainment reviewer and commentator Jim Schembri isn’t surprised by the success of Wogs Out of Work and its spinoff. Mr Schembri says it was the product of an “open minded” community that was “far more understanding of the way satire and irony worked in humour”.

“If you were to transpose the principles and strictures of political correctness that apply today back in the late 1980s, I think Wogs Out of Work would have had a much tougher time getting off the ground,” he says.

Mr Schembri, of Maltese descent, says it was the first time he had seen a show that reflected the lifestyle, culture and values of European Australians.“It was just like this huge splash of water being thrown on your face,” he says.

As an ethnic boy growing up in Melbourne’s west, Mr Schembri also endured racist taunts, saying there was no escape from the term ‘wog’.

“This is the central thing with the Wogs Out of Work phenomenon – they took the word ‘wog’ which I, and every other kid who wasn’t ‘Australian’, had grown up with as an insult and was thrown at us all the bloody time!” he says.

“But what the Wogs Out of Work guys did was they took that word and they owned it. And by doing that, they completely disempowered its insult value, so it no longer became an offensive term.”

“I say Acropolis Now was ground breaking,” Mr Kapiniaris says.

The endearing character he played on the show, the waiter ‘Memo’, was based on “a combination of uncles, aunties and the guy from Pellegrini’s that used to be really aggressive with his customers”, Mr Kapiniaris says.

He had never met the waiter at the iconic Melbourne restaurant and bar, but he had heard stories about him.

“The more aggressive he was … and rude to [his customers], the more they wanted to be served by him. People really loved being abused by the wog waiter,” he says.

According to Housos creator and star Paul Fenech, commercial television executives embraced Acropolis Now because it was coming off the back of the financial success of the Wogs Out of Work stage shows. It had already gained a “massive fan base”.

“It was a much easier thing to pitch to a TV station and just a kind of cool idea,” Mr Fenech says.

Giannopoulos, Palomares and Kapiniaris were not only the on-camera performers but also the scriptwriters of Acropolis Now. Along with their sitcom duties, they continued to work on the stage in Wogs Out of Work. The demands of both shows became too great, so, to lessen the workload, guest writers were brought in for the last three TV seasons.

“Yes, we had a show on prime time TV, but then what happened?” ponders Mr Kapiniaris.

He now questions whether the guest writers were a good idea.

“They may have been very good writers, but they had no idea about writing for ethnics,” says Mr Kapiniaris, who also suggests that there may have been an “overkill” of ethnic humour.

There certainly has been an abundance of ‘wog’-themed stage productions since Wogs Out of Work debuted in 1987. The ethnic menu has included Wogarama (1995), Who Let the Wogs Out (2001), Il Dago (2007)and Il Dago 2 (2010). Then there were the films – The Wog Boy (2000) and Wog Boy 2: The Kings of Mykonos (2010).

There seems to be recognition in TV circles of the lack of representation of the Australian population and its multiracial nature on the small screen. But while there’s been much talk, it’s been followed by little action. Last month Today Show presenter Karl Stefanovic told NITV (National Indigenous Television) News presenter Natalie Ahmat that “there should be more [indigenous] faces” on Australian TV.

He went on to say: “Fundamentally, white people are pretty bland… they’re pretty beige… and the more difference you have in colour, in accent, in race, in humour, in belief, I think the richer you are.”

Last year the heads of TV News spoke at a Melbourne Press Club function, where former Channel 10 news director Dermot O’Brien claimed one of the challenges facing TV was “the lack of ethnic diversity in our newsrooms”.

Mr O’Brien said: “I don’t think we reflect Melbourne society as it is today.” He believes that over time the industry will be called to account for hiring predominantly white Anglo-Saxon on-air talent.

These concerns have also been echoed in America. Earlier this year, NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live caved in to criticism of the program’s lack of racial diversity by hiring a black female comedian for the first time since 2007. In 2012, satirical news program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart hired black actress Jessica Williams, making her the first African-American woman in a correspondent’s role for that show, which began in 1996.

For the past six years in the UK, comedian Lenny Henry had been leading a campaign calling for better representation of black and ethnic minorities on British television. His work seems to have paid off. Last August, a panel at the Edinburgh TV International Festival debated the question: “Is TV racist?’

One of the suggestions made by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore was that diversity in the pool of writers employed was vital in boosting the representation of BAME (black and minority ethnic) faces on British TV.

“We have to find more diverse talent within writing teams because that is where you are going to get a different voice, different storytelling, a different perspective on modern Britain,” she says.

In Australia, Mr Fenech says the problem lies with the lack of ethnic diversity among those holding positions of power in television.

“By and large, the people running TV are still a very small kind of waspy group. I don’t find them very ethnically diverse and there are a lot of … people from Britain and New Zealand … running some key positions at the top of the entertainment industry and I wonder about that,” he says.

He feels those at the top of the TV hierarchy should have a greater understanding of Australian society.

“That said, when you’ve got Aussies running stuff they’re usually … upper middle class people, so I feel even then they’re a bit out of touch with the real people out there that they’re making media for,” Fenech says.

Mr Kapiniaris laments the fact that the media in Australia is generally “backwards”. He remembers his first agent advertising jobs for ethnic actors on one board and having a separate board for the ‘main’ actors.

“I couldn’t play or try out for an Australian character. As a Greek I could play maybe an Italian character,” he says.

“The industry hasn’t changed all that much in Oz. We are still pretty narrow-minded compared to the US when it comes to casting.”

According to Mr Kapiniaris, 90 per cent of Australian actors are unemployed, with 99 per cent of that figure made up of ethnic actors. But he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“There’s not that much work around but if you’re a musician, a stand up, or a writer, it’s great because you can do something on the side while you’re waiting on the next gig,” Mr Kapiniaris says.

One of his greatest bugbears is the fact that every time he appears on a chat show, he is welcomed to the sounds of Zorba the Greek. Despite having built a career on his Greek heritage, Mr Kapiniaris says he doesn’t even like the song.

“They assume because I’m George and my mum and dad came from Greece that they’re gonna play the Mikis Theodorakis theme again,” Mr Kapiniaris says.  To capture his music preferences, he says they would need to play ACDC or Neil Young. As for his gastronomic palate, you still can’t go wrong with Souvlaki.

“It’s my favourite dish, but pork Souvlaki,” says Mr Kapiniaris, who claims the finest Yirros in Australia can be found at Yianni’s on Hindley in Adelaide.

When questioned about the aim of his comedies, Mr Fenech was reluctant to be drawn into any sort of analysis saying there is “too much intellectualising over my stuff”. But, aside from a desire to do “silly humour”, his comedy stems from the ostracism he felt as a teenager.

“I think any kid who wasn’t Anglo back when I was in school … felt marginalised. Certainly Australia in the 70s and 80s was a … white bread kind of culture,” Mr Fenech says. “So it’s probably part of the reason I make the stuff I make because there wasn’t anything that I related to,” he says.

Mr Schembri believes Fenech’s brand of humour resonates for the same reason that Wogs Out of Work does. “Although they all may have evolved and developed more or less independently, I see them as part of the same comedy that is pushing boundaries, that is breaking through the strictures and the self-censorship of political correctness to actually get to the truth about how people perceive each other,” he says.

From hit shows Pizza and Housos on SBS to Bogan Hunters on 7mate, Mr Fenech, whose father is Maltese and mother part Aboriginal, is a writer with a diverse voice and a strong desire to reflect the society we live in on our screens.

“That’s why I have all the kind of crazy different faces that you see … at least they represent faces you’d see on any Australian street … and that’s everything from bogan through to crazy Asian cab driver,” he says.

Mr Fenech dismisses any notion that some of his comedic characters may be enforcing stereotypes, saying they can instead serve to break down barriers.

“You get Tongans for example. There’s a charming Tongan in our show and you might think ‘hey, I like that guy’. So suddenly, you’ve knocked a little bit of prejudice out of somebody,” he says.

Mr Schembri agrees that ethnic humour can promote understanding of other cultures.

“The great thing about all these forms of comedy is that when you do drop the pretense of political correctness and start speaking honestly and in raw terms about people and how they behave, however exaggerated it is, you are getting to certain truths,” he says.

“And once you get to truths, we increase understanding, and once you increase understanding, people start to relax about so called differences about the cultures.”

Cesira Colleluori
AMES Staff Writer