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Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Yannis Pappas on Why He Did Standup for 14 Years Before Doing a Half-Hour Special

yannis-pappasYannis Pappas is (fictionally) Mr. Panos, a deeply patriotic Greek man who owns “The Baby Socrates Diner.” He is also (fictionally) Maurica, a pre-operative transsexual Puerto Rican in search of a wealthy man to pay for surgery. More importantly, Yannis has (factually) survived being shot, (factually) been a 9/11 relief worker, and will soon (factually) have his own Comedy Central The Half Hour special.

After 14 years of pushing and pulling his comedy career through the mud, a 30-minute special is more than due to this particular installment of the New York comedy scene. He’s long been selling out shows from coast to coast, performed as widely as South Africa and every country in Scandinavia, and has established himself as one of the prime New York comics on the scene today.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with Pappas about the excitement leading up to his Half Hour special, what we can expect to see in the years to come, and the importance of being understood on one’s own terms.

How was filming your Half Hour? You’ve been doing comedy for 14 years, so I imagine you had a lot of material to draw from.

It was great. I had a good time, and the spot was really cool. It felt like a club, the way it was laid out. I guess it’s kind of a music venue, so the way they set it up was really cool.

I did all recent stuff, I would say within the past five years. Some of it was really new. Some of it was the past year or two. I put the set together a couple weeks before — actually, I submitted the tape a couple months before, changed some things a few weeks before, and ran it on a couple of weekend gigs on the road. I ran it at Laugh Boston the night before and I felt pretty good about it. I have this big soccer joke that I wanted to close on especially since the World Cup is going on right now, so hopefully it’s all in there. Hopefully, they edited it with that closing. It was the joke I closed on, so I hope it’s in there. Hopefully, people find that interesting just because of the timing.

How were the emotions going into it? I know that when I was in high school, my entire understanding of standup comedy came through shows like Premium Blend and Night at the Improv and Comedy Central Presents and so on.

Yeah, I mean, when I got The Half Hour, there were comments—a lot of reactions of Facebook. Some people said, "Well deserved, long overdue." I’ve been known in the comedy scene in New York for a while, and I’m liked and respected by the community. But the truth of the matter is that I didn’t submit myself until now. This is the first time I submitted for The Half Hour, and I’m glad that I waited because I really feel good about the half-hour that I dropped and I always knew that the first 30 I did, I felt like I wanted it to be good because I know it’s the first time a large audience is really seeing you. So I wanted to really feel like I could knock it out of the park. I kind of waited to develop as a comedian, until I felt good. I didn’t try to chase the ambition of it… to be on TV, to get this done. I just had this high standard that I wanted to feel really good about. It actually kind of worked because I felt like my half hour was really good. I felt good about every single joke, about the order of it, the opening, the closing, and as a comedian, it just felt fully developed.

And there’s more to come?

Over the next 10 years I’m hoping to drop the next full hour. And what I did learn from doing this half-hour is that the only way to really start developing new hours of material is to do a special. It’s a psychological thing, like 'All right, this is done. I’m done with this material, let’s move on. I dropped it onto something for posterity, and now I need to move on.'

I’ve already written a new half-hour; I guess it was all pent up, once I dropped all that stuff. You know, it’s just too tempting to do the old stuff if you haven’t dropped it anywhere, so I really feel like it’s moved my career forward and I hope to do an hour in a year. I think I’m one of the guys who did The Half Hour that’s been around a while, so I was almost "deigning" to do that. You know, I think a lot of guys who do The Half Hour are comics who have half an hour. Whereas me, I have a lot of material, and those are the jokes I chose for the half-hour.

I’m hoping to progress pretty quick after this, especially since I’ve sort of built up a grassroots following, and this is the first time my standup is going to be seen on a major cable network. So, I’m extremely excited.

You’ve got a very strong New York aura for your comedy. It’s very representative of New York.

Yeah, I’m from Brooklyn, and I started in New York, and I’ve just always been in New York. I’ve actually never really left. I’ve just been there.

Where did you get the inspiration for your characters? What led you to do these characters that you put on?

Well, the specific stories are pretty frivolous, you know? I was in my mom’s house, and she has these two Greek flags that she got at some Greek event, and I just thought, 'Hey, that would be a good background for a blog,' and then I just created the character. Maurica: I was sitting with Nate Bargatze in a diner and we were thinking of characters for this live radio show we were doing at the time. I used to do this Rosie Perez impersonation as a kid, and I was trying to think of unique angles. I was like, "You know what? No one’s ever really done this transgender character." I built both the characters in my standup, the story of who they were, what their perspective was, what their goal was, and kept working on it in my standup until their stories were complete. The inspiration was closest to me. They’re both very urban, New York characters, and that’s where I grew up. I grew up in Brooklyn. I’m Greek, I grew up with many Puerto Rican friends, dating Puerto Rican girls. It’s some of the stuff that’s closest to me.

You took a couple years off of comedy a decade ago. In that period when you were off, were you constantly looking for jokes? Or did you sort of turn off for a while altogether? 

I think those two years were kind of soul-searching. I was always a funny kid. I was always a class clown, I was always the funny one amongst my friends. After I got shot, I started suffering from PTSD, and it just changed my whole perspective on life. I started doing 9/11 disaster relief and social work. I kind of immersed myself in the tragic aspect of life. It was a paradigm shift in the way I thought. I never took anything seriously. Like, what does it all mean? What’s the fucking point of anything if you can walk down the street and be killed? What’s the point of trying to achieve something or self-aggrandisement? I needed to learn about life. I didn’t think about comedy at all for those two years.

But it definitely helped in your development of what you want to talk about.

Totally. It matured me as a person. It helped me grow up. I didn’t really care about pandering — I don’t want to call it pandering, but I didn’t really care if I was liked, I didn’t really care if I was talking about stuff that was gonna get me noticed or push me forward in my career further. I wanted to kind of scrape the bottom of the barrel of my soul and talk about things that move me. That’s not such a great idea when you’re not so developed as a comedian that you can’t handle those things. So I had a lot of bumpy shows and I think my development was sort of… protracted because of that.

What were your expectations when you got back into comedy, what did you think you were going to end up at, or did you have that in mind? 

It sort of unfolded as I went. I was pretty terrible for a while, but Donnell Rawlings had a room on the Upper East Side called “Merrion Square.” He invited me to do his room when he started the room. For a while, like six months, I only did comedy once  a week at his room. I was fucking awful at it. I was filthy, I would talk about sexual nonsense, my jokes were horrible, but he kept inviting me back because he kept saying he thought I was brilliant and he saw something in me. He kept giving me opportunities even though I’d go in the room and really fail. He was the guy who pulled me into comedy and encouraged me to get back into it. From there I started slowly doing more shows, and that’s how it happened. I didn’t know how it was going to develop or unfold but I just knew that it was what I wanted to do.

And what about your production company Ditch Films? How’d that come around and what’s coming next?

Yeah, it’s my buddy Jesse Scaturro; we grew up together. He’s a director and he has an advertising background. We were friends and we always had the same sense of humor. We did some branded content, commercial work, but we also shot a bunch of comedy sketches for the fun of it. He’s the guy that sort of collaborated with me on all the characters I do and those are the two that got popular, Mr. Panos and Maurica.

When you came back into comedy and were going to that room, learning who you were voice-wise, material-wise, did you have a day job? When did you get so fully immersed in comedy that it was everything you did? 

I had a day job back then. Then I was on unemployment because I was working for an ad-hoc not for profit, so when their funding ran out, I was unemployed. I didn’t go full time in comedy until 2008, I believe. That’s when I jumped in full time and then I was just struggling, you know, doing one-nighters. There was this guy Soul Joel who had a comedy production company, and he would do shows all over the Northeast, one-nighters in these pretty grimy rooms, elk lodges, firehouses, whatever. I felt like it was a really great training ground, the hard shows. That’s how I really came up: bar rooms, I had my own show every Sunday where I would go and do as much time as I wanted, whatever I wanted, just explore creatively whatever I wanted. I sort of had my own agenda and was very proactive in my own development. But it wasn’t the traditional clubs.

Did you ever feel like stepping out of comedy again?

Every time I bombed [Laughs]. Every time I eat my dick, yeah. You know, then you do the next show and you’re like, 'I’m alright.' But it’s always out there waiting for you. There’s always a good spanking waiting for you.

Do you think that puts more pressure on you, now that you have this big credit to your name?

No, not at all. When I created the characters, it was a frenzy. In the first year, I sold like — again, it wasn’t on the radar — but I sold out New York City and a bunch of other cities. I’ve been selling out shows because of the characters. The first year I did Maurica, I sold 10,000 tickets in a year. One of the first shows I did was selling out overnight. Overall, because I do the character show as well, and standup just as myself, and then I do another show with Angelo Lozada who hosts it and I do the characters onstage and it’s a totally different show with the characters live, that’s also evolved over time, but I’ve been doing that for three years. I’m kind of thrown into the pressure, when you have a full crowd.

We’ve done shows in South Africa with a thousand people. When you have a thousand people show up to watch you and people say, "Oh that’s easy, they’re your fans," no it’s the complete opposite. If you bomb at a club, nobody knows your name. It’s like, "Aww, that comedian wasn’t good." But if everyone fucking pays to come see you, you have to be good. You cannot fail. So I think I’ve already experienced that pressure of "all eyes on you."

The Comedy Central thing for me is more of a relief. It’s like an acknowledgement from Comedy Central, and I’m very thankful for it. I’m just kind of that guy known by all of the comedians, and I’m happy now to start being known by industry. It started with Montreal New Faces and now The Half Hour. It’s everything in steps. One thing has lead to the other, and I’ve just completely accepted the trajectory.

A lot of real recognition from the world at large. 

Exactly, yeah. And it feels like everything’s happening at the appropriate time. At the right point in my development. I feel like I’m a little bit of a throwback guy, someone who is an experienced headliner doing a half-hour. It just feels like, maybe over the years, these younger guys kind of stretching into a half-hour, 22 minutes or whatever it is, and they’ve only been doing comedy a few years and sometimes that shows a little bit. If anything, I’m hoping that my special will show that I’m a guy who’s been around, who’s comfortable doing an hour for many years, who’s doing a half-hour to prove to you who I am.

Did you ever feel like your career was not advancing as fast as you wanted? Or did you always have a sense of comfort where you were? 

I’m really good friends with Nate Bargatze; we were actually hanging out last night because I was at the Howard Theater in D.C. and he was at the Arlington Draft House and we always talk about it. Me and him, our careers have been sort of opposite in the way that he’s got fucking 12 late night spots. He’s done The Half Hour. He’s doing the hour now that Jimmy Fallon’s producing. Every single thing he’s sort of earned. You know, there’s nobody writing articles about him. It’s the same thing with me. Yeah, I have felt that. Yeah, I am one of the most popular comedians in New York City. My characters are extremely popular there. It’s reached all the way up to very famous celebrities who are fans of it, you know, it’s all over. I’ve got shows sold out. Big shows in New York, Miami, Chicago, LA. There’s no articles about me. There’s no New York magazine article about me, although I am a New Yorker and I am a popular comic.

I have felt a little overlooked in that way, but I also understand how the industry works. It’s like some guys get tapped and get pushed and they are good and deserving of it and there’s only so many guys that can be that guy.

Look at Bill Burr: to me, he’s the best comedian I’ve seen live. Ever. And he’s had to develop sort of without that industry acknowledgment until he just became so good that he did it on his own terms. Even his article in Rolling Stone was kind of a backhanded compliment. It was like, “The New Louis C.K.” Really? You’ve got to fucking overshadow it by mentioning… why couldn’t you say "Bill Burr: The Fucking Great Comedian"? Why does he have to be "The New Louis C.K."? I know it was a well-intentioned thing, but it’s like everyone’s just going to remember the name Louis C.K. They’re gonna read the article and not even remember his name. I don’t know who published it, but that’s a huge fail.

So I shouldn’t call this article, "Yannis Pappas: The Next Greg Giraldo."

“Yannis Pappas: He’s NOT Larry the Cable Guy.” Like we thought! I’m gonna walk around in my characters’ outfits all the time.

[Laughs] Have you thought about trying that? 

If everything else dries up, I’ll be 50 years old in some club in Long Island. I’ll put the dress on and be like, "All right, hand me a wig.” I’ll pop in a cigarette, I’ll be like, "Look. I want half my money up front, but you gotta give me the money cash. I’ve been in this business 30 years. Somebody come here and crack my back. Stretch out my knee. Let’s do this." I love it! I’ve got no plan B.

That’s what I look forward to. 

If I have to eat off that wig when I’m old, I’ll eat off that wig.

Yannis Pappas's Comedy Central Half Hour airs Friday at 12:30.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Photo Credit: Paul Marotta

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