by Le Grec
When mother first threatened you with eating wood (θα φας ξύλο), you knew right there and then you had discovered comedy gold and the genesis of a new genre: Immigrant humour.
It was not Greek comedy. Not ethnic comedy. It was the comedy of the diaspora borne out of the immigrant experience as we traversed between cultures, that of our parents and that of the host country.
Nobody invented it. Nobody created it. It is the product of cultural displacement, regardless of your ethnicity. We all inherited it, and discovered it along the way by virtue of our experience as the offspring of migrants. The Greeks in Greece would not understand it. Nor the Italians back home nor the ‘ol country compatriots of any ethnic group.
We have our mothers and fathers to thank for providing us with such rich material. Material that came in handy later in life for comedians, artists, writers, actors, filmmakers and martial artists…. indeed our mothers introduced us to βαράτε, giving us invaluable self-defence classes on how to defend oneself in these new hostile environments against people and objects, in particular the infamous wooden κουτάλα! How many a forearm has not benefited from the iron master conditioning courtesy of mother?
Coming out of the comedy closet
In the new Ithaca our immigrant parents called home, we, their offspring, had the challenge of fitting in whilst trying to reconcile two cultures from two very different worlds. A concoction of tears and laughter would be our daily brew as we were growing up. We were singled out for being different. In Australia, we were the ‘wogs’, in the USA the ‘wops’. They insulted our food by calling it ‘wog food’, but thirty years later its frickin gourmet…as they struggle to pronounce taramosalata and dolmades.
We needed an antidote to the insults and comedy was the best answer. By owning our ‘wog experience’ we empowered ourselves. It was cathartic.
Soon enough, that once private comedy routine started seeping into the public space finding a ready and willing audience of compatriots. In the early 80s in Sydney, Australia you had the likes of Tony Kassapakis (aka Spiros Yearos and the Zoumia) who did what might be the first stage play of the genre, in the 1985 Brady Bunch parody called The Pappas Bunch.
In 1987, Nick Giannopoulos and Co performed the first public exorcism on the word ‘WOG’ with the stage play Wogs out of Work, expelling from it all the derogatory demons that inhabited it. Finally, we reclaimed the word as our own and the former insult, slowly became a badge of honour.
Who owns the Wog Experience?
In Australia, Nick Giannopoulos with his team including Mary Coustas and George Kapiniaris continued with their hit TV show Acropolis Now, with the genre finding ambassadors in North America such as Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) Basil and Angelo Tsarouchas.
In no time, comedians from other ethnic groups (Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian) found their ready and willing audience of compatriots thirsting for the same humour which reflected their cultural experiences.
Thirty years later, and there is a whole “WOG” franchise.
The ‘WOG’ controversy
Athens, we have a problem.
Recently in Australia of 2019, Italian-Australian comedian Gabriel Rossi accused ‘WOG’ pioneer Nick Giannopoulos of threatening him with legal action if he didn’t get rid of the word ‘Woggy’ from his show A Very Woggy Christmas. Rossi claimed he was forced to change the title of the show to A Very Ethnic Christmas because Giannopoulos had trademarked the word ‘wogs’.
The truth of the matter is Giannopoulos did trademark the word ‘wogs’. He filed a trademark application through his company Thirdcosta Pty Ltd on 3 December 1996, and it was accepted on 13 March 1997. The trademark acceptance was advertised 27 March 1997.
Here’s the problem for comedians like Rossi. Giannopoulos exercised his legal right to apply for a trademark, applied and it was granted him. Since then his application has been renewed and available to the public. If anybody had an issue with it, they had a few decades with each renewal to protest the trademark, but nobody did, including the protesting comedians of today.
Although the trademark of the word ‘wogs’ was legal, yours truly believes it’s not ethical. The trademark should not have been granted for a word that has been part of public discourse in Australia, including the arts, before ‘Wogs out of Work’. It’s excessive. A legal challenge today might even see the trademark revoked.
But who cares? Giannopoulos hadn’t seemed to worry about it until provoked, as he said recently on A Current Affair by comedians ‘stealing’ a line out of one of his shows and turning it into the show title for their production Born to be Wogs.
Giannopoulos and his adversaries have more than the word ‘wog’ though to worry about. The whole ‘wog’ franchise for Italians, Greeks and early immigrants groups has a limited shelf life.
The Wog Franchise
In North America and Australia, the early immigrant groups are now in their third and fourth generation. Does it really make sense to push the Greek–Wog experience? The Italian-Wog experience?
It seems a tad exploitative and creatively lazy to persist with what is very old and possibly irrelevant material. Is there an audience for it? If so, is it on the rise or diminishing?
Immigrant comedy now belongs to the new migrants coming to our shores, the Ethiopians, the Afghanis, the Syrians, and so forth. They are in their first generation, like we Greeks and Italians and other early migrants once were.
To persist with Greek-diaspora ‘wog’ comedy is like looking at an anorexic cash cow still grazing on the same but less fertile pastures of immigrant humour!