Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Interview with Yannis Pappas

Yannis Pappas (international headliner from Brooklyn) is bringing his variety show to Chicago at the UP Comedy Club this weekend. Yannis has been featured on CBS, ABC, BET, MTV, AXS TV, VH1, and Comedy Central. He's well known for his characters, Maurica Rodriguez and Mr. Panos who have become internet sensations generating millions of views on YouTube.

Yannis’ comedic journey has been nothing close to ordinary. He survived being shot, and he’s also been struck by lightning. A true survivor who is one of a kind, and was nice enough to share his crazy tales, along with tips on how to prepare for a TV special, and what it takes to have a long, successful career in this industry.


COMEDY OF CHICAGO: So you’ve been shot before AND you’ve been struck by lightning?!

YANNIS PAPPAS: [laughs] I have. I’ve been the luckiest and the unluckiest person! I think I fucked God’s wife in another lifetime and he’s trying to whack me! [laughs]

COC: [Laughing] I’ve read the story about you getting shot. But what’s the story behind the lightning?

YP: I got struck by lightning when I was away at camp. I must have been like, 12 years old.

COC: Was it just you? Or did kids around you get struck, too?

YP: Yeah. It was three or four of us, I can’t remember. But we were being idiots! [laughs] There was a lightning storm that night, and it got so dangerous that the camp counselors brought all the kids inside to take cover. But then, me and my friends just run out! I was one of the ring leaders. When I was a kid, I wanted to find out how close I could get to pushing the limits. That’s just the type of kid I was. So, we escaped and ran outside, and there was SO much lightning that the camp counselors wouldn’t even come out and get us! They were screaming at us from inside. So of course, we were laughing. But then, the next thing you know, we hear the LOUDEST noise you’ve ever heard!

COC: Damn…so then what?

YP: I passed out! And when I woke up, the kid next to me was crying about how he couldn’t feel half his body! [laughs] The lightning struck very close to us—maybe like, 20, 30, 40 feet away. And the water on the ground acts as a conductor, so the whole ground lit up! And we’re all just running around on the ground with water everywhere—so we all got electrocuted.

COC: F#%K! How bad was it? Were you guys hospitalized?

YP: Na, but the one kid had half his body paralyzed for about 24 hours! Half his body was numb. He was screamin’ and cryin’.

COC: Wow.

YP: But na, nobody died. Everybody was all right. We got struck by lightning and lived! I mean, I died…but I came back. [laughs]

COC: You’ve survived gun shot wounds and you’ve survived lightning, how did you not become a rapper?

YP: Yeah exactly. [laughs] I should be able to sell my story to some rapper and tell him it’ll help him sell more albums. [laughs]

COC: Not even 50 Cent can compete with lightning!

YP: LIGHTNING. That’s stronger than bullets. Bullets ain’t got nothin’ on lightning! Forget about gangsters tryin’ to kill you, that’s GOD tryin’ to kill you!

[moment of laughter]


COC: You just did a Comedy Central Half Hour special. How did you decide what to talk about on your special?

YP: Ya know, I’ve done a lot of stand up, and I have a lot of material. For the half hour, I just picked some of the most recent stuff that I thought were my favorite jokes. I don’t think I did anything that was written further than four or five years ago. It was all pretty recent.

COC: So then what do you do with all the older material?

YP: You move on as a comic. Some of your older stuff, you just don’t want to do anymore because you become a better comic. Your older jokes don’t even appeal to you anymore. And you don’t think they’re good anymore because you write better jokes. A lot of the stuff I’ve written over the years I don’t even do anymore because I feel like I’ve progressed past it.

COC: How does the material you choose for a special differ from the material you do for a live show?

YP: I think doing a special is a totally different outlook on how you approach your set. Doing a live show over the weekend is different than doing something that is going to be taped. In a live show, you can do crowd work, you can do local references, and you’re just trying to do well for that crowd that night. But when you film a special, it’s more about the jokes. You don’t even necessarily have to CRUSH the audience. Because on TV, that doesn’t really matter. It’s about the people at home who are listening to your material.

COC: How did you personally prepare for your TV special?

YP: What I did for the special was I tried to make sure that the jokes were TIGHT. You’re not gonna do crowd work, you’re not gonna do local references. Although you’re playing to the people in the room, you lay down the material for posterity. So make sure the jokes are tight.

COC: Do you constantly perform that set over and over up until you tape it?

YP: I ran this special a bunch, live. I ran it to death! I think that’s what you need to do when preparing for a TV set. Just run the special until you’re sick of it! You’re not even performing with that much passion anymore because you’re just so sick of it. But you know it so well, you know where the punches are, and it’s tight.

COC: What did you to prepare the night right before your special?

YP: I ran the set at Laugh Boston the night before, and it didn’t even really do well, but I wasn’t worried at all. Because I knew I was so sick of the stuff, and I wasn’t performing it with any passion or emotional connection. I was really more cerebrally going through the mathematics of it, “Set up, punch! Set up, punch!” So I knew that. When I performed the special, I performed it with passion because I knew it was game time. I think it’s important that when you do a TV set to get the mathematics down tight. ‘Cause that’s what plays well on TV.


COC: General advice for comics?

YP: If you’re coming up as a comic, do ANY show, open mics, whatever! Start your own room, host it, do a lot of time and learn. I’d do ANY room, on any day. In fact, a lot of times, the shows that are free during the week are more important than the weekend shows where you get paid because those are the shows where you can really experiment and come up with new shit for the weekend.

COC: When writing jokes, do you think of material that would be good for TV, or do you just choose the ‘TV jokes’ as they come?

YP: More as it comes. The bigger the library of jokes that you build up, the more you have to choose from. I don’t ever go into it thinking, “This will play better on TV!” When I look at my jokes as I put together a TV set, there’s a lot to think about: You can’t do anything local. Like, you can’t do anything that’s TOO New York, or TOO Chicago because it’s a national audience. You can’t do anything dirty, unless you’re on HBO. So you really have to think about what’s going to play well.

COC: With all the pain and rejection that comes with this profession, what keeps you from not quitting?

YP: It’s a tough career, so you have to have an honest conversation with yourself and ask yourself, “Is this for me? Do I really have the talent? Am I good enough to have OLDER COMICS show respect and give me positive reinforcement?” If it wasn’t for a couple of older comics telling me along the way, saying “Hey, you got a lot of potential, you’re GOOD!” I probably would have quit! But, I just felt deep down that I was funny enough and that I’d get better. That encouragement from older comics really helped.

COC: With all the social media outlets at our disposal, what does it take for a comedian to have a successful career in this day and age?

YP: Nowadays, you gotta be hitting on A LOT of cylinders. Seems like there’s two types of careers: There’s those types of careers where the industry finds you because you fill a void in the marketplace that they’re looking for—whether it be diversity or youth or a hot female… It’s hard to be a straight white man right now. [laughs] There’s a lot of us! So you really have to be GREAT to stand out. So that’s one path—that push from the industry. Then the other path is you building your own fanbase through the internet, social media, and clubs. Go to cities, kill it, go back—your reputation gets better and your following gets bigger. Social media is just as important: podcasts, twitter, and all that shit is just as much a part of your career as stand up is. ALL OF IT has to be there.

COC: How do you get comics to stop comparing themselves to other comics?

YP: Inevitably you do that, because it’s human nature to be competitive. But it’s a mistake to do it. I think Joan Rivers once said, “Run your own race.” It’s a waste of energy and it’s distracting, even though it’s almost impossible not to do. It’s brutal! You will see guys who are younger than you pass you, guys who aren’t as good will pass you up… But like I said, a lot of times those guys happen to fill a void in the marketplace that a particular producer tries to fill to attract a certain audience. That’s just how it goes. That’s life. It’s not fair.


COC: You refuse to put anything out there until you feel it is absolutely perfect. That being said, life is stressful outside of comedy, so how do you balance comedy with real life?

YP: That’s been the hardest part for me. My mom has dementia, and I’ve been taking care of her for the past couple years. And of course, you try to come up but you’re broke, and you’re out at night and you’re working during the day… I think you have to be a bit of a masochist. You have to be able to deal with pain and rejection really well. You gotta REALLY want it. And of course, you gotta have TALENT! There’s A LOT of people out there who are delusional. I know it’s a tough thing to say, but a lot of people just don’t “have it” yet they keep going. They’re either sociopaths, or fuckin’ masochists. [laughs]

COC: As you take comedy more and more seriously, the less time you have for anything else. Is it even possible to have friendships and relationships outside of comedy?

YP: You better! [laughs] That’s where your material comes from! If you’re only hanging out with comics all the time, you will have no material. You gotta live a normal life. That’s why it was important for me to have a job and to know what it was like to be a regular civilian so I can connect to the people who, 99.9% of them, that is their life. If I go up there and I’m like, “So, I was hangin’ out with the funniest people in the world the other day and we were crackin’ each other up!” That’s not a life that anyone can relate to. It’s important to have friends who are outside of comedy. It’s important to live a life. A lot of the comics who get to that top level, do so after they have kids because then they have a lot to talk about that the audience can connect to.

COC: Comedy is a strange profession with odd hours. Is it even possible have a relationship with someone normal?

YP: It depends. It depends on how good you are with chicks! [laughs] I would say get yourself a chick who’s got a day job, move in with her, contribute to the rent. Hopefully she’s a soldier for you, and likes that you’re a comic, and gets that you’re ambitious. The more stability you have in your life, the better while you’re trying to become a comic. Because it’s so unstable, and it’s so up and down, and it’s just so hard. I know it sounds cynical, but I would give anybody that advice. Even if you don’t love her, move in with her! [laughs]


COC: Your show is very different from any normal stand up show. You do stand up but you also do characters that you’ve incorporated into the show. Do you always perform this way?

YP: Depending on where I’m at, a lot of times I’ll just do straight stand up, but places like Chicago, New York, L.A., Miami—where the characters are very popular—I’ll do the character show along with stand up. So I do Mr. Panos, I do Maurica, and then I close as myself. It’s a cool variety show. Me and my buddy Angelo Lozada have been hosting it for a couple years, so we kinda have it down, and we have a good time with it.

COC: Your characters have gotten millions of views on YouTube. Is there a weird competition to where your fans like your characters more than your stand up?

YP: Totally. When I first started doing those shows, I sold a hell of a lot of tickets because Maurica was SO popular. Everybody was there to see her. And for the most part, people who are my fans know me either from Maurica or Mr. Panos. Those two characters are definitely more popular than me and my stand up. [laughs]

COC: How did you get to a point to where you can perform your characters AND your stand up?

YP: I am a stand up first—I created these characters in my stand up and just ended up making videos of them. So, I challenged myself to evolve my show to the point where I do the characters first, and then I close it as myself. I follow the monsters that I created. [laughs] People usually walk away and enjoy the whole show, being surprised at how much they like me as ME. A lot of them don’t even know I’m a stand up—they just know the characters! So they come to the show and they leave knowing that I’m a stand up, and they enjoy that part of the show as well, so it’s a lot of fun.


COC: Is fame a good enough motivator to want to be a comedian?

YP: If you don’t have a lot of talent, and you’re doing it because you want to get famous, it’s gonna be brutal. It’s not gonna work out. ‘Cause it’s A LOT of work! It’s a GRIND. The dark side of it is that most people don’t make it—they won’t make it to the top where they don’t have to worry about anything financially.

COC: Bombing helps you grow & develop new jokes. But once you reach a high level of fame, how do you develop new material when people pay to see you? Don’t you have to kill it all the time?

YP: Yeah, if people pay to see you, you better fuckin’ kill it! And you better have new jokes the next time you’re in town! Ultimately, that is what separates the ones who continue in this business from the ones who don’t. Anybody can get hot for a second. And there’s no secret to that. That’s where the men get separated from the boys. Can you write a whole new half hour/hour EVERY YEAR when you go back to that town? And if you don’t, you’ll see your fanbase start to dwindle. And you’ll see a lot of guys doing the same act for 10 years and they get lost on the road or on cruise ships because they don’t write new jokes—and maybe they can’t. Maybe they’ve maxed out their talent, I dunno what it is…

COC: What does it take to stay in this business once you get hot?

YP: That’s where your experience and your work ethic comes in. I’ve definitely had a hard road—I haven’t gotten any breaks, I’ve had to build everything myself brick by brick, but because of that journey and because of that trajectory, now I have achieved some sort of success headlining and making a decent living doing this. BUT…I still have that work ethic ingrained in me. I’m not above doing any show.


COC: What was your day job while you were doing comedy?

YP: Man, I was hookin’! I was hookin’ on the street!! [laughs] Na, I did social work for about five and a half years. I did 9/11 disaster relief from 2002 to 2005. Then I worked with mentally ill and formerly homeless people at Single Room Occupancies (SRO) for about three years, and I worked in night clubs for a couple years, I was a personal assistant to a CEO for a year or two, I temped…just did a little bit here ‘n there.

COC: How far along were you in your comedy career when you decided to quit your day job? Like, were you at least featuring?

YP: I never really featured—the only person I really featured for was Donnell Rawlings. And when I made the jump to headliner, I sort of did it the wrong way—I started doing a bunch of one-nighters. I’d go anywhere for 150 bucks and headline. That’s how I learned how to headline. And also, I had my own bar room for five years in Brooklyn where I’d do at least an hour every week, so I taught myself how to headline by doing all that and taking the hard road. I didn’t take the traditional “Host-Feature-Headliner” route.

COC: When you went full time, how tough was the transition? What crucial mistakes can we learn from?

YP: I can’t change it, and for some reason I wanted to do it the way that I did it, but I didn’t do it the right way. If you want to have a career in this business, I wouldn’t do it the way I did it, that’s for sure. I wasn’t aware of the steps in the business, and I didn’t care. I would just go up there and talk crazy and try to make it work—and it didn’t most of the time. I don’t know why I did that. I was more concerned with that than the career aspect—which I would not recommend. I recommend you put five minutes together that works, then put ten minutes together, keep putting together five minutes at a time, then try to get that Montreal ‘New Faces’, try to get a Late Night set, try to get a little spot on Comedy Central, then try to do the Half Hour and so on—the traditional route. That seems to be the norm over the past 10 years or whatever.


COC: Why do you do comedy? What do you think is the purpose?

YP: I think we do a good job of reminding people that although life is obviously serious with a lot of tragedy, you have to have a sense of humor to emotionally survive it. That’s what comedy is. We give people that little reprieve from the reality of tragedy of life. You need a sense of humor to survive.

COC: Comedy is a brutal lifestyle. What is the key to keeping your head straight?

YP: I think a lot of comedians make the mistake of forgetting that it’s a JOB. It becomes a party. You’re working at night, you’re hanging out in bars ‘n clubs, people want to buy you shots…and a lot of guys forget that they’re at fuckin’ WORK! You see a lot of comedians who are fuckin’ BRILLIANT who don’t take care of themselves. We’ve lost A LOT of brilliant people because the lines got blurred. They didn’t have enough self control to say, “I know I can get free drinks here, but that doesn’t mean I SHOULD, because I’m at WORK.” If you’re not getting your ONLY high from the laughs, I think the craft is gonna suffer. If your goal is to do the show so you can get drunk later, then all your energy isn’t going into the show!

COC: Final thoughts / words of wisdom to leave us with?

YP: You’re never as good as your best show, and you’re never as bad as your worst. Also…if a comic who you respect and think is funny doesn’t tell you, “You’re funny!” within like, 5-7 years then you’re probably not, and you should quit!

[moment of laughter]

YP: I have JUST as much respect for someone who quits because they’re honest with themselves, as I do for the person who grinds and makes it all the way into a nice career. It’s not for everybody. Don’t delude yourself about it. This career goes up and it goes down. There’s a lot more pain than there is payoff. So don’t delude yourself about it. This is the dream life that everybody wants. Think about how hard that is to attain. It is THE ABSOLUTE DREAM LIFE! So of course it will come with a cost and a price. And if you’re not willing to pay it, then there’s no shame in doing something else. At the end of the day, if you put a lot of time into it, but you don’t really have the potential, then in a lot of ways you’re wasting time. Time is more valuable than money—money you can always make back. Be very frugal with your time.

COC: Yannis, it’s been fun talkin’ to you, can’t wait to see your show at UP Comedy Club! In the meantime, be safe, and don’t get shot or struck by lightning!

YP: [laughing] I’ll try! Thanks again, I appreciate it!

Contributing Writer: David Gavri
David Gavri is a stand-up comedian, writer and founder of the online comedy sites Gonzo Fame and Comedy Scene in Houston.