All Photos by Phil Provencio
“If you ain’t impressing born and raised New Yorkers, you ain’t that good.”
The quote itself is current, but may as well come from a different time, even a different generation entirely now. It’s from comedian Yannis Pappas, but it’s one that we’ve all heard in some form or another. Why is that? More importantly, why has it lasted this long? Why does it deeply resonate with me? Does it with anyone else? I’ll give it my best shot as to why. Remember the 80’s? How about the 90’s? Just the phrases themselves invoke a flood of nostalgia. This period saw the birth of Larry David and Seinfeld. It was Eddie Murphy in his red-leathered-prime. It was a proving ground for future greats like Norm Macdonald, Chris Rock and Louis C.K. It was also the era that saw the loss of huge inspirational giants like Chris Farley, Phil Hartman and Bill Hicks. What’s not to miss indeed.
But remorse not, as Yoda might say, for everything goes in cycles. Just as that generation was inspired by the previous one, the current comedic Zeitgeist is fed by the genius of the Dave Chappelle and Sarah Silvermans of my era. So the cycle of inspiration continues and all is well, right? Sure, but for me and hopefully others, every now and again a helpful push in the right direction is necessary. A push that allows us to stop and take an honest look at ourselves, who we are and what exactly it is we’re trying to say as artists, writers, and comedians. A push that Yannis, Brooklyn born and raised in all his glory, is more than happy to give.
Before we tackle the lesson at hand, it might be important to first address the why. What makes this guy so special? Is he trending? I haven’t seen his name on any of the top blog lists recently (even the Brooklyn one) Well my impatient, shallow at times, friend of the internet, you’d be “technically” right, but also very wrong. Therein lies the problem. With today’s generation being subjected to such an influx of continuous, never-ending streams of digital information, it can be hard to decipher the good from the bad. The right now vs. the 20-30 year old artist still growing. You know the old saying “if a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?” Today’s generation should read more along the lines of “If a Bob Dylan pens ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ without a verified account and huge online presence, does anyone give a retweet?”
So who is Yannis Pappas? For starters he is a rare-breed of comic who is older than many and has had a front-row seat during some of the most influential times New York City has experienced in recent memory. But like with anything the good is not without the bad. “It was a dangerous city and getting jumped, mugged and forced into fights was just normal,” explains Yannis. “But it gives you an edge, wisdom, exposure to everything and awareness that I wouldn’t trade.”
If you’re not impressed, well, there’s also the one time he just so happened to get shot. Yes, really shot during a mugging. The crème de la crème of hip-hop lyrical street cred is there, and he lived to tell about it. Truthfully, it doesn’t get any more New York than this guy. He describes it in a much more personal interview as the day that ”everything changed”. In short, he came to terms with the realization of life’s harsh realities and your dreams could be taken away from you at any given moment. A sort of “benign denial” he calls it. This time period in his life led to Yannis working with 9/11 disaster relief victims, the homeless and the mentally ill afflicted to help cope.
These days though, are safer for Yannis. All this is what brings me to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. To most of the younger generation it’s a relatively unknown place. Sure, it’s Brooklyn, but it’s far. A painfully lonely and reflective hour-and-some-ride-on-the-R-train-type far. Yannis is a new class of home-owning residents here. Even after the gentrification boom, Bay Ridge has stayed relatively unchanged after all these years. Partially from the mob ties, sure, but it’s been maintained quite well. I’m talkin’ a young John Travolta’s perfectly groomed and precisely combed head of hair from Saturday Night Fever (which was famously filmed here) type of maintained. It’s the kind of neighborhood that I can’t help but speculate might have helped form and turned the popular phrase “why leave Brooklyn at all?” and various forms of it we see and hear these days: “…I struck gold, I love it out here. I never thought I’d live here though, but now I’m happy I do. I got a view of Manhattan from all my windows and I stroll the streets with Chris Distefano (who also lives there) and grab slices just like Travolta did in Saturday Night Fever. So I’m stayin alive!” Minus the dance-offs, it’s pretty believable.
Through the changing times and landscape of the comedy world, Yannis the comic has adapted and keeps busy. Relatively retired from the club circuit, on the other hand, are his two viral-famed characters dubbed “Maurica” and “Mr. Panos.” Minus the occasional impression for a few famous actor friends of Yannis’, he explains it just got to be too much. Yannis back then would swap in and out of character 3-4 times throughout the course of a show along with music cues and hosting duties to boot. “Maurica and Panos are fun characters. It’s fun to think like someone else would. Interestingly, they were both a little ahead of their times. Panos predicted the Greek government’s stance towards Germany, and the bailout and Maurica made everyone feel ‘WEPA’ (a slang term of endearment among the Latin communities; ex; “Wepa! They’ve got my favorite Goya flavor in stock”) way before Caitlyn Jenner.” See my point now? Cycles. Whereas a harsh unassuming blog might deem a character like “Maurica” to be offensive a few years back, nowadays the landscape has changed and the media celebrates and embraces that lifestyle.
So what’s the message here? Yannis is happy to lend a few trends he’s noticed. “Nowadays, everyone moves to New York, these artists find safe places with audiences entirely made of up transplant, uncool people just like them from wherever they’re from and it’s a big circle jerk of uncool. Which somehow now is thought to be cool? They don’t think they need that New York influence anymore and it’s limiting them”. Yannis’ statement poses a big and thought provoking question. Has the landscape indeed changed so much that newly minted artists can entirely make it on their own now without the influence or approval of long-time New Yorkers?
Artists used to move here alone from the Midwest or wherever abouts and they’d have to impress New Yorkers. That’s what making it in New York used to be. Audiences were predominately native New Yorkers and artists came here to be influenced by New Yorkers. They came here to learn to be cool.
Yet through it all, it’s clear Yannis is still Yannis. Older and wiser. “I’m great at figuring out a way to lay down wherever I am,“ he jokes. Yannis is happy. Quite simply, for Yannis, it’s all about the little things in life: “Pizza, sports, making whoopie (or alone whoopie), having a good hair day, dogs, my nose not being clogged, fresh sneakers on my feet. It just doesn’t get any better.” Another clear resonance of it just being about all the little things in life.
What comics like Yannis argue is, if by consciously making the decision to move to New York and not exposing yourself to crowds outside of your comfort zone, you might be getting “an experience”, but are you giving yourself a “real New York experience”? The very kind that might have first attracted you to its bright lights and avenues all those years ago. Allowing yourself and your inner artist, the tools it needs to produce work that is capable of standing out among the crowd.
Follow Yannis @YannisPappas and look for his upcoming project series with pal Chris Distefano in development.