OPINION

Lakis Lazopoulos: Comedy emperor comes to London

Manipulative. Rhetoric monger. Pulling at the heartstrings of Greek immigrants without imparting pragmatism or hope. Comedy tyrant.

Lakis Lazopoulos, a star first, comedian second and actor third, has presented a popular weekly show and been a major persona on Greek television for the last 20 years. On Tuesday he played a one-night-only show in London?s Theatre Royal following three in Germany. Disappointingly, he performed like an old magician with transparent tricks.

Lazopoulos?s monopoly on media satire in Greek television has kept a tight lid on the minds of the Greek people, who need freeing stimulation now more than ever. Undergoing economic catastrophe, they do not need to further undergo never-ending formulaic television-ready rote slapstick scripts and self-serving stereotypes that rely on tired tropes such as nostalgia for the homeland. By citing ancient history, concocting simplistic characters and playing songs that could only charm children, Lazopoulos patronized his audience here in London.

Twenty years is a long comedy career. And Lakis Lazopoulos has lost what sharpness he must have used until now to keep competition so long at bay. I argue, if you land such a prestigious venue then you need to come to London with all gags blazing and a show made of lightning-speed satire. Especially if it’s representing modern Greeks and speaking to Greeks abroad.

Who were his audience? Overeducated, multilingual, hardworking patriots exiled by a country that won’t give their proactive voices the platform they deserve. They face daily persecution by colleagues and global media calling their kind lazy, evasive and corrupt. Lazopoulos perpetuates these exact negative stereotypes with characterizations that employ the same circular victimized voice the Greek media uses, the same tone that keeps facing backward. Some 2,000 Greek people living abroad and a handful of foreigners paid to sit for three hours expecting a catharsis through satire that should have been sharper than all that.

Two main criticisms are brought here against the content of Lazopoulos’s show. Firstly, that he used nostalgia as a cheapening tool to get Greek audience members on his side. Secondly, that he underestimated the quality required when delivering character sketches to the worldly wise audience at hand.

Nostalgia peppered the performance and overseasoned it. The most constant theme present in the most celebrated art of Greek culture is that which speaks of yearning. For example, Constantine Cavafy writing from abroad, looking back; Nikos Kavadias, a sailor who cannot get home, remembering golden years; and Melina Mercouri, hopelessly quirky yet romantic, inward-facing yet patriotic, quaintly unaware of the wider world. With all his experience playing the same self-serving comedy tropes on Greek television for so many years, Lazopoulos has grown savvy. He knows what Greeks love in their art. He knows reference to these will get his audience clapping and on side. Yet, by repeatedly playing the same card trick, he patronizes his people. Lazopoulos plucked the heartstrings of his audience by citing songs made popular by Mercouri, drawing on classic mythology like Cavafy, referencing cliche symbols: the Kavadian sailor in the fishing boat unwilling to return to a country that has changed. Worse: the Greek soldier?s white foustanella skirt, the Acropolis, even setting his stage with ancient maps. The issue here is not the use of classic symbols, it is the heavy-handed, hackneyed approach that irks and smacks of ?misery loves company.? This undermines optimism and repeats the suggestion that Greeks need not look further than far behind them.

Character comedy is a fine art. Fine being the operative word. Fine touch. Fine line. Finesse. Perhaps Lazopoulos felt his comedy was of quality and well justified when cracking flacid jokes regarding German Chancellor Angela Merkel?s fringe and dancing around a poster of former Prime Minister George Papandreou captioned ?Forrest Gump.? Lazopoulos pointing and singing that this ?makes him suffer? did not do this London audience justice. The quality of character sketches rolled downhill from there. There were corruption characters that were too honest; reeking of reality rather than ribald humor. Lakis, take note: Pad their confessions with asides and witticisms and you?d get Shakespearean jesters. There were characters that were too contemporary to draw even a single chortle. Lakis, take note: We don?t know how to laugh at grandmothers who have been so recently robbed by pension cuts, and your act does not frame the horror as humor. There were characters whose irony was lost on non-Greeks in the audience: A loud woman sincerely criticizing a young gay man did not make any sense to the Hellenophiles present. It was not clear the actor was making fun of deep-rooted homophobia in Greek society. To the non-Greek audience, the loudly homophobic character sounds like it’s cheerfully representing majority opinion.

Lazopoulos’s most effective character was an untrained fireman. Yet, instead of maintaining the tripe shibboleth and trite stereotype of the ?lazy Greek,? Lazopoulos could have developed the character a little more realistically. Instead of portraying a desperate, lost, panicking and poorly organized faker who lies to be in his job in order to get any salary at all and haplessly finds himself unable to save his burning country, Lazopoulos could have provided his audience with some pride in their national abilities by supplying sharper wit, saying something closer to the truth of the matter and the credentials of the average Greek. For example, he could have had the character to say something more true to form: «Here I am with two languages, three master?s and a PhD and the only job I could get was as an untrained fireman, holding an impotent phallic symbol handed to me via a nepotistic system I despise, i.e. from my uncle the professional politician/media/union leader of the previous generation’s Ministry of Conflict-of-Interests.?

As we all know, the modern Greek nation is in a sorry state. Vast numbers of Greek nationals are commiting suicide. Lazopoulos was right when he said, ?One person stole an entire national pension.? But he was very wrong to think a toothless pensioner character bemoaning helplessness would help the suicidal laugh about it all.

Lazopoulos set the stage as if representing a culture that can only look backward or down at itself with perplexity and self-pity. The audience he played to here in London does not demonstrate those features. And what arrogance! To export his own limited vision and personalities to an audience that work hard every day fighting the very same negative stereotypes and struggling to look forward, an audience who paid to see him with the hope of hearing a strong voice representing a home to be proud of. The comedy characters Lakis Lazopoulos brought to the London stage were too weak, too homophobic, too ready to celebrate their self-depreciation, and to blame others for their suffering rather than pick themselves apart and pick themselves up again, dust off and march forward (even in emasculated foustanella). By charging us to watch circular victimization, mudslinging anger and listen to weak comedy verse set to novelty Greek songs, Lazopoulos misses the point of satire entirely. Satire is meant to stimulate. To use his own tiresome reference to the past: Greeks invented satire. If so, then take some pride to the stage and present, Lakis, especially if presenting to those who took their pride abroad and represent Greece at street level.

Why did he do it? What excuse might there be for such a lackluster performance? Maybe he was invited to throw a grand show together in record time. Maybe he thought the formula he spins on satellites in the sun would still shine under West End stage lights. Whatever excuse, it made this European audience member angry. On this note, by the end of the show, the performance title, «I’m Sorry, I’m Greek,» had become a grating snipe. Lazopoulos danced to his own diatribe that implied «You should say you’re sorry because Europeans like to hear sorry, but try to tell yourself you’re European and you?ll find out you’re not, you?re better than European; you are Greek.» (Cue sentimental show tunes.)

I fear that after 20 years at the top, Lakis Lazopoulos has become a comedy tyrant. If he brought a lame show to the London stage just to take cash off Greeks abroad while claiming comedic catharsis in a crisis, then shame on him. If he is so blinded by careerist routine that he cannot see the mental capability of his captive audience, then shame on them for continuing to clap for him.

Yes, he?s had 20 years of television popularity, but the foustanella skirt just didn?t cut it on the London stage. As Greek comedy emperor, his characters were ill-thought-out and threadbare. An emperor without clothes, I say. Sharpen the wit, Lakis, or stand down.

Tamar Levi

www.tamarlevi.com