When I first started doing stand-up in college, I used to produce dorm shows at NYU to create stagetime and would be somewhat frugal in who I put on my shows, only wanting the funniest. A comic I booked asked if I would put his friend Yannis up, who I still didn’t know at the time having only been doing comedy for maybe a year. I said, “Sure. I can give him five minutes.” My friend later came up to me and asked where I had him squeezed into the line-up and said, “You should put Yannis on last and give him the most time. He’s the strongest comic on this show.”
That’s the respect that Yannis Pappas commands from his peers. Guys I had seen on TV or were invited to Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival were telling me I should give the most time to this nearly credit-less comic. He is a favorite of stand-ups, the guy other comics head into the showroom to watch.
Pappas has made a name for himself since then with his hit YouTube characters Maurica (pictured) and Mr. Panos. He has created countless hilarious shorts with his producing partner Jesse Scaturro through his Ditch Films site. Now the co-host of Fusion Network’s primetime pop culture show Fusion Live, his success continues to soar with the airing of his episode of Comedy Central’s The Half Hour. The multi-talented performer also spoke with me about how getting shot at point-blank range is sort of a major life changer. Read on to learn more about the man who made “Das it!” a craze.
I think I’ve told you this before, but in the last apartment I lived in this one girl threw out a, “Das it!” So I asked her if she knows about Maurica and she said, “Yea. Of course! Love Maurica!” I told her I knew Yannis and she said, “No fucking way!” That’s when I realized the Yannis star was on the rise!
Yeah, I remember you told me that. That was a few years ago, right? She’s a popular bitch.
So tell me more about how Fusion Live came about?
They found me. They were developing this new network. Fusion is ABC and Univision’s joint venture. So they were originally looking to create a network to tap into the English-speaking Latin market. That didn’t play so well when they tested it so they changed the business model of what they’re going for. So the network is basically aiming towards young people, which is a big fucking surprise. That’s what everybody wants. Their whole angle is that America’s diverse and over the next 50 years it’s going to become even more diverse. They’re going after diversity and young people. First they found Maurica and so they kinda scouted me out and looked at all my shit. Then they had me for some chemistry reads. Then they offered me the job. It was a big decision because it was in Miami. Me and my girlfriend broke up and I had nothing really big in New York so I thought, let me try this!
That’s a big life-altering decision to just pack up and move. You’ve been doing stand-up in the city for, what– 15 years?
Overall, I started 14 years ago and I took two full years off. So I’ve been doing it for 12 years. I’ve been in New York and never really left. Yeah, it was a huge life-altering decision. I packed up everything. Me and my girlfriend had dogs together; we had three dogs. Those dogs were like for two years, we lived together. It was a really painful break-up. Extremely painful. We had to figure out what to do with the dogs. Her career was taking off. So the whole fucking thing was really shocking. It was like jumping in cold water. I just moved down here and had to figure everything out quick. I had to find an apartment real quick. I had to buy a car real quick. I had to find homes for my dogs.
You say you’ve done everything the hard way. You also do everything. I noticed this year’s Variety “10 Comics To Watch” list was very diverse in a different way: there were comedians, writers, directors, sketch groups, producers. You’re a stand-up. You do characters. You write. You’re a filmmaker.
That’s where my career is at right now, man. It’s funny you say that because now I’m the host of this show where I do news and host the show, so I’ve developed that muscle as well. And according to the network, I’m doing that pretty well. The funny thing about my career is that people know me from different things. Like, there are Maurica fans. They know Maurica. The Mr. Panos fans, they know me as Panos. My stand-up fans know me as a stand-up. That’s how my career unfolded. I’ve done all these things– acting, producing, directing, writing, online stuff Jesse and I did– I’m at this point now that I’m trying to pull everything under one umbrella. That way people will know when they watch something that it’s just one person doing all of it. It’s very fragmented.
But now you bring them all together in the live show.
Yeah, I feel like now, it’s the beginning of it all coming together.
Since you have all of these weapons and forms of creative expression, do you find that there are ideas or jokes that work better in one medium versus another?
Absolutley. I mean, I’ll think of something and I may go, ‘I’ll give it to Panos’ or, ‘I’ll give it to Maurica’ because it’s not really something that I would say. Sometimes I’ll think of something for her and I’ll take it because I think I can make it work. I’m writing for three people!
Yeah, you have to write for three different voices. Some people take 20 years just to figure out their own comedic voice and here you’re already managing three.
The funny thing is is that I perform as those characters live. You know, they do sets. I basically feature for myself. Chris Mazzilli, who owns Gotham Comedy Club, he told me, ‘I’ve been in the comedy business a long time. This is the hardest working show I’ve ever seen.’ I open with Panos, then I go and change. I do Maurica, then I change into myself and then do an hour of my own stand-up. It’s a two-hour show where I do 20 minutes as Panos, a half hour as Maurica and then an hour as myself.
What happens in between? The host just does some time while you change?
Exactly. Angelo Lozada emcees. He even stays on stage with the characters a little bit and we do a two-man comedy team thing. He’ll bring the characters on stage and have a conversation with them. It crushes. We’ve got it to the point now, after two and a half years, where we’ve got all the bits down. Also, with the sketches, some things will work better as a sketch than they would as a joke. So I have that option that I can explore different premises in different ways or through different people.
It’s interesting that you manage three different voices and you’re on a network that is still finding its own voice. If anyone can help them do that, you seem to be the most qualified.
Even on Facebook, I have different fan pages. I’ll even post in their voices to their fan bases. I’ve had people show up to the live show, crazy enough–and it shows that they’re pretty stupid because the show is called Yannis Pappas. My face is on the poster. I’ve had multiple times after the show, ‘Wow. I didn’t know you were all three people!’ I think that sort of speaks to how different all three acts are.
That’s interesting to hear, that you took two full years off. You don’t normally hear about people taking a “break” from stand-up and still coming back strong.
It was towards the beginning. It was from, like, 2002 to 2004. I had only been doing stand-up for two years. You know, I got shot. That kind of changed my life around a lot. That’s kind of why I took the break. I didn’t feel funny anymore. Life just got real serious. I got shot at point-blank range. I started having anxiety and it just changed my whole perspective on life. Looking back, I think I just needed to go learn about life and the tragedy of life because I was just this kid who didn’t take anything seriously.
It’s a weird thing to have happen to you. And I came from pretty auspicious beginnings. I did my first college like a year in. I was just having fun and it seemed like my career was going to go fast. I was always a really funny kid. I just couldn’t do stand-up! I didn’t feel funny. I couldn’t be funny. I went and did social work for about five years, including the two years I took off of stand-up. I did about two and a half years of 9/11 disaster relief work. Then when I got back into it, I didn’t just start killing it. It was a very long protracted process where I was really bad at comedy. I had to learn to slowly get good at it.
Did the whole act change? Did you ditch all of the material from before?
Well, when I started again I was just dirty and stupid. I was so scared. I would go from extremely filthy, just shock value with no craftsmanship, to way deep philosophical topics that I couldn’t handle because I wasn’t skilled enough as a comedian. Now, a lot of my material I can handle. I can make comments on social and philosophical observations. I’ve honed a skill and have had experience. At the time, I was trying all of this stuff that was important to me. I didn’t really care about being liked or succeeding. I was kind of just concerned with exploring. That’s what getting shot taught me. Life is short; you can die at any moment.
I want to talk about something that moves me, that I feel strongly about. That’s not a good idea if you want to progress as a comedian quicker. It took me longer to progress and become a better comedian because I was taking on topics and subject matters and premises that were too challenging for someone at my skill level. So I would bomb a lot. It was a tough development. It took longer because I purposely chose that path instead of being like, ‘Ya know, let me go with some simpler jokes.’ That’s what some guys do. The stuff’s not that sophisticated. They get something that works and put together a good 10 minutes. Then they get a Montreal. They get a boom. They keep moving. When I should have been talking about my family or something I know could work, I was talking about war and shit like that. Stuff I couldn’t handle yet. I can make that shit funny now because I have more skill. I don’t think things even started to click for me until 2008, 2009. It took a couple of years to start clicking at all, period. I struggled.
I remember I used to write these poems and read them on stage. And not like, corny poems. They were about, like, abortion and shit. I had one bit where I did Martin Luther King Jr’s voice in a recorder and I pre-recorded it and just held it to the microphone for like a minute and a half. I was trying shit. I wasn’t even conscious of making it, for some reason.
I was always curious if younger comics like myself should stay away from those loftier ideas until we have more life experience under our belts, when we actually have an opinion off-stage about them.
Ultimately, do what you want to do. I would never tell somebody what their creative process or trajectory should be. I don’t recommend it. I don’t think it’s a good idea. To make that stuff funny is hard. I don’t think your opinion of it off-stage is as important as your ability on stage and comfort level and your ability to write jokes and craft jokes. That makes those things more palatable and funny because you have experiences writing jokes and being on stage. As I got more experienced, I was able to talk about those things and make them funny because I was a better comedian.
So, no. I wouldn’t advise. I mean, if that’s what’s in your heart as a comic, that’s the type of comic you want to be, I would wait. Yeah, I would wait. If you look at the greats, even what Richard Pryor did, that stuff didn’t happen until later. Even Louis C.K. started with that surreal stuff that nobody remembers. For years he was a different type of comic. He had these short films that nobody understood because they were so surreal. As you get more experienced as a comedian, you can take on bigger subjects and more truthful stuff. I tried to do that from the beginning.
Most of that was what I went through– me being shot and how that changed me. I experienced this paradigm shift of being this 24-year-old kid who didn’t take anything seriously. I went from someone who couldn’t take anything seriously to a guy who was taking everything too seriously. That’s why I wasn’t funny and couldn’t do stand-up. I just couldn’t do it! I got up on stage a few times and I just didn’t know how to do comedy. It was like it had been taken from me. It’s like I had to go out and learn about the tragedy of life like the Buddha and just learn about what life is. And I think I did that.
It’s very important for me, for some reason for better or for worse, how quick or slow some things move for me. Obviously, other comics know about me. I was one of those guys that all the comedians knew about and talked about and that was it really. Then the characters took off and that gave me some financial success and popularity, especially in New York. It was like a craze. The first year I sold, like, 10,000 tickets in New York alone just off Maurica.
So what’s next?
I don’t know what’s right around the corner. I just dropped this half hour. Dropping the half hour felt really good. I like that I waited. I never submitted for it. I wanted it to be really good, so I waited as a comedian to even submit for it. Everything I laid out on TV stand-up-wise, I wanted to be really good. I didn’t want the ambition to be ahead of my skill. When it comes, I want it to be a cake walk for me. That’s something that’s been very important to me. So now that I dropped that, it feels like my whole career has led to that. People see the stand-up. The jokes are tight. I took all of that long-form stuff I used to do and learned how to tighten that up for TV sets and for clubs and become more of a disciplined joke writer.
What’s next for me is to continue to grow as a stand-up. Everything else: I don’t know. I know stand-up’s there. I’m going to continue to do stand-up. I’m going to continue to hit the road. I’m going to continue to work on my act and write jokes. And that’s the only thing I’m certain of. I don’t know what else there is. The half hour just dropped and that’s it. That’s where I’m at. I’m on Fusion Live every day. I do that and I hit the road on the weekends. The next goal, obviously, is the hour. I want to do that as soon as possible. I’ve written a new half hour since recording The Half Hour. Dropping the half hour is actually the only way to write a lot of new material. It’s something psychological. You’re like, ‘Alright, I’m done with this material. I’ve recorded it for posterity. Now I’ve gotta let it go.’
When you haven’t recorded an album or a special, it’s just too much of a temptation to do that old material because you know you’ll be performing for an audience that hasn’t heard it. But when you drop it down on something, it’s a psychological thing where there’s closure on it. I’ve dropped it on wax. That’s it. It’s done. This is my first time doing that, so immediately my goal was to write new material. I’ve written a new 30 that’s working. It’s not fully polished, but it’s ready to go and I’m glad to see it’s working right now.