NEW YORK – On October 28, 2019 between 12 and 1 pm, we arranged two days earlier for a phone interview. I call him on the Greek national holiday, OXI day, certain that he will tell me something special today as I start to dial the number on my cellphone.
And, of course, comedian and actor Angelo Tsarouchas, does not disappoint. Already in his career he has worked with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, and recently starred in Fred and Vinnie, as well as in TV series and films including Mad Men, Last Comic Standing, John Q, The Recruit, and Cinderella Man.
“Hello Yanna, how are you?”
“I’m good, Angelo. And you? You don’t sound very well.”
“But how can I sound well? People are driving me crazy. Here’s what happened today. I’m posting on Facebook something about ‘OXI’ day and some random person writes me in the comments below, ‘If you’re looking for the best gyro, go to this taverna’ – and posted the ad with the name of the taverna! Tell me what this has to do with ‘OXI’ day. Tell me Yanna!?”
I prefer to avoid answering and start interviewing the Greek-Canadian comedian with his characteristically strong Greek-Canadian accent. His latest comedy series, titled Bigger Is Better, has been watched by more than 14 million viewers in the United States.
Tsarouchas, with comedy in his pocket, has traveled all over the world and appeared on various television networks in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Lebanon. He learned to speak Greek because his mother had difficulty in learning English and only spoke Greek. With a mother from Mytilene and a father from Sparta, he got, as he says, the nervous temperament from the strict Spartan and the humor and easy-going nature of the sweet islander.
“My father told me one thing. Whatever you do, do it well, nothing half-done.”
And Angelo faithfully followed his father’s advice, with a microphone in his hand and a large audience in front of him, practicing the most difficult art of stand-up comedy in the best way possible.
It takes guts to stand alone in front of your audience and find a way to break through his defenses, finding humor in his day-to-day life. It takes great courage to target laughter, standing up and using a microphone, in the absence of a theatrical “fourth wall.”
Tsarouchas pulls no punches. He delights in taboo subjects, but his specialty is his Greek origin and in talking to people as if they were his friends. He uses well-known phrases in everyday Greek that make no sense, if translated into English, song lyrics or even Greek customs, and sarcasm. His quips and jokes, inspired by the world of relationships and everyday life, are unique and endless.
“Greeks have stand-up comedy in our cell. Humor is everywhere in our DNA, in the streets, in the neighborhoods, in the cafes, at the table when we sit down to eat, in the company, in the lives of all of us,” says Tsarouchas. “From the age of 17, my jokes started to come into existence. I was writing something, playing somewhere and it wasn’t too late to bring laughter to my school friends. At 18, I knew that my fate was written and laughter was my weapon to bring people close to me.”
When asked how hard it is to make the audience laugh and bring them into your own world, Tsarouchas replied, “Very hard. You’re alone on stage and everyone is hanging on to you. You are judged every second. The pauses and the silence of the audience are the terror of all comedians. Our job is very difficult.
“An inviolable rule of stand-up comedy is that comedians write their own material and do not improvise every time, as most people think. They usually evolve their performance through their interaction with the audience. The jokes are not usually painless and they regularly comment on our society, our daily lives and our habits.
Tsarouchas believes that “humor is so popular in the world, because it may be our only response to the difficulties we face on a daily basis. It is like a medicine for our wounds.”
But writing comedy from everyday life and society demands constant knowledge and information, Tsarouchas agreed.
“Yes. You have to be aware of everything, politics, religion, economics. When I’m on the stage, I see all these people and wonder what connects them to each other. I’m trying to find something that everyone can relate to. If I talk about politics or economics, many may not understand the humor. But if I raise the issue of the mother-in-law, which is a key word, everyone will react because they understand and experience it in their own lives. We understand the meaning of ‘OXI.’ Others don’t even notice!”
When asked if a life in the arts in America is difficult for a Greek, Tsarouchas said, “It is very difficult. It takes talent, luck, and a lot of work. Although we have big Greek-American names in the business, such as the Skouras brothers, Ted Sarandos, [Jim] Gianopulos, Kary Antholis, only one movie has done extremely well, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
When asked where he was born and what he studied, he told TNH, “I was born in Quebec, Canada, grew up in Ottawa, lived in Toronto, London, and then Los Angeles. I studied acting at the Actors Studio program in Toronto and Los Angeles, but I have worked in many professions because my life has had its ups and downs. Even now, I continue to take acting seminars. [Learning in] this art never stops.
About what inspired him to become a comedian, Tsarouchas said, “There were people I admired and led me here, like Harry Klin and some other great comedians in America.
If he was ever also a businessman, he replied, “Basically, I got married for the first time after a relationship I had many years. My ex-wife wanted me not to be a comedian, so I stopped and opened a restaurant, then a travel agency with 25 employees, and even a bowling center. You see, I had to provide for a family. Eventually, we broke up without having children and I started from the beginning. Completely devastated, broke with only $900 and a jalopy I drove from Ottawa to Toronto, worked in a restaurant and started attending acting seminars again. So I slowly returned to the stage again.
When asked about being rotund, Tsarouchas said, “I’m not rotund. I’m a fatso. Don’t be ashamed to say it. When I was little, I was very skinny. My dad had a restaurant and we worked with all my brothers there and we ate a lot. We are all overweight, more than we should. But our parents were never fat. Now I have cut the sugar, I walk a lot and I lost some weight. I’ll lose another 30 to 40 kilos. I was 219 kilos and now I have reached 145.
TNH: Do you love Greeks?
“Of course, I’m Greek and very proud of my ancestry, my friends, my relatives, the people I know for years. I have great respect for everyone and they for me and we all love our homeland.”
TNH: What don’t you love?
“The boy wonder of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs. He destroyed the world. Everyone is leaning over a phone and a computer and no one is talking to anyone. Complete isolation. I travel at 4 in the morning and I see my fellow travelers talking on the phone! But where are you calling at such an hour?”
TNH: Would you tell us a joke?
“I’ll tell you what happened with my mom a few days ago. I was working in Detroit on Saturday and talking to her on the phone. ‘Hi, Mom, how are you?’ ‘Where are you tonight, my son?’ ‘In Detroit, Mana.’
‘Oh my son, give them my regards and if they’re ever in Montreal, tell them to drop by for a coffee.’ This invitation from Despina, my mother, was conveyed to my audience of 500 people who came to see the show in Detroit. ‘My mom, Despina, sends you her greetings and if you ever happen to visit Montreal, stop by for a coffee at our house.’ You can imagine how the audience reacted!”
Angelo Tsarouchas is currently working on a film entitled “It’s all Greek to me” and will be performing in Astoria on February 16 at the Melrose Ballroom.
More information and tickets are available online: https://www.tsarouchas.com/.