Costaki-The Master Card
Economopoulos Will Entertain The Populous Of Your Metropolis
To pronounce the biggest name in comedy, Costaki Economopoulos, let us first review a simple, easy to use pronunciation key before we hurt ourselves. First, there's Co, as in co-median. Next comes staki, which is a term my mother uses to describe me to others instead of "lard ass", which seems to be a much more appropriate term. Well, we're done with the first name. The last name begins with Econo, as in "Lodge" which is followed by mop, like what the skeleton asked the bartender for to go with his beer. Then we see an o, as in "Oh my God! I can't believe how long this guy's name is!" I really have no idea what the hell a ulos could possibly be.
Costaki is a veteran comedian who began his career in the local bars and pizza joint near the University of Georgia while he finished his graduate thesis. His style is quick, smart and topical without being pretentious or divisive. In his bio, when Costaki is asked to describe where he wants his material to strike, he says, “Picture the MasterCard logo. Imagine that red represents truly good funny and yellow is crowd-pleasing, accessible funny. I’m aiming for that little orange slice where they cross. I want two brothers to laugh hard, but I want the smart one to laugh and say, ‘Wow.’” After seeing some of his stand-up work as well as hearing his Economonologues on the Bob and Tom Show, Costaki is right on target.
J.T. How do you transfer your jokes from a thought into a performance?
Costaki: Well, you know, I basically let the crowd steer me. I don’t say anything that I'm not proud of on some level. What I do is bring a bunch of things to the table and let the crowd sort of steer me down the right path. It's the professional version of what we all do when we tell jokes. You know, like you tell a joke to your mom and you tell it to your friends.
J.T. You just keep refining it.
Costaki: Yeah! You'll sort of find the beat and you'll leave out the stuff that you don't need. It'll kill sometimes and sometimes it'll lay there. I mean, that's what a comic does, professionally. Even like, for example, this week when I called into the Bob and Tom Show and my subject this was Thanksgiving. So, it was the perfect day to talk about thanksgiving. All last week, I scribbled the jokes and morphed the jokes and read the jokes to the crowd at my gigs. I ended up running a version of those jokes three, four, five times in front of an audience. It helps me sort of cut the fat out and figure out where the real funny parts are and then expand those parts and get rid of the other stuff that I thought was good, but had no resonance with the crowd at all. It's kind of what you would think you would do if you sat down and thought about it. It's a lot of trial and error and re-writing.
J.T. I've seen comics that have been running the same bits and sometimes their whole set list for years. With the topical nature of your style by using current events to draw the bulk of your material from, you don't have that luxury of honing a bit until it's perfect. Your window of opportunity is rather slim.
Costaki: Well, not all of my stage act is topical, for exactly he reason that you're alluding to. It's almost impossible to. I mean, by the time I work up a joke for…you know, whatever is in the news today…'the twins who got the bad medicine' or whatever, next week, it's going to feel like it's a hundred years old. So, hopefully what you do is, you write a joke about Hillary Clinton. That'll be good for a year, at least, depending on how things go in the election. So hopefully you're writing joke that have legs. You can write a joke about gun control.
J.T. Since you mentioned Bob and Tom, how stressful is doing the Economonologues? I mean, sometimes Bob and Tom's responses can be brutal.
Right! You know (laughing) it's funny…you know, it's weird. I've sort of gotten into a comfort zone with those guys. I feel like I've done it enough and they have some level of faith in me to bring some ha-ha, and sometimes you miss and they riff around and give me some hell about it. It's almost like brotherly love, you know. That's how they show love…(laughing) I don’t mind that. As long as I don't get the e-mail someday like, 'Yeah, we're not going to do this anymore.'
J.T. Or you call the number and it's been disconnected.
Costaki: Right ! Right! I mean, as a comic, there's just some dark fear of that happening, but, short of that, I just try to do the work and try be as good as I can and that's all you can do, you know?
J.T. With The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and the success of such online satirical sites such as The Onion and White House.org, political satire is everywhere. I see people agreeing with the issues that the satirists are bringing to light, but I do not see to much action. Is there a way to take satirical comedy to bring about a social conscious over a period of time?
Costaki: What a great question! You know, my master's thesis was kind of on that subject. I wrote about the influence of political satire on the government. I probably would have tried to publish it somewhere if I had pursued academia, but at the time, I was really itching to go on the road. I didn't know that it was really a possibility, which is why I went to grad school, and then during grad school I turned down some gigs to write papers and I thought, 'I got to get the hell out of here!' So, to answer your question, my study…this was many years ago. This was during the election cycle with Perot and Bush. So it's been a while, but my study showed that people really didn’t change their opinions very much after being exposed to lopsided political satire. I think people generally come to the table with their thoughts in tow and they leave generally with those same thoughts. It takes a lot of exposure to a particular point of view to change someone's mind about something. It's not inconceivable and I think, over the long run, the nature of political satire is negative about its subject. It satire's nature. You make fun of Perot because he's got big ears and he's lunatic. Clinton's a philanderer and Bush can't speak. The angle of those messages are negative. Over and over again, you hear messages that are negative about politics. So my theory is, that over time, that will hurt people's feelings about the government. In my short, little study that I did, I found very little effect from that. That doesn't mean that there won't be some effect eventually. Like you said, over a period of time. You've got your Colbert. You've got your Leno. You've got your Daily Show. All those things, I think, add up and over time, I think they do have an effect. Now, I don't know if that's been scientifically proven anywhere, but…Yeah. I think, anecdotally, if you come to me and you feel "X" about something, and my joke is that "X" is stupid, you're not likely to give up on "X" after the show. You're not going to go, 'Ah, yeah! He was right!' But, over time, if enough points about "X" being not such a good idea, I think you might come to rethink "X". I don’t think it happens in any one show that I'm telling jokes or that Jon Stewart kicks the president, you know. But over time, over many years, these ideas that have been courted around in a satirical way, I think that they have an effect eventually.
J.T.: With the almost violently divisive political opinions of people within the last eight years, I would be terrified to try to tell a politically driven joke. You just never know the room anymore.
Costaki: But you know what? I think that, as a comic, I can tell sort of the mood of the country. There was a time, say five years ago, where if you did some joke that was disparaging about the president, you were digging yourself a big hole, man. You were creating a problem in the show. You know, people didn’t want to hear that. There was the war and the president had like a 92% approval rating and it was really hard to say anything disparaging about Bush…and now, it's like the go-to laugh line! Almost in the opposite way…I'm not sure if we're making a change, but we're certainly acting as a mirror of the culture, we can tell you what's going on. People are fed up and they don't mind jokes about Bush at all. And that's one of those things that happened over time.
J.T. : Do you think that with the presidential race having started so early, that Americans will have the attention span to see it through, or will there be a burnout from everything being over politicized?
Costaki: Wow! That's another good question. I don't know. I think that most people sort of tune out a little bit. They may get a little bits of, 'O.K. Kuccinich said this and Romney has an interesting point about that.' I think that people aren't really geared up for the whole thing yet. The politicos, like me and some of my buddies, we're watching those segments on CNN and different political talk shows, but I think that most of Middle America is a little bit zoned out right now, then they'll dial in as it gets closer and they'll find the right page. They'll re-connect and get interested again. I don't know. People have made a lot of…dubious choices over the years, but I also see the public going, 'Eh, I don't like him anymore' or 'This guy's not doing it for me' or 'Maybe we'll give her a chance', you know? People are smart…they are paying attention a little bit here and there. They kind of know what speaks to them and what makes sense.
J.T.: It's such a sound-bite culture anymore, though.
Costaki: That's true.
J.T. They're only getting their information in short bursts. Eda LaShan coined the term 'Sesame Street Syndrome' to describe the method of teaching in an information intensive entertainment form that was easily digestible and made thinking irrelevant.
Costaki: Yeah, sure. Yeah, that is true. Republicans are a lot better at minimizing their ideas into a short sentence. Democrats have a hard time framing issues in a simple way.
J.T. Yeah, Democrats seem to give more esoteric, long winded answers than, 'We're gonna smoke 'em out!'
Costaki: Your right and if your paying just a little bit of attention to a subject, like a lot of people do, you only hear that one little thing and if it doesn't ring true to you and it doesn't connect, it's not going to change anything in your head.
J.T. In your bio, you use the intersecting orange of the Master Card logo to represent your target audience…
Costaki: The Venn diagram I believe is the technical term for that concept. It's where they use the crossover points. Well, that's the tricky thing. If you're a political cartoonist, you don’t need 60% of the people to like your cartoons to be a successful cartoonist. You need that if you’re a stand-up comedian. You need to have most of the people in the room enjoying what you're doing or it doesn’t feel good to anyone involved. So, it's not really a craft for the faint of heart. You kind of have to come to the table with that willingness to please. So the trick is to find the area where quality and crowd pleasing cross. That's always been my goal. There are some things that are just red and there are some things that are just yellow, and I'll do both of those in my act, but what I really want is orange.
J.T. : With the divisive atmosphere in the country, politically and socially, have you found yourself shelving bits or jokes because of the potentially inflammatory nature of them?
Costaki: Yeah, of course! Yeah! I used to do a joke about homophobia that would end the show sometimes. (Laughing) I remember doing some crazy, rowdy bar in Beaumont, Texas and I pulled that joke out, and it was just like, I was done, man. They completely hung it up on me. So, yeah, sometimes you do that. Now, it's not a particularly brilliant joke, but it is a good joke. The problem with it is it's very opinionated and immediately, half of the people disagree with you. So, it's a very expensive joke, in terms of it's comedy capital. So you have to be aware that that's something that I may think is funny, but…A lot of people that come to a comedy show, they don't want to be preached to and they may disagree with that point of view. So, again, it's finding the balance of suggesting some things and being thoughtful about ideas without being, you know, so one sided that half the people hate you for saying it! So, I understand that not everybody agrees with me and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me at the end of a show. But I like to have a little bit of license to talk about something more thoughtful.
J.T. Do you ever get disillusioned when an audience doesn't 'get it'?
Costaki: Yeah, sure, but I understand the deal. That's one of the tricky things, like, I was just discussing this with a friend of mine. If you paint a painting or if you play a song, whether or not somebody immediately loves it, it's not really a factor. It can still be a great painting or a great song, whether people connect immediately or not. But for a stand up comic, the definition of your success is totally based on immediate public approval, so part of the craft is to do something that connects with the crowd and if you're straying from that, you're doing to many Kuccinich jokes, then you've got to have an ear and kind of come back to the polls, you know? Sometimes you do a little bit of a trade off. Alright, I'll give you an anal sex joke if you let me do a few Kuccinich jokes, you know? You do kind of a 'one for you, one for me!' Sometimes you have a little bit of that that goes on in your head too. Sometimes I'll do a little rant on religion that the crowd doesn't necessarily love, but they're interested. Then I'll go back to something that's a little more 'ha-ha'. So, that's a fair trade, you know? I'm comfortable with that.