In the most popular man on Cyprus television, THEO PANAYIDES meets a comedian who is chatty, gregarious and exactly the same as his onscreen persona
There he is, the most popular man on Cyprus television, sitting in a coffee shop on a Monday morning, eating a ham-and-cheese toasted sandwich (he offers me half, and laughs when I decline: “Are you sure? ’Cause there won’t be any left later!”), smoking a cigarette then lighting up another. Louis Night Show – shown on Alpha every Friday, and featuring the comic talents of Louis Patsalides – is the top-rated programme on local TV, and has been for some time (it premiered in 2015, initially on Sigma); so why is the man himself meeting me here, in a rather anonymous Coffeebrands outlet beside a main road, instead of in his home or at the studio? Louis shrugs; the people who run it are friends, he explains, and the brand has been a sponsor of the show. “I always support the people who support me.”
That’s significant, for two reasons. First, because it speaks to his sociable nature and the importance he ascribes to personal relationships. Second, because it’s such a Cypriot thing to say – and Louis, as he notes more than once, considers himself to be “the average Cypriot”. Mutual back-scratching is part of our small-country culture, and he’s fine with that. At one point I ask about his National Service, and whether it was awkward given that his dad is a military man (a former brigadier-general, now retired); surely his fellow soldiers knew that he must’ve pulled strings for an easier posting, the dreaded ‘meso’? “It’s to be expected,” he replies with another shrug, “we’re in Cyprus. It was the same when I worked in the bank, and the children of colleagues got jobs there. We all said the same thing”.
‘The bank’ was the late lamented Laiki, where he worked as a clerk between the ages of 20 and 33. He turned 38 a few weeks ago (though his greying beard could belong to an older man) so the shift from banking to showbiz is relatively recent, not to mention that he spent over a decade working in a job – or a sector – he didn’t particularly like. “I was always one foot in, one foot out at the bank,” he replies when I ask why he did it. “I was just waiting for the right moment.” He was doing stand-up comedy from the mid-00s (he still does, along with his TV commitments and a radio show) – and the ‘right moment’ was when the stand-up got upgraded to a full season, i.e. not intermittent performances but a regular job, at which point he quit his other regular job and did that instead. He’s very sensible.
That’s a major part of his appeal: the grounded demeanour, the down-to-earth guy with a job and a house and a family. (He’s been married since 2007 to Astero Kyprianou, a TV and theatre actress; they have two kids, a 10-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son.) The first, satirical half of the Louis Night Show features clips from local TV, a litany of bungled lines and inadvertent faux pas – and the clips take up half the frame, the other half being Louis watching the disasters unfold along with You at Home, shaking his head like the down-to-earth fellow he is. His comments afterwards (what he calls ‘trolling’) are wry, sardonic – and a bit conservative, thus for instance a recent instalment on Black Friday showed an interview with a youngster who admitted he’d skipped school to go shopping instead, though he wasn’t sure what to get. “I’ll tell you what you’ll get,” quipped Louis, when the clip was over: “A three-day suspension!” (In a social-media punchline, the kid later left a message on Louis’ Facebook page, announcing that he didn’t get suspended and adding “You’re the best”; even the targets of his trolling love the show.) He’s no rebel – at least not on TV; his stand-up shows are slightly edgier – nor is he the type to have said ‘Good for you, kid, school is for suckers’. He’s the average Cypriot.
That’s the question, of course: how far is the Louis Patsalides persona just a persona? Again and again, he insists that what you see is what you get. “The way I am onstage is the way I am in daily life – and always have been. Even when I worked in the bank, it was the same.” His favourite comics include Jim Carrey and the late Robin Williams, both notorious for being bipolar types with inner demons; that, he insists, isn’t him. He’s straightforward, and has never lacked for self-confidence. “I’ve always been a glass-half-full person.” Sure, he has moments when he wants to be alone, “but those moments are rare. I’m usually full of energy and very bouncy”. I can testify to his sociability, an almost compulsive need to bond and talk: our interview starts with Louis making clear that he absolutely has to be somewhere at a certain time, and ends with me looking at my watch and saying ‘So I guess you have to go, right?’ and him assuring me that it’s okay, we can do a couple more questions. (It’s not like he has time to spare; December is chock-a-block with Christmas shows and charity events, in addition to his usual schedule.) It may well be that the affable, friendly comic onstage and on TV is merely an extension of this chatty, gregarious man, talking of his life in between puffs on cig and bites of sandwich.
But there’s something more, too. It comes up when I ask him to define the typical Cypriot, given that he touts himself as a good example of the species. “The Cypriot is a person who laughs loudly, lives intensely and lives for the now,” replies Louis. “He’s loud, very loud. I mean, you can tell a Cypriot abroad just by the volume of his voice!” This happened to him once, on a trip to the US as an adolescent, when he saw two strangers in a mall and instantly knew their nationality by how loudly they were talking – but the more significant detail in the story is that he was in America “because my mum was having some treatment”. It’s a darkness that hovers, inescapably, in the background of our conversation: Louis’ mother was diagnosed with cancer when the boy was 13 and died 14 years later, a year after he started doing stand-up – yet he insists his childhood was idyllic, despite the black cloud hanging over much of it.
“We never felt it at home,” he tells me, ‘we’ including his dad and younger brother. “Because we’re all very loud and, let’s say, very fun people, so we didn’t grow up being depressed that Mum had cancer. Because even my mum didn’t experience it that way.”
How else can you experience it?
“She was too much of an extroverted person, too much of a happy person to let any illness get her down psychologically,” he explains. “So it rubbed off on us too. We even made jokes about her illness, within the family – which, if you made those jokes outside, you’d be ‘very, very offensive’… So we didn’t grow up in a depressed environment.”
Fair enough; but the compulsion to go onstage and make light of life must’ve come from somewhere. It may well be reductive to say that Louis became a comic as a coping mechanism, especially since he didn’t start till his mid-20s – but perhaps telling jokes and facing life light-heartedly held a special significance for the young man, being the way his family had always coped with the pain in their midst.
Humour, after all, is a positive force with him, bound up with friendship and community; there’s no anger in his humour, no snobbery. Louis seems to love observing people, indeed that’s the source of his comedy. On his (rare) days off he’ll go to a big store like Jumbo and just wander around, people-watching; even here, on a grey weekday morning at Coffeebrands, he’s on the lookout for material. Check out “my friend over there,” he says conspiratorially, pointing out a young man playing backgammon with a young woman. Back in the day that’d be scandalous, even now it’s a bit unusual. After all, he chuckles, even the gesture of cupping the dice in your hand and shaking them, prior to rolling, is a bit… masculine; Louis jiggles his cupped palm briefly, evoking another kind of gesture altogether. (Never let it be said that his humour is highbrow.) I wouldn’t have made the connection, I admit. “That’s why you’re a journalist,” he replies good-naturedly, “and I’m a comedian”.
Is he really ‘the average Cypriot’? Maybe. He loves it here, and wouldn’t live anywhere else. His favourite foods are souvla and makaronia tou fournou, and “anything that has to do with meat”. (He weighs in at a hefty 125 kilos, though he claims it doesn’t show because it’s “evenly distributed”.) Then again, it might be more accurate to call him the idealised Cypriot – not the spendthrift, alienated show-off of today but an echo of an older Cyprus, rooted in community and family.
He’s not flashy. Maybe it’s because success came relatively late, as a family man, but it hasn’t really altered his lifestyle; he’s lived in the same house for 10 years, and dresses for comfort rather than to impress. His answer, when I ask what bothers him about today’s society, is unequivocal: “People used to be closer to each other. They cared. It bothers me now that everyone shuts themselves off in their little world and doesn’t care what happens, even to their neighbour”. Louis used to do political satire (not by choice; it was all anyone did in the mid-00s) but nowadays his jokes deal mostly with daily life, especially family life – which makes sense, since it’s changed so much in the last few years. His backslapping, hearty ur-Cypriot – far from being ‘average’ – carries a touch of nostalgia.
Social media has created a new, less relaxed community, making people touchy and quick to take offence. His was also the last generation when childhood happened in public, in the neighbourhood with other kids. “We didn’t just stay at home, alienated. We were social animals. We went out, we played, we quarrelled”. Nowadays it’s different, a closed world of tablets and video games; he’s even put up goalposts in the field next door, to induce his kids to go out and play, but it hasn’t worked so far. Despite (or because of) this new world, however, Louis’ life revolves around his family to a remarkable degree.
“Here’s the magical thing that I did,” he says proudly: “I work from morning till one o’clock, then again from eight o’clock onwards. In between, I’m constantly with my family”. He’ll pick the children up from school, have lunch with them, play with them; from lunchtime to bedtime, he’s Daddy, only scheduling the very occasional meeting when the kids have their music lesson. The catch is that he’s forced to work late (watching tons of TV to find clips for the show is a job in itself) – but he’s also among the lucky few who can get by on four hours’ sleep, plus a one-hour siesta, so it all works out.
It’s almost too good to be true, this amiable teddy-bear of a man who radiates unpretentiousness (conducting the interview in ‘plural’, i.e. formal Greek would be out of the question), claims to be unchanged by celebrity, and sets such store by people looking out for each other and dads spending time with their kids. Surely there’s a dark side somewhere, maybe a trace of the trauma he faced in his teens? Some may point to his unhealthy habits, all that smoking and over-eating. Some may even deplore his humour as primitive, sexist, ‘offensive’ – he adores Benny Hill, who would surely be “strung up from the London Eye” in today’s Britain; one YouTube clip has Louis showing the audience how a husband can check out a passing girl’s bum without his wife realising – but why should he care about such critics when his fans not only recognise him wherever he goes, but greet him as a friend? “People feel like I’m one of them,” he says happily.
There’s another, not-insignificant upside: 90 per cent of women say that making them laugh is just about the sexiest thing a man can do. ‘How can other men learn this trick?’ I implore – but there’s no trick, just observing the world around you. Louis always carries a notebook, to note down quirky things he sees people do, and tries to take an interest in everything: how some rodent reproduces in Africa, he says rather cryptically, could become the set-up for a killer joke. Next year brings a new stage in his evolution, doing stand-up in Greece for the first time – just a handful of shows, at small venues. It’s a challenge; Greeks won’t necessarily connect with the ‘average Cypriot’. Still, the plan is to be himself and learn as he goes. I can see him now, sitting in some coffee shop in Athens, eating a sandwich and chain-smoking, and looking for the comedy in everything.