In a member of the island’s fledgling stand-up community and the mind behind the island’s most downloaded podcast, THEO PANAYIDES finds a serious person with a wicked sense of humour
All stand-up comics want their jokes to be funny. Most may also have some romantic notion of humour as a salve, a crutch, a magical drug to help us through the bad times. When a joke can also function as a sex aid, however… well, that’s a whole other level.
Constantinos Psillides has such a joke – his trademark joke, the one for which he still gets requests even though he’s long since stopped doing it. “It was a thing where I go and buy underwear for my wife,” he recalls on Zoom from his flat in Nicosia, “and I get distracted by a saleswoman who has big breasts – and there’s a running theme of me talking to myself and going ‘Oh my God, tits!’ while talking to the saleswoman.
“Anyway, people loved that joke so much…” he goes on, shaking his head in modest bewilderment. “I swear to God, one time a woman came to me and she said: ‘We’ve seen your show a couple of times, we loved it. I just want to tell you, I was with my husband the other day and we were trying to have sex. And he unbuttoned my bra, and the moment my breasts came out we both said: “Oh my God, tits!”, and we just rolled around laughing.” He chuckles, laying back with the laptop on his stomach so the image on my screen wobbles slightly, then shrugs expansively: “You know what? If it helps people, fuck it”.
It’s a good story – but slightly misleading, for two reasons. First, it makes him sound like the old-fashioned kind of stand-up comic, the kind who cracks jokes about wives and mothers-in-law, when in fact (even though his wife Constantina does appear quite often in his routines, much to her chagrin) he’s more of a progressive type, his comedy spiked with “a lot of current-affairs elements and social commentary”. Secondly – and more importantly – it makes it sound like stand-up comedy is what he does, when in fact he only stumbled into it by accident and it’s more of a sideline anyway.
He has a quote-unquote ‘proper job’, of course, doing project management for an internet marketing service – and he also has a background in journalism, including two years at this very newspaper where, he declares without prompting, “I think I learned more about journalism than in four years at school and five years at [a Greek-language paper].” (Thank you, your cheque is in the mail.) He then made his name with a cult online show called ‘The Laughing Mouflon’, which was how he got into stand-up – really just to help out a guest who needed comics for an open-mic night he was organising – and has since moved on to a current-affairs web show partnered with silver-tongued pundit Marinos Nomikos. Above all, for the past few months he’s been running HistoriCon – the first-ever podcast on Cyprus history and currently the most popular home-grown podcast in Cyprus, its 12,000 downloads bested only by US podcast king Joe Rogan.
Is he a celebrity? Well, yes and no. 12,000 downloads is respectable, but the audience for all things online remains rather limited. “Even now,” admits Constantinos ruefully, “when I tell people that I do a podcast, there’s a 90 per cent chance that I then have to explain what a podcast is.” (It’s a streamed conversation, like a talk-show without the visuals.) His name has become quite familiar – and he’s certainly recognisable with his stocky frame, bald pate and bushy beard, made even bushier by lockdown so he looks like some maverick bishop – yet he’s only been recognised once in public, and even that required a visual aid. He was down on Ledra street “acting stupid with a mouflon statue,” the animal having presumably made the connection with ‘Laughing Mouflon’ for the person who recognised him.
He’s okay with that, in fact he’s more than okay. Even that one time was “incredibly awkward,” says Constantinos, soberly adding: “Being known is not a good thing”. He may have no problem going onstage and telling often-outrageous jokes – yet his overall energy is low-key, down-to-earth, soulful, grounding the more acerbic Nomikos on their show together. His online animal might’ve been the mouflon – yet his spirit animal is surely a bear, or perhaps a panda (bears are ruthless predators behind the cuddly exterior), genial, ingratiating and not exactly athletic. When it comes to sports, “it’s a mutually hateful relationship,” he offers wryly. “We’re at a very good point, me and sports, where we loathe each other and we are aware of each other’s feelings, so we stay away.”
He was never the class clown, in fact he was “the quietest kid around”, growing up in the 80s and 90s (he turned 40 in May) with his Harry Klynn comedy albums. His parents divorced when he was eight (unusual at the time) so he always felt a bit like an “odd man out”, and he also lost his dad about a decade ago – but his life in general seems to have rolled along happily enough. You wouldn’t peg him as a raging revolutionary, at least on paper. Yet in fact – despite the genial disposition – he comes off pretty angry on social media, taking pot-shots at the usual targets (Trump, corruption, ‘Covid deniers’), and he also takes no prisoners when it comes to comedy. This affable teddy bear has had people walking out of his shows – though not often, and he does sound embarrassed about it.
His persona is “brash”, as he puts it, based on the credo that “you can laugh about everything”. One night he was working the crowd, asking audience members what they do for a living. “Every comedian has some crowd-work jokes in his pocket,” he explains; his own shtick, whenever a woman said she was a high-school teacher, went as follows: “Okay, I’m gonna tell you a secret now. Your friends won’t tell you this, your family won’t tell you – but, because I don’t know you, I can be frank with you. So here goes: your male students masturbate and think about you!”. Most of his victims found it funny – but one woman got up and walked out, indignant, which he admits was upsetting. “Most comedians will be like ‘If you can’t stand the heat…’, [but] I don’t agree with that”. He’s not out to alienate; “I want everyone to have a good time”.
That’s the intriguing thing about Constantinos Psillides: he’s not some abrasive misfit, he’s an easy, simpatico type who’s all about reaching a big audience – yet he’s doing something new and cutting-edge, in several ways. In the first place, he’s online, part of a growing new culture that many Cypriots (especially advertisers) still haven’t properly acknowledged. In the second place – a related point – he’s independent, unaffiliated to any TV channel or other gatekeeper, literally just a guy spouting off in public. “This is the age of the content creator,” he notes, pointedly adding: “The solo content creator”. In the third place, as already mentioned, he doesn’t censor himself (though it helps that his politics largely align with what’s considered acceptable; it’s not like he’s on stage doing racist jokes), nor is he afraid to be indecorous. You can laugh – or indeed talk – about everything.
This brings us to HistoriCon, which is a departure – still comedy, but also history, not just hosted by Constantinos (always with a guest) but also written and researched by him, a bi-weekly process that involves extensive reading and typing out a 5,000-word summary. This is Cypriot history but not your grandfather’s Cypriot history, going from iconic figures with a tangential connection to Cyprus – George Michael, Queen Berengaria – to shining a light on unknown events and personages. Recent episodes have included two Turkish Cypriots (a big reason why he’s now in the process of translating the podcast into English), artist Ismet Guney who designed our national flag and Mehmet Aziz, an obscure medic responsible for eradicating malaria on the island. Another one focused on Garo Yepremian, a boy from Larnaca who emigrated to the States and became one of the top American football players of the 1970s. Constantinos read Yepremian’s memoirs for that one, tracking down the out-of-print book and bidding on eBay.
The Turkish Cypriot stuff may be seen as controversial; “There’s a tendency of the Greek Cypriot school system not to recognise the input and importance of people of Turkish Cypriot descent,” he notes, albeit adding that “I don’t believe it’s done out of malice; it’s a convenient oversight, let’s say”. The whole project may be seen as a labour of love, bringing scant financial reward for the downloads it gets and the time it takes him (the only funding comes from Patreon, www.patreon.com/istorikon; he currently has 43 patrons), and suggesting that his true métier might’ve been education. Could he have been a teacher, in another life? “I think I would’ve made an AMAZING teacher!” he replies with a twinkle. “The teaching world has lost an opportunity in me.”
It makes sense, when you think about it. A teacher, after all (like a comedian), is in the business of seducing an audience – but also (like a journalist) cares about issues and relaying the truth. A good teacher is fair-minded, just as Constantinos steers a middle course on the fraught subject of political correctness. Comics should move with the times, he believes – “Transgender is a thing now”, to cite one example; jokes about men in drag are no longer funny – but he also disagrees with the practice of ‘wrong’ opinions being cancelled, and venues being pressured to drop comedians. (“If you don’t like someone, just don’t go to the show,” he pleads. “Don’t be a dick.”) Above all, perhaps, teaching is a nerdy, risk-averse, not especially restless profession – and Constantinos too seems like a stolid, domesticated character, for all his fancy podcasts and jokes about ladies with big boobs.
“I don’t do parties,” he explains. “I don’t do big events, I don’t do clubs… I don’t do crowded places with people, I’d rather play a board game with people that I like.” Away from his online notoriety, he craves the quiet life. Lockdown has been good to him; staying home is what he likes to do anyway. (His great relaxation is playing a video game on mute – something simple, so he just goes through the motions – while listening to podcasts.) He’s not a misanthrope, he hastens to add – but “I like my people… I like hanging around with like-minded people”. His flesh-and-blood self isn’t as expansive as his internet self. It’s perhaps symbolic that he first met his wife in a bar, where he did indeed make a pass at her – but in fact that attempt was unsuccessful; it was only a year or two later that they met online, connected on Facebook, and started talking. Social media trumps IRL, at least in this case.
Online celebrity remains underestimated, at least in Cyprus. “I have the most-downloaded podcast on the island,” he laments, “and I was laughed out of a meeting with advertisers not long ago. They were like, ‘What the fuck is a podcast and why should we spend money on it?’. Which is insane.” Celebrity, as already mentioned, isn’t really the aim in any case (getting recognised in the street “would be a nightmare”) – then again he had six shows lined up in March, before lockdown happened, and a promoter was talking about launching local comedians on the Greek circuit. He was even featured in a government ad about the spread of Covid recently, as a burly Patient Zero sneezing in a crowded lift. Online celebrity might be about to merge with the physical kind.
The only catch is that stand-up isn’t necessarily his main interest; indeed, he says, it may well be the aspect of his life that he ends up dropping if things get busier (let alone if he and Constantina have children). Maybe he’s ultimately too sincere for the brash world of showbiz, too grounded, too shy and nerdy. A serious person, albeit with a wicked sense of humour.
He does like his jokes, though. He’s even told jokes about cancer a few times, just to show that “nothing is taboo” – and indeed, “the first time I did it, one guy from the audience came up to me after the show and he hugged me, he was very, very emotional”. He had brain cancer, said the man, but could never bring it up in conversation, people were repelled and embarrassed by the subject – so he thanked Constantinos for joking about it, thereby helping to “normalise” his situation. A sex aid for couples, a balm for the sick. Is there no end to what humour can do?