By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – When Nicole Korkoris and Ellen Karis step up to the mike on September 20 in Times Square, it won’t be to deliver business presentations to area executives even though Nicole heads the New York satellite office of the award-winning Kamber Group public relations and marketing agency, and Ellen has had a financial career on Wall Street.
Both women have making it big in the world of comedy as their ultimate career goal.
“Growing up outside Washington, D.C., I used to watch stand-up comedy and was in awe,” Nicole Korkolis said. “I’ve always wanted to do it, but didn’t even know where the door to such a career was.”
As if not knowing where the door was wasn’t enough, there was her heritage. And in the same heritage that is the source of her Greek-American humor, there were standards that wouldn’t allow her to run away and join the “circus,” the late-night, got-to-be-seen-to-be-famous world that is the world of stand-up comedy.
Nicole went to college and studied communications and journalism but after doing one night-shift on a school newspaper decided that wasn’t for her.
“I loved the job but not the hours,” she said, adding that it didn’t take long before she was hired by the Kamber Group’s D.C. office.
When she moved to New York City to cover – ostensibly for a short time – a vacancy at the top post of senior vice-president and operating officer at Kamber’s NYC office, the temptation to do comedy called and she took a few Learning Annex classes taught by Stand Up New York’s Tim Davis.
“It was amazing; the first time I got up to perform, I wasn’t nervous at all. I was so excited. Besides in the late-night shows you do as a new comic, where you’re not preceded by a famous one, the audiences are more loving and kind – they laughed!”
Nicole’s performances are informed not only by her heritage, but by her life experiences as a career woman in New York (“I never talk about something that didn’t happen to me”).
Nicole believes that not only is her heritage fodder for her routine, “It informs everything you do.” But there is a particularly unique aspect of her family life that not many Greek-Americans, let alone Greek-American comediennes have for comic relief.
“I was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness family; how much more weird than that can you get?” Though her paternal grandparents were from Greece and her father was born in the U.S., Nicole’s mother was born and raised in England. She is the oldest of four children, two brothers and a sister.
“I’ve always been proud to tell people I’m Greek. The close-knit family helped me to be solid as a kid; and, despite not being encouraged to pursue a career in comedy, the closeness gave me the confidence I needed to pursue this career. In my routines I try to convey the idea to women that if I could do it, you can too. I fought hard to establish the kind of life I want to live. I want women to know that the rules that you think are there aren’t really there.”
For more than six years, while working at the “day job” she loves because it gives her the opportunity to keep up on current events and continue to write creatively, Nicole has been honing her act and working almost every night. She’s been featured in such popular places as the Caroline’s, Stand Up New York, Gotham and Boston comedy clubs, and has been featured on radio shows including WOR Talk Radio and WHRC Comedy Talk.
“It takes more than good material; it takes developing confidence in it, developing the ability to adjust it and being able to know how to talk to an audience.” For now, although she wants to be seen and knows you have to do road trips to get the visibility it takes to get national recognition and the good-paying jobs that come with it, Nicole says she doesn’t do stand-up comedy for the money.
“It pays terribly, only nominal fees, but by setting my limits, by saying I don’t feel like I have to take road trips that aren’t good for me, I can focus on good shows that I can learn from and that I want to be a part of.”
In complete contrast to Nicole’s love of her day job, Ellen Karis cringes about her work history in accounting (she has an MBA in finance) in NYC’s financial district. She does confess, however, that the seriousness of that work helps to make her comedy that much more potent.
“It reminds me of the contrast in Barbara Gordon’s character: a librarian by day, she became Batgirl at night!” But her comedy isn’t disguised.
“Though I do a little light comedy, I’m not a political comic. My act is mostly autobiographical because from the second you take to the stage, people are judging you, deciding whether they like you or not. When you’re act is autobiographical, it’s easier for an audience to get to know you a little bit.”
In contrast to Nicole’s experience, Ellen needed to do what was socially acceptable. Though she grew up with a love of acting, she was raised in a close and “full of love” New York environment that encouraged cooking, eating, and talking.
“I had a bug to go into acting but it was dormant. I try not to question how I went into accounting because sometimes it’s better to just accept the past,” she said.
But during a class two years after she began to get into acting, she was working on improving a scene about what was going on in her life, when the teacher helped bring out the comedy in her.
“My sister was getting married and I was the koumbara. You know, the person who has to go to Astoria to get all the stuff. It was like ‘Your Sister’s Greek Wedding,’ and my teacher asked if I was a comic and, when I said ‘no’, told me I should be.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought of stand-up comics as being rude, cursing, etc. I thought about it a little and came to realize that unlike a career in acting, which takes a lot of waiting and a very long time to develop, a comedy career doesn’t demand as much from you. You go to comedy clubs to learn technique, practice it and you’re doing it as long as you keep knocking on doors. Besides, I thought, even such famous comedians as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have gone in front of open mikes before their careers got started. Eddie Murphy is the only person who became famous at a young age.”
A comic with great admiration for the female greats of comedy like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore (“what they did was just brilliant”), Ellen describes herself as a curious observer of people.
“Curious people like me like to think about things. I was a people watcher as a kid. I love to look at human behavior. Now, when I see something in a newspaper or TV show, I will write the premise in the moment and then work on it over time to perfect it. I like to work on it in writing instead of from a tape,” she said.
Ellen, who also has performed in some top New York clubs, also adds a cautionary note to anyone thinking they’d like to get to know her:
“If I don’t like you, you’ll become part of my act!”
To see Ellen and Nicole’s performances along with Greek-American male comics Jim Mendrinos and Tommy K, reserve your seats at Sam’s Restaurant in Times Square.