Russell Peters riffs on age, career and the art of politically incorrect comedy
IN 2009, I was in Rome doing interviews for the international opening of the Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons and was chatting with a Singaporean journalist. “You’re from Canada? Oh, do you know Russell Peters?” he said excitedly, naming the only famous Canadian he knew, as if everybody in Canada knew each other.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I do know Russell Peters.”
I’d known Russell since the early ’90s when he was a new Yuk Yuk’s comic. I’d been one of the first to give him a newspaper mention (I plugged him in a “What’s On” column, with the shorthand “Indo-Canadian homeboy,” which he loved).
I watched his act evolve, interviewed him and kept up a friendly relationship. When we’d meet, we’d play catch-up on each other’s lives.
By ’09, Russell Peters was a global star and a millionaire, placing annually in the Forbes list of top-earning comedians. I leaned on our relationship at one point to join him and his entourage on tour for an interview. We hung out in Washington, D.C. (a place he’d never played), where we were approached, as we walked the streets, by fans wanting to take photos. The majority seemed to be either Asian or South Asian.
Peters – who’d struggled in his youth with attention deficit disorder and failing grades – did not always seem a candidate for success. But he hit two sweet spots.
First, he went viral before viral was a “thing.” A person or persons (he says he never discovered who) had taken a CTV Comedy Now! special of his, cut it into bite-sized chunks and posted bits on the Net, which were shared by every digital means available (mainly email in a pre-social media world).
Second, he mined his own life for laughs, having grown up in Brampton, Ont., the son of Indian immigrants. If you parsed it just that narrowly, you’d be speaking to the experience of hundreds of thousands.
But his comedy had struck a much larger nerve. Young adult children of immigrants were likely to be urbanized and Westernized. Their ethnicity was no longer their parents’ stigma but a part of their identity they were confident enough to joke about.
And comedy itself was still very white. There was a huge unaddressed market for someone who’d speak to his contemporaries with the opener, “Where are all my brown bastards?” His approach was epitomized by a bit in which a bargain-hunting Indian tries to buy a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag from a Chinese vendor who won’t give him one. In front of an audience more likely to embrace stereotypes than reject them, Peters would inevitably find a South Asian doctor to milk for laughs. Oddly, he began to get requests from people to make fun of their backgrounds too.
The act came with a disregard for eggshells many had learned to walk on. More than once, he heard me use the word “African-American,” and would say, “It’s okay, Jim. You can say, ‘Black.’”
He did it from within “the circle” of ethnicity, but his attitude was bound to hit walls outside it.
Which is probably why something like the Juno joke-bomb was inevitable. Skin colour offers no immunity on topics that have been rendered no-go zones by shifting societal standards and polarized sensibilities.
Part of Peters’ personality might consider that a challenge. But he’s also clinical about audience response and will avoid themes that have died, even if he’s not sure why they did in the first place.