The Joker

Russell Peters riffs on age, ca­reer and the art of po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect com­edy

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Photography by Bryan Adams

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.

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