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JOKE'S ON WHO

Russell Peters on stereotypes, politics, and religion in his comedy

Reuters/Blair Gable
Now in India.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Russell Peters is back—to entertain, offend, or both, depending on where you stand.

The Indo-Canadian comedian is in India as part of his Deported World Tour, which has covered 20 countries and 40 cities since its inception in 2018. He performed in Bengaluru on Wednesday, in Delhi on Thursday, and will be in Mumbai over the weekend, where his stand-up will be recorded for a comedy special.

Peters is known for his no-holds-barred humour that skewers all cultures and ethnicities. Black or white, Indian or Chinese, able-bodied or differently-abled—there’s a joke about everyone in his material. Accents, names, cultural nuances, languages and professions—all are fair game for him. His comedy, by its very nature, doesn’t find, or even seek, universal approbation. His critics pan him for plucking the low-hanging fruit of stereotypes, while his fans appreciate him for being an equal-opportunity offender. And it appears he is in no mood to change.

At a time when funnymen are being called to be socially conscious, or “woke,” Peters has stuck to what he does best – mining clichés for jokes and defying expectations of political correctness, a term that he believes has no space in comedy.

In his 30-year career, Peters has racked up many wins. He was one of the first comedians to get a Netflix original special (Notorious in 2013). He has performed to packed venues across the world, including at the iconic Madison Square Garden and the Sydney Opera House. He has broken ticket sale records in arenas like Toronto’s Air Canada Centre and London’s O2, and his stand-up show in Dubai in 2013 became the fastest-selling concert in the history of the Emirates. He has also been featured several times in the Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid comedians.

For Indian fans, Peters has special resonance—even though the country is most often the butt of his jokes. To them, he is a man who gave Indians a voice in comedy, allowing them to poke fun at themselves rather than letting others do so and paving the way for the rise of other Indian-origin comics, such as Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling, and Lilly Singh.

Like many success stories, Peters’ too began by chance. Born in 1970 to Anglo-Indian immigrant parents, Peters grew up in Brampton, Ontario. Bullied in school and targeted with racial slurs such as “Paki,” he grew up with an acute awareness of race and culture, as he writes in his autobiography Call Me Russell. He contemplated a career as a disc jockey before a relative who noticed his knack for accents and wisecracks suggested he try stand-up comedy.

In 1989, at the age of 19, he performed his first comedy routine and worked his way through the Canadian circuit. His gradual rise to popularity was short-circuited to instant stardom in 2005, when his performance on the Canadian series Comedy Now! was uploaded by a fan on the newly launched video-sharing platform YouTube. The video earned him fans across the world and struck a chord with the Asian diaspora, who saw in him one of their own.

That paved the way for big-ticket gigs, world tours and specials such as Outsourced (2006), Red, White and Brown (2008), The Green Card Tour (2011) and Almost Famous (2016). He has also co-produced the Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, has played supporting roles in films, and starred in the 2017 Netflix series The Indian Detective.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Peters talked about how he channelled childhood experiences with racism into his comedy, why he pays no heed to critics. and what it’s like performing for an Indian audience. Edited excerpts:

Explain the title of your tour “Deported.” What can Indian audiences expect from it?

If you look at my old shows, there was Outsourced, Red, White and Brown,and Green Card Tour. They all had something to do with this theme [of immigration]. I took a break with Notorious and Almost Famous, and then I went back to that theme. Because it’s the Trump era and I’m a brown Canadian guy living in America, so I’m probably going to get deported.

What you can expect is to laugh. I don’t want to give away anymore because comedy is all about the element of surprise.

You’ve said in interviews that this is your most personal show yet and that you’re taking a more self-critical approach this time. What made you decide to go in this direction?

I think that’s where I am mentally. What you see on stage is really who I am. I’m going to be 50 next year, I’ve got a new baby. I’m pondering “what’s going to become of me, what kind of a father am I going to be?” I’m already a father to a daughter…but now I have a boy. I don’t know how to deal with a boy. I don’t know if I can be as mushy or wishy-washy with my son as I can be with my daughter.

How does it feel to come to India? And what has been your experience of performing here?

India’s always been great to me and that’s why I love coming back. I’ve been coming since I was a little kid because my family’s here. To get to come here and perform is even better because it means…I didn’t pay to come here. And the Indian audience is amazing. They get it, you know.

Your comedy is largely about race and culture. How did this become your comedic voice?

Growing up in Canada in the ’70s, I went through a lot of racism and bullying because I looked very different from the white Canadians. It was brought to my attention at a very young age [and] it’s always been on my mind. That’s why I went down that road with it.

And you converted that hardship into a source of humour.

Yeah, it’s either you let it make you angry or you take control of it and use it to your advantage, and that’s how I deal with adverse situations.

You’re known for your no-holds-barred comedy, in which everyone gets lampooned equally. But there has been some criticism that your humour is perpetuating stereotypes. What has your response been to that?

Those are people who just don’t get what I’m doing then. They weren’t going to buy a ticket to begin with, so it doesn’t really matter what they think. I was never going to win them over, you know what I mean?

I don’t go searching for stereotypes, it just kind of happens. You meet people when you travel around the world, and you find out certain things about other cultures that you may find funny. For instance, we have a popular dessert in India called kheer and in Farsi, that means penis. So, if you meet a Persian girl and you offer her some kheer, she might take it the wrong way. Or maybe, she might take it the right way.

Is anything off limits for you?

Not really off limits, but some things that I don’t bother with are politics and religion. I’m not a fan of either, so I leave them alone. People in the audience may have some deeply-held religious beliefs and it’s not my place to tell them whether that’s right or wrong. I stay away from it because I don’t want to offend them. I’m not here to offend, I’m here to make you laugh.

You were interviewed for comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu, which examined how the stereotypical depiction of the Indian store-owner in The Simpsons had impacted the lives of South Asians in North America. What to you is the dividing line between riffing on stereotypes for fun and being culturally insensitive?

Stereotypes come from some place. There has to be something that happened that made people go “that’s a pretty good stereotype right there.” But then you have to deconstruct it. And then you have to find out what the truth is and what the exaggeration is. And that’s how I form what’s going to be funny. So there has to be that effort to understand.

So for example, people say, “Indians smell.” So I go, there’s a smell. Not all Indians smell. But quite a few of them do, and it’s not because they smell, they just forgot to put on deodorant. It comes from one truth, to an exaggeration, to a broad stroke, and it’s up to me to whittle it back to “Well, here’s how it happened.” And the person [who’s the target of the joke] has to be in the audience to laugh along, otherwise you’re talking about people behind their backs, and it’s not so much fun.

Take us back to your early days in comedy, before that Comedy Now! performance went viral.

I was just doing comedy, a road comic making my money on the weekends, very minimal amounts. Maybe on a good weekend I’d make $1,200 for six shows. That’s not enough to live on. And you wouldn’t get such weekends very often. It was just a constant struggle, a constant grind, but it never bothered me. It was just “This is the way it is, that’s how the game is.” I never had any delusions of grandeur at the time. And then it just exploded. I got lucky and here we are.

And what’s the next milestone for you?

Honestly this is it. This is my 30th year of stand-up and shooting my special in the country, in the city that I’ve made so many jokes about, this is my love letter back to you guys to say that this was all done out of love, because it means a lot to me here.

In your autobiography, you speak fondly about your late father and your relationship with him. You’ve also referenced him often in your comedy routine. Did he shape your comedic voice in any other way?

Not really, but my dad always challenged me and told me to expand my repertoire. He’d tell me, you need to read more and learn more, it’s going to get boring, people aren’t going to hear what you have to say. He always put that seed in my head that you can’t be a one-note guy. And I speak to him before every show. It’s just a thing that I do now.

You were one of the first Indian-origin comedians to make it big globally and now, many more have followed. How have you seen the comedy scene shape up over the last decade or so, especially in terms of diversity?

Comedy’s in a boom right now so there’s a lot of young comics out there, south Asian and others, who have a much easier way in right now. And there’s a lot more camaraderie, which there wasn’t when I was coming up. It was every man for themselves. Now they know that they can collaborate and create something. I’m from the era of “it’s a solo sport” and they’re from the generation that believes there’s power in numbers. Both are fair game.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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