Russell Peters: Still Got It?

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

A little over half a year ago, I wrote a fawning article about Russell Peters, trying to justify why I love him in spite of the fact that he could easily be criticised for making racist comedy.

I said that I loved Peters because his comedy is (unintentionally?) subversive: it highlights the relationships communities of colour have with each other instead of speaking to, or centering the experiences of white folks. And many commenters on my original piece pointed out, Peters often talks about his sibling communities of colour with fondness rather than ridicule. But then the other night I sat down and watched Red, White and Brown, Peters’ 2008 DVD.

Russell, you cut me deep.

So what’s wrong with Red, White and Brown? Last year Latoya posted an excerpt from a Kate Rigg interview, where Rigg explained very eloquently what makes racist comedy racist:

I’m offended when I see comics get onstage going “…and then I went to the Laundromat. Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong!” Then I’m fucking offended. When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!”

Peters’ seems to have lost his punchline. There’s lots of different things you could criticise in Red, White and Brown. Peters throws in some shallow Michael Moore style criticism of the war in Iraq that still manages to be Arab/Islamophobic. Sepia Mutiny has an interesting analysis of Peters’ jabs at deaf people. Red, White and Brown gave me a lot to think about, and I’d like to address Peters’ “hatred” for deaf people and his comments about Indian authenticity in a later post. But right now I’m gonna focus on that stupid “Chinky” accent.

Peters opens Red, White and Brown with five minutes of his Chinese accent. And hey, I guess people love his Chinese accent. But where it once highlighted a very funny bit about the way Indian and Chinese people do business together, it’s now become the joke. When the only thing Peters is doing is talking Chinky, it’s not a joke anymore.

He starts by pointing to random Chinese-looking people in his audience, and talking in his Chinese voice. But chances are at least one (if not all) of the Chinese people in the front five rows of his New York audience are Chinese Americans. As in, they don’t talk like that. They’re Americans, you jerk.

But you know what? There is a Chinese American accent. Just like there is an African American accent. There’s a WASP accent: I think Dave Chappelle is famous for having perfected it. So why can’t Peters learn the Chinese American accent, and then do that? That would be bringing it back to the arena that Peters once did so well – giving us something in mainstream comedy that we can relate to.

But it’s almost like success has made Peters sloppy. He doesn’t have to learn how to do a Chinese-American audience, he doesn’t have to work as hard with the rare and affectionate insight. He’s already packing houses, so why should he try harder? And the sad fact of the matter is that in North America, you can fill a house just by doing a stupid racist accent.

So I guess my second criticism is moot. But the next misstep Peters makes, distancing himself from his old lovable self, is when he talks about playing Dance Dance Revolution in Singapore. And then he does his Chinese accent again. Ok, Chinese people in Singapore don’t talk like that.

(Sidebar: the accent Russell does well is some imitation of a Cantonese person who speaks English as a second language. But the Chinese diaspora is huge! There’s probably at least 20 different Chinese accents. You can’t just use one to fit everybody. We’re a complex people, thankyouverymuch. It may seem strange to ask a comedian for racist accent accuracy, but part of what made Peters’ act so genius was the accuracy.)

And what kills me is that Peters is talking about his time in Singapore. In other words, Peters has been to Singapore, he knows Chinese Singaporeans don’t talk like that.

The Singaporean accent is very distinctive and easy to tell apart from the Cantonese accent. (In fact Singlish is a pidgin language that is studied and marvelled at by linguists all over the place. Just Google it: you can even find multiple online dictionaries.) Almost anyone, but definitely someone with Peters’ ear for accents and culture, can hear it.

Yet he still chooses to make the joke. Because he assumes that for the most part his audience won’t know the difference. And then he goes on to joke that a Chinese Singaporean makes fun of his DDR skills, suggesting that he should go play a game his people are good at – the Taxi Game. Again, the joke fails, because the South Asian taxi driver is not a stereotype that exists in Singapore; it’s unlikely a Chinese person in Singapore would use that to insult an Indian person in Singapore. And he chooses to make the joke anyways because he assumes his audience wouldn’t know that.

So he’s gone from making inside jokes that are all the funnier if you’re a person of colour familiar with the context, to making jokes that are only funny if you don’t know the context. Le sigh.

And you know what? It’s not just that it’s racist. It’s also just bad comedy. Good comedy takes a fact of real life and magnifies it, holding it up for us to see it and laugh. But when a comedian like Peters gets lazy, their comedy begins to base its jokes on inaccuracy. It’s good comedy gone bad. And that’s why ableist/sexist/homophobic/racist/… jokes aren’t funny: it’s a skewed version of real life.

I’m not gonna say I didn’t laugh a few times during Red, White and Brown. It wasn’t so awful that I would organise a boycott. And if I’d never seen Peters’ earlier stuff, I probably would’ve liked it a lot more. But it seems like that good-natured ribbing and clever analysis that was once the hallmark of his act is gone.

And Peters not even particularly subversive anymore. The one edgy joke he makes is about Jewish people and Arab people, and that’s not exactly an original joke. It lacks the unexpectedness of his early acts, where his nudging of the status quo was subtle and smart; a joke about Israel/Palestine is not uncommon ground.

Ok Russell. Maybe you are not a Racialicious reader. But if you are listening, I have something to say to you. If you’re not just in it for the money, if you’re really trying to make brilliant comedy, do something new with that tired accent. Those people who loved you solely for the Chinese accent you did? They were missing the pure, buoyant genius of your act. Don’t let them dictate the kind of comic that you are. You’re better than them, and I still believe you can come back.

In your own Chinky-ass words: be a man and do the right thing.