How Russell Peters Uses Laughter To Combat Racial Stereotypes
In his latest movie, The Clapper, Russell Peters' character is a bit of an assh*le. He plays Jayme Stillerman, a late-night talk show host, who turns an ordinary guy into a public spectacle for his own amusement and a boost in ratings. But in the time I spend with Peters during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, it's clear that his personality is the total opposite of Jayme's. Especially when he plops down in the seat next to me in a hoodie and jokes that he's intentionally sitting across the table from director Dito Montiel — that way, Montiel can't kick him to give "the right answers."
Yet during our nearly 20-minute conversation, Peters manages to do just that: give authentic responses that paint an immediate picture of who he is as a person and performer. That candidness isn't exactly unexpected, if you've been following the comedian's career. And even if you haven't, that same candidness may be exactly the reason to start.
While he's been in the industry for 28 years, becoming one of the first South Asian global comics, Peters is originally from Canada and perhaps better known up there. (Not to knock his cult following in the U.S., of course, but just saying.) "I've been living in America for 11 years now. Let's hope I don't get deported," he tells me with a bit of a laugh. "Things aren't looking good."
But, at the same time, it's not entirely a joke. To say racial tensions are building in the U.S. would be an understatement. (President Trump's desire to build a wall on the Mexican border, tweets egging on North Korea, and failed refugee ban are a few examples.) The crux of Peters' comedy focuses on racial stereotypes — and then, in turn, flips any close-minded notions on their head. He never hesitates to bust out an accent or share stories about immigrant parents. Take Peters' "Terrorist vs. Indians" clip, for example, in which he shares airport anecdotes about getting mistaken for a terrorist just because of his skin color. Granted, he filmed the bit in 2006, but he uploaded it to YouTube in 2016 and it remains terrifyingly relevant.
And it's not only his own background that he thrusts to the forefront of the conversation through his humor. The Indian comedian will don Jamaican and Chinese accents, or even an Italian one. But if you think he's just trying to make a mockery of others, think again. Peters sincerely wants to know about people — who they are and where they come from. In his mind, those two characteristics are intertwined. "Really, for me, it's just I want to know mentally when I'm talking to you, how far I can go this way, or that way," he tells me, gesturing with his hands.
"Some people look at it as, why does it matter? It matters on a human level," he says, of his tendency to focus on subjects like race. "You know, some guys are politically minded... Jim Gaffigan talks about food a lot. Nobody has a problem about that." But when he shares his jokes, he says, "They're like, 'whoa, whoa, Russell.' I'm like, listen, it's about intent. Don't get focused on the content, focus on the intent."
His intent is a lot more straightforward than you think. He's not necessarily trying to ruffle feathers or anything like that; he's just talking about what he knows and hoping to get a sincere reaction in the process.
"Why does it matter? It matters on a human level."
"I just want them to laugh. Ultimately, that's what a comedian's job is to do, to make you laugh. Maybe make you think," he explains, before shifting a bit. "But that's never my focus, because I'm not a big thinker myself."
Laughing is certainly a unifying experience, and I see his sincerity firsthand when I mistakenly think our interview is over. At the end of our conversation, I casually mention my significant other is a huge fan of his work. Peters immediately asks his name and follows that up with, "What is he?" I say he's Pakistani, and, without missing a beat, the comedian goes, "What the good f*ck is going on with your life?"
We laugh, and Peters jokingly adds, "Wow, so, he's not holding you hostage, is he? If you need to get out, I can help you out." He then insists on taking a selfie and even jots down an autographed note to my boyfriend which reads, "Stay Brown" and warns the guy not to break my heart. Peters' directness, humor, and interest feel undeniably genuine, something which instantly puts me at ease.
And I think that's the hallmark of his comedy; Peters makes the seemingly uncomfortable more comfortable through jokes. By spotlighting stereotypes, he confronts and dissolves them, one accent at a time.