Questions about Russell Peters

by Nav

I’ve never felt as ambivalent about a comic as I have Russell Peters. Mainly, I’m just unsure what his humour about accents and ethnicity really does. On the one hand, you have this sort of view, articulated by Professor Amardeep Singh:

At his best, Russell Peters airs out some intra-community dirty laundry. He plays with the mixture of embarrassment and pride that tends to circulate amongst members of various ethnic groups, especially immigrant ethnic groups. While many people might feel isolated within a particular ethnic niche, Russell Peters manages to draw people out, and create a certain amount of cross-ethnic solidarity.

But sometimes, I can’t help but think Peters never feels what Dave Chappelle must have felt looking at white people laughing at his jokes i.e. “wait, is this ‘laughing with’ or ‘laughing at’? This is creepy.”

I’ve never been sure if Peters’ humour works to undercut or reinforce prejudice. Or maybe it’s both? I have no idea. So, instead, here are some questions in the hopes someone could provide some clarity?

  1. What exactly is funny about accents? Why is it funny to hear otherwise, uh, “normal” (i.e. familiar) words pronounced in a different fashion?
  2. We’d probably get creeped out if a white comic were to imitate a “Chinese” accent – but we seem to be okay with Peters doing it. How come? Also, does that okayness work differently depending on who’s laughing?
  3. What are accents used to signify in humour? When Raj from Big Bang Theory does the classic “says a typical American phrase in an Indian accent” joke (“oh vow, that is awe-some, dood), we know that the humour works through the unexpected. But what does the fact that we don’t expect contemporary slang out of the mouth of an immigrant say/mean etc.?
  4. At what point does an accent go from being “haha, they don’t really get the language” (Indian, Chinese etc.) to “haha, their version of the language sounds really different from mine” (Scottish, Australian etc.)?
  5. Similarly, when does an accent go from being “different”, “bad” etc. to being desired or sexy? This is about more than race, too – Stephen Colbert consciously dropped his Southern accent because he felt it had become a marker of stupidity.
  6. Is there a difference between 2nd generation immigrants like Peters doing accents, versus a 1st gen immigrant like Papa CJ? Is this a “I was born here” vs. a “fresh off the boat” thing?

All I guess I’m saying is that I occasionally find myself creeped out by Peters’ humour. Isn’t it just reinforcing the dichotomy between normal and abnormal, native and foreigner? But, I often find myself laughing at it, too. Like, a lot. And how many times in my life have I used an Indian accent to crack a joke?

So… internalized racism? It’s just a joke, get over it, Nav? It’s a self-reflexive invocation of difference and therefore its inherent irony is a form of critique?

Help me out friends!