The year my family and I moved to Canada in 2005, there was a very popular Comedy Now! viral video that seemed to be everywhere in the media — on YouTube, on cable TV, in the news. It was a 45-minute stand-up routine by Canadian comic Russell Peters, and it was blowing up on the internet.
I still remember watching it for the first time with my dad in our living room. It was on Comedy Central, and on stage was this very brown-looking Indian guy pointing out ethnic stereotypes about Canadians, Indians, and Chinese people. It was the first time in my life I had seen comedy done this way, and done really well. This was before the time when everyone was clamouring for “safe spaces” and everything was either “racist” or “problematic”.
On stage, I saw a guy talk about aspects of being brown that I had never heard vocalized before. My family and I had just moved to Mississauga from Indonesia and found Peters’ observations on Indian-Chinese relationships hilariously spot-on. The accents, the mannerisms, and words — it was all exactly as we had seen and lived it in Indonesia.
Everyone knows, after this stand-up routine, Russell Peters went on to gain worldwide stardom, becoming one of the richest comedians on the planet and winning numerous, prestigious awards along the way, including Gemini, Peabody, and an Emmy Award.
What was most powerful for me to watch in that routine was the possibility that brown people could gain so much recognition and fame in Canada in a field like stand-up comedy. To me, it proved that anybody really could do anything in Canada. Here I was, in a new country surrounded by new people, and someone who looked like me and came from my background was the biggest comedian on television and everyone knew him and loved his work. Regardless of my race or ethnicity, I felt I too could be anything I wanted in my new home.
I really appreciated that Peters didn’t make his whole routine focus on the racism and bullying he faced when growing up in Brampton. He talked about it, and didn’t shy away from the fact it happened to him and that it wasn’t the most pleasant experience to live through. But he didn’t make himself out to be a victim, nor did he point fingers or lay blame on “Canadians” or “white people” for anything.
I sometimes think about what it would be like for new immigrants to move to Canada and find comedy in the state it is in now. Will they think that Canada doesn’t want them, and all they can expect is racism and bullying and “Islamophobia”? I cringe knowing that Hasan Minhaj is the most well-known brown comedian in North America right now — his brand of comedy is complete self-victimization and lazy writing. Hasan Minhaj is a product of the time we now live in, which is why comedy finds itself in its current, sad state.
Since 2005, Russell Peters’ star power has had its ups and downs. His brand of comedy fell out of favour when SJWs took over Twitter and pretty much all liberal media outlets. Russell Peters wouldn’t have been able to become Russell Peters if he were an aspiring comedian in today’s political landscape.
Over the years, I’ve watched almost all the stand-up specials Peters has put out (especially the Netflix originals). I’ve seen some of the movies he’s been in, though I haven’t watched his show The Indian Detective. His brand of comedy has changed and evolved, as it should. It’s still observational humour and improv, though the insult comedy and racial stereotyping has been toned down. If he does poke fun at others, it’s mostly towards Indians and people who are from a similar background as himself.
This past weekend, Sai and I went to see Russell Peters in Ottawa as part of his Deported World Tour. Even though we’re not what you’d call hard core fans, nor do we follow him everywhere on social media, it was still nice to finally see one of the most inspirational and pioneering comedians living today perform live and watch him do his thing. In the middle of his set, someone in the audience got really sick and had to be taken out on a stretcher. Peters didn’t go on till everything was settled, and instead turned to improv and engaged with the audience to tear-inducing and hilarious results. Watching that, it was clear as day why Russell Peters became such a comedy icon to an entire generation, from all walks of life, across various ethnicities and age demographics. Seeing a true master work his art was a real treat, and a testament to the power of good comedy.