Arts, Culture & Media

Indian comedian's ethnic jokes are a hit

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Russell Peter at the 2009 Juno Awards (image - CC: Ianiv & Arieanna / Flickr)

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Have you heard the one about the man who earned $10 million dollars last year telling ethnic jokes?  That would be Russell Peters.  According to "Forbes" magazine, he’s one of the highest-earning comedians in the world.  The Indian-born Canadian has made his way to the top by tearing into his own and other cultures.

"Last weekend was a very significant holiday for Indian people – it was July 11.  And it’s a very big holiday for my people because that’s 7-Eleven," says Peters, delivering part of his act.

Peters always begins his routine with jokes about Indians.  But by the time he’s finished, pretty much no race or ethnic group is left standing.

His bit continues, "Black people – I see there are black people everywhere, okay.  Let’s keep the gunshots to a minimum."

Peters is not what you’d call politically correct.  And that’s a big part of the appeal for this audience.  Most of them are brown-skinned, too.

A female fan at one of Peters' performances said, "I love him.  You feel so much at home when he tells those jokes because we crack those jokes all the time back home."

Another fan commented, "At the beginning he introduced us about jokes about his culture, and then he make jokes about everybody at the same level, and we like that."

More recently, comics like Dave Chappelle and Carlos Mencia made millions poking fun at stereotypes of blacks and Latinos.  Peters told jokes about Indians and other immigrants for 15 years before he got his first taste of fame.  Five years ago, one of his performances went viral on YouTube.  Since then, he’s become the leader of what some call the third path in comedy.  Not white or black, but brown.  And he’s opened the way for a whole new stream of ethnic comic.  Mark Breslin is the founder of the comedy club chain Yuk Yuk’s.

"What you have to remember is that Russell has achieved this level of fame without first becoming a movie star or a TV star, and that makes his level of achievement even more amazing.  What it says to me is the incredible level of need for a voice of a people.  And that’s what Russell has become.  He’s become the voice of a people who have been denied, an active voice in global culture until now."

Peters says he didn’t set out to become the comedic voice of brown people. He grew up in an immigrant neighborhood just outside Toronto.  So he was just telling the jokes that came most naturally.

"When I started doing this 20 years ago, I was the first Indian guy.  People weren’t ready yet.  Immigrants were still new in ’89, and immigrants are now more settled in and they’re more comfortable with their position.  And then they see someone who looks like not the norm, and they want to hear what this guy has to say."

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