[10 February 2009]
Somewhere between the comic genius of Dave Chappelle and the mediocre comedy of Carlos Mencia lies South Asian comedian, Russell Peters. Red, White and Brown, originally airing on Showtime (and later on Comedy Central) showcases the talents of this already world-famous comedian who has performed to sold-out audiences around the world in his home country of Canada, New York, and San Francisco (where his previous DVD/CD Outsourced was taped) as well as tours in China, South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Jamaica, St. Maartens, Trinidad, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. In 2007 Peters was the first comedian from North America to tour India and provides reflections on this experience, and others, in Red, White and Brown.
Red, White and brown covers subject matter from the Asians’ love of Dance Dance Revolution to jokes about why he doesn’t do Arab jokes. Few racial or ethnic groups are spared, especially in his arguments about who is the cheapest, arguing that Indians are definitely the cheapest and should take pride in that fact. He keeps Jews in third place just so they don’t feel like they’ve “lost everything”.
He talks about how he saw himself as Indian until he got off the plane in India and quickly became Canadian. While this joke leads to discussion of the smell of human waste and other such “sophomoric” material, it also leads to explorations of race, culture, and stereotypes.
Along these lines, Peters discusses the differences between race and culture claiming that he hates the term African American because they aren’t “African”. And the things most “Indian” about Peters are his parents and his skin color, he jokes. Some of the best material comes from his observations of how racist sign language is and it takes controversial material about his “retarded school” to get there.
Throughout, Peters blames the media for many of the stereotypes that he uses in his act, as well as men’s insecurities over body hair and penis size. And these topics turn to what seems to be standard for male comedians: discussions about their balls. At least Peters makes such jokes with honesty.
According to the “BIO & FAQ” section of his “‘official’ website”, Peters is “as much a humorist as a comedian” and this observation is evident throughout his performance as well as the DVD extras. Peters often engages with the audience, asking them questions about their racial identity, for instance. At one point in Red, White and Brown Peters mocks a woman who gets up to go to the bathroom, making fart sounds as she squeezes past other audience members and picking up the gag again when she returns. As juvenile as fart sounds are as comedy, these moments of audience interaction are humorous and also give Peters the opportunity to use his impersonations and accents.
These accents, Peters notes, are often the punch line of his “jokes” and he reflects at one point upon his questions about whether the Indians in India or the Chinese in Singapore will find this element of his comedy to be humorous. And, as he jokes, those of the ethnicity of this jokes laugh louder than others, and Chinese people recognize his accent as a Hong Kong accent rather then a Chinese accent.
These international and culturally diverse aspects of Peters’ comedy set his act apart from other comedians’, like Mencia, who make jokes about race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality. Peters’ comedy is self-reflexive but also makes connections between himself and his audience.
DVD extras include the “White Jacket Bootleg” segments, both of which include commentary by Russell, his brother, Clayton Peters, and director, Jigar Talati. While the commentary is not extremely entertaining or insightful (a fact recognized by the commentators themselves that the commentary is “not our best”) it does provide some insights into the style of comedy that Peters performs and the material that compromises his routines.
Regarding one of the “White Jacket Bootleg” segments, “Women are Thinkers”, Peters notes that he “dropped all this relationship stuff” because he felt like he came across as angry. The lack of this material in the Red, White and Brown feature provides space for more impromptu reflections about the “whores” in the audience rather than whiny ex-girlfriends.
Regarding two of the segments on the DVD extras, Peters remarks that he doesn’t remember performing these pieces. He explains that much of what he does on stage is “free flowing thought” and since it feeds from his audience he often doesn’t remember these pieces. For instance, in “David and Vickey” he engages with two audience members by asking questions and, he remarks in commentary, repeating back their answers.
He’s not really picking on his audience members, as his fellow commentators remark, but rather engaging audience members who often seek front-row seats with the knowledge that they might become his targets. DVD outtakes also include deleted scenes and “Support the Troops” segments where Peters reflects on his 2007 USO tours and an audio CD is included with the DVD.
While Red, White and Brown is not exactly “…pants-peeingly funny” as Liz Braun, of the Toronto Sun remarks (DVD cover), it is entertaining. And Peters deserves the accolades and attention he has received. He is not only making jokes for the sake of “shock and awe”, as much as his material may inspire both. He is also making observations and arguments that make us think about race, culture, identity, stereotypes, and the power of the media to influence the way we see ourselves and others.