Russell Peters in 'Deported': Still funny?

With his latest show streaming on Amazon Prime Video, one wonders if the stand-up comic's jokes can move beyond racial stereotypes to cater to an evolving audience

January 17, 2020 05:13 pm | Updated 07:37 pm IST

Russell Peters in ‘Deported’

Russell Peters in ‘Deported’

Russell Peters grew up in a very different Canada. In the 70s and 80s, it was a far cry from the warm and welcoming country we now know. Racism was rife. “To be constantly reminded that you’re different and less than people around you really shapes how you think. That’s why I talk about being Indian so much. Why didn’t they like us, I wonder?” Peters pauses for effect. “It’s not that they didn’t like us. They’re jealous of us!”

The 49-year-old is back with a new stand-up comedy special on Amazon Prime Video, titled Russell Peters: Deported . According to Peters’ website, after over 300 shows across more than 30 countries over 18 months with The Deported World Tour, and “after 30 years of making fun of his Indian peeps, Russell decided to go back to the Motherland and filmed this live over two sold-out nights at The NSCI Stadium in Mumbai”. The show, which took place in June last year, had tickets priced at up to ₹7,500, at the venue which has a reported seating capacity of 6,000 to 8,000 people. Shows in Delhi and Bengaluru were also sold out, and the demand was such that he returned for a three-city tour (Pune, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad) in October. Ticketing partner Paytm Insider informs us that these were almost house full as well.

He’s got the moves
  • To keep his humour ticking, Peters says he does jiu jitsu regularly. It helps him take his mind off work. “Every day on the mat with my teacher, I am literally putting my neck on the line,” he laughs. “That is my love and my passion. It keeps me sharp because you literally could die at any moment while training. It helps me to have that tenacity on stage, to stay alive to the moment.”

Peters says that the show delves into his life as a brown, Canadian man living in America under the Trump administration: one of the most likely targets, he says, to be thrown out of the country. He mentions, however, that there is not a single mention of the word “deported” in the set itself, which appears to have irked some of his fans online.

Personal matters

The real irony, of course, lies in his mention of America’s political landscape when we spoke, but the complete absence of it from his show. It is a uniquely bizarre position for someone who admits his career is shaped by the injustices he saw around him as he grew up. “I don’t do political material ever. There’s so much of it on television. This is about my personal life, it’s a personal show.” His reasons are simple. “I don’t want to do what others are doing. If everyone is going left, I’m going right. Why would I want to be like anyone else? I don’t follow trends. I do me.”

Peters appears to follow this even in his style of writing and preparing material. Unlike many other comics who write their sets first, he prefers going on stage with nothing in hand. “After six hours of talking over the weekend, I will hopefully have three minutes of material,” he says. “I never went to college or university, so I don’t understand the world of sitting in front of a computer and writing. For me, comedy has to happen naturally.”

Taking stock
  • As far as experimenting with genres goes, Peters is not averse to trying new things. Recently, he appeared on a sketch titled The Brown Bar, on Lilly Singh’s YouTube channel.
  • His social media following is middling on Instagram at 3.6 lakh and is significantly higher on Facebook, where there is an older demographic. Surprisingly, his Twitter feed, which has primarily promotional material, has 41 lakh followers.

While watching the show, however, one wonders whether it is time that Peters actually sat down and thought out his segments better. He is one of a select group of comics who have become global pop-stars. His success has inspired hundreds of comics to take to the stage. It is slightly disconcerting, therefore, to find him leaning on the same tired stereotypes that he once presented with such sharp wit: Indian parents as control freaks, the standard brown person accent that nobody really speaks in, how Indian names sound funny, penis size and body odour.

It is one thing to be slightly specious about presenting a show as a brown person in America but not really talking about it. It is entirely another to be not very funny because the jokes are lazy and have a tediousness about them. Peters is no longer one in an arena of few; he is now competing for attention and laughs against hundreds of other comics. Audiences are clamouring for freshness. To use one of his own stereotypes against him, Peters’ comedy hasn’t moved very far from its humble beginnings, but he does seem to have gained the white man’s confidence in his superiority. Peters insists that it is the viewer’s problem if they feel he is still doing the same stuff. They’re probably watching the same old stuff, he says. “I haven’t done that in years.”

The audience, however, may not be entirely to blame if the best jokes are about white people liking yoghurt because of its colour; naming twins Kate and Duplicate; a South Indian man called Nagalingam who plays a flute to get an erection; or a man in the audience dressed in white whom Peters likens to a sperm.

In Lilly Singh’s sketch, ‘The Brown Bar’, with Kal Penn, Hannah Simone, Mena Massoud, Jay Shetty and Humble the Poet

In Lilly Singh’s sketch, ‘The Brown Bar’, with Kal Penn, Hannah Simone, Mena Massoud, Jay Shetty and Humble the Poet

Back to the future

Does he ever feel differently about the material he produced in his younger days? On the contrary, he says. He is surprised by some of his older jokes. “I start thinking: how do I get my head back into that space?” He pauses thoughtfully. “But you have to stay in the present and be equally funny. It’s all about growth. I’m not the same guy I was in my 30s. I didn’t have kids or money. [According to reports, Peters is now worth over $55 million.] Now I’m almost 50. It’s not that the hunger isn’t there, just that the concerns have changed.”

These concerns are wide-ranging. At different times, he has been a film actor; done a television show on Netflix; and also produced a documentary on hip-hop culture. “It really shaped me as a person, that culture,” he says. “And it’s so wild that many of the heroes I had growing up are now friends. I will always be a comic. But there are passion projects I like pursuing.”

As for inspiration, he may see things and make a note about it. “But after 30 years in the game, you start thinking how many other people might have also seen the same thing and might have a joke about that. I want to make my comedy very specific and personal to me,” he says. We circle back to his childhood and his home town. Is it still as racist? “Oh no,” he laughs. “My home town, Brampton, is now 98% Indian. And not even with people from big city India like Mumbai, but from remote regions of Punjab. It is actually more Indian than India.”

While he does not talk about upcoming projects, he is busy with an ongoing tour of club gigs across the USA. As we close, I ask him why he has moved away from Netflix where he has a couple of stand-up specials and even a TV series. “Well, I created the space on Netflix. I was the first guy to put a special on there and it became a very successful space for them,” he emphasises. “And now it just seems crowded. I don’t want to be with what’s hot right now. I want to ride with the future.”

Deported is now available on Amazon Prime Video

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