Comedian Russell Peters and American Hegemony

Russell Peters is a stand-up comedian who regularly sells out stadiums all over the world. He is a Canadian citizen with an act rooted in observational humor about life in the United States. Last year, his stand-up comedy routine earned him something like $20 million. But most people in the United States you have never heard of him. The mystery is: why?

Well, if you are from the United States and watch one of his specials, you will probably wonder about a different mystery: why is this not-very-funny comedian famous all over the world?

Russell Peters

Russell Peters

[ To give Peters some credit, which I don’t do later, let me stop and say that he is an excellent performer and is unusually deft in his extemporaneous interactions with audience members. ]

I had never heard of Russell Peters myself, before I came across his special on Netflix and clicked on it out of curiosity. What I saw was an American-seeming guy, speaking with an American-seeming accent, telling America-centric jokes, in front of a massive sold-out audience in a sports stadium that was definitely not in America.

And he wasn’t particularly funny.

It turns out that many articles have been written about the fact that Russell Peters is mostly unrecognized in America, in spite of being a huge international star. None of the articles that I’ve seen had a plausible explanation as to why he has not been popular here, but after watching his special on Netflix I think I know the answer.

His international celebrity and local obscurity is explained by the international hegemony of the United States that characterizes our current historical moment. No, it really is.

Let me set the mood for the rest of the article with one of my favorite songs:

One of the interesting things about Russell Peters is that his audience, as shown in his specials, is almost uniquely diverse. The packed stadiums he performs to seem to be filled with individuals from every corner of the globe, except North America. Which is a weird exception, because his jokes and style of humor are firmly rooted in North America (especially the United States) and often seem to have been crafted for a local audience. Although his audience is not from the United States, he often slips into a mode during his act where he delivers his jokes as if they were. The crowds in the stadiums eat it up.

As an American I would describe his humor as broad, dim, and lacking the acute observational insight that celebrated stand-up comedy is typically made from. He calls to mind an endless number of second-rate comedians struggling in anonymity along the ass end of stand-up circuits throughout the United States. A typical Peters riff is based on the fact that a lot of people in Florida speak Spanish. He intros with something like, “You’ve probably heard of Florida.” Then he spices the jokes about people speaking Spanish with a painfully generic impression of Latinos — and quickly he has the eclectic, international audience belly laughing.

To paint the complete picture, there is another aspect to Russell Peters’ humor that he is famous for. He riffs on broad, inoffensive (often quasi) stereotypes about specific ethnic groups from all over the world. For example, “You Chinese? Woo! *fist pump* That could be your last name. I’m kidding, but let me tell you, Chinese people and Indian people are two groups who simply can’t do business with each other. Because Indian people can’t live without a bargain and Chinese people can’t give you a bargain!”

I find it difficult to believe that Indian or Chinese people would find that joke to be hilarious if it was being told by a local Indian or Chinese comedian, but in the specific context of his show Russell Peters slays them with jokes like that. There’s something bigger than the comedy going on, it’s almost as if the comedy is a pretext. What Russell Peters, being himself both an outsider and an insider vis a vis America, is really doing in his act is inviting international audiences into the big “American” tent and helping them to feel like they belong there.

Imagine this:

[ Note: This is hard for Americans to deeply imagine, and for everyone else it is probably a redundant exercise, but nevertheless try to imagine it.]

The world isn’t dominated by the United States, it’s dominated by Japan. You, a person born and living in the United States, are constantly inundated with Japanese tv shows, Japanese movies, Japanese music, Japanese technology, Japanese ideas, Japanese values, Japanese companies, Japanese fashions, and Japanese products. You’re forced to learn Japanese in school, and so is almost everyone else in the world. Japan dominates the United Nations, dominates international trade in general, and dominates international politics. Japan has the largest economy in the world, enormous natural resources, and by far the largest, most powerful military. Year by year, decade by decade, your country, and practically every other country in the world, is becoming more and more like Japan. Now imagine that Japan is a pretty admirable country in a lot of ways, so even though it’s presence and influence is overwhelming, you don’t really hate Japan. You kind of resent Japan, but you kind of love Japan a little bit, too. I mean, all those Japanese movies and songs are pretty awesome, that’s why they’re so popular in America, right?

Ok, so keep going with that scenario and imagine what your response will be if a star Japanese comedian comes to perform in your home city of, let’s say Boston. Imagine this is a native Japanese comedian who has had huge success on the stand-up comedy circuits in Japan. Her act, of course, is entirely in Japanese. Will you, as an American, someone who spent their life mostly in Boston, belly laugh at her jokes? Will you really appreciate the jokes?

The thing is, a stand-up comedian who has had huge success on the comedy circuits in Japan probably has an act that is full of subtle insights and nuanced riffs about life and society IN JAPAN. You, as a foreigner, even though your life is constantly inundated BY JAPANESE THINGS, are unlikely to appreciate the nuance of the observational humor about life and culture in Japan that has been a hit with actual Japanese. The act might still be funny, but it’s unlikely that you would find it to be really hilarious. The subtlety and nuance that would clinch the act for native Japanese audiences would be lost on you.

Now, imagine instead that a different comedian comes to Boston. Imagine that this comedian is from Okinawa and she makes broad jokes about Japanese life, language, culture, and society. She makes jokes, for example, about how annoying Chinese tourists are, and does a silly imitation of them and their accent. You already know, from your constant exposure to Japanese things, that many Japanese feel some kind of antagonism towards Chinese tourists. You understand the joke, you get it! And imagine that in her act she also makes some friendly jokes about Americans, maybe she even mentions visiting Boston — she recognizes you and where you’re from! She almost makes you feel like you yourself are a Japanese. Sitting in that audience, listening to accessible humor about that far away place that has so greatly influenced your life, from someone who may as well be a Japanese citizen — the world seems like a nice place, a place you fit into, and this comedian up on stage is hilarious!

Would that second comedian be a huge success on the stand-up comedy circuits in Japan? Probably not. What would she have to offer the Japanese audiences? Her observation that Chinese tourists are annoying would be something that everyone in Japan had either already heard observed many times or found to be untrue and personally offensive. Her broad imitation of the Chinese tourists would be similar to what a child in the schoolyard might come up with, lacking the specific nuance or insight necessary to tickle the funny-bone of Japanese audience members who interact with Chinese tourists on a regular basis. The easy-going stereotypes about specific international ethnic groups would be mostly boring and slightly alienating to a Japanese audience that was accustomed to being at the center of things.

Turn that all around and you have an explanation for Russell Peters’ tremendous international success yet relative obscurity in the United States. He is almost a caricature of an American comedian: specific enough to come across as genuine, but still broad enough to be accessible to the many millions of people in the world who aren’t quite American but sort of feel like they are.

That sounds bad, but it really isn’t. It’s not even a criticism of Peters; in a way, what he does is brilliant. Many of us can relate to this phenomenon in a different way, with foreign languages and cultures that we have sought out and voluntarily embraced. In those cases it is particularly fun and amusing to feel like we are “getting” the local jokes, appreciating the cultural color, and being accepted.

There are other facets and nuances to what is happening in Peters’ shows. If we dig deep enough, we will scrape down to the question of what humor really is, anyway? But that’s a topic for another post.