Sunday, April 15, 2007

Russell Peters' Deaf Jokes

Here are some thoughts about Russell Peters, who I presume needs no introduction; Sepia Mutiny has had many posts on him, and you'll find a fair amount of his stuff up at YouTube. (Also, see Manish's recent post on Peters' show in Bombay from earlier this spring. I saw him last night in Philadelphia.)

At his best, Russell Peters airs out some intra-community dirty laundry. He plays with the mixture of embarrassment and pride that tends to circulate amongst members of various ethnic groups, especially immigrant ethnic groups. While many people might feel isolated within a particular ethnic niche, Russell Peters manages to draw people out, and create a certain amount of cross-ethnic solidarity.

Because he has a fair amount of "insider" knowledge about South Asians, the Chinese and Chinese Americans, Jamaicans, Arabs, and Persians, Peters can usually pull off humor that works with ethnic stereotypes. It also helps that he has a good ear for accents, and usually sets up his jokes with shout-outs to members of the audience: "You in the first row, are you Chinese? [Yes] What's your name? [Tim] Tim, what's your real name? Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight... You know, the thing about Chinese people is..."

Of course, all of that doesn't quite work the same way when Peters makes deaf jokes, as he did for quite some time at his show last night in Philadelphia. There are, presumably, going to be very few (if any) deaf people in the audience at a show like this -- so the sense of talking to people rather than just about them isn't there. Also, in my view humor relating to a disability by someone who doesn't have it doesn't work the way ethnic humor works coming from a brown comic. Some of Peters' deaf jokes were a bit corny and stupid (i.e., wouldn't it be nice to be deaf, because then you wouldn't have to listen to your girlfriend/wife nagging you), while others were flat-out mean.

What was interesting about the end of Peters deaf-joke routine was the way he brought it back to ethnicity. He pointed out that in American Sign Language (ASL), the signs for people of different ethnic groups were, historically, based on pretty offensive caricatures. According to Peters (I haven't been able to confirm this), the official sign for a Chinese person involved a pulled/flattened eye, and one sign for a Jewish person involved a big nose. Even today, the official ASL sign for a Jewish person involves making the shape of a long beard -- though apparently the sign for "Chinese" has changed. Also, to sign "Indian" one makes a "dot" on the forehead with the thumb -- like a bindi. It's not really a "stereotype," but it's also not exactly a neutral or arbitrary symbol. (See The ASL browser for video representations of many ASL words.)

The point behind this being, presumably, that even deaf people are capable of ethnic stereotyping -- it was even built into the fundamental structure of ASL as a language. Of course, if that's what Russell Peters was saying with this whole routine, we could easily respond that the history of offensive signs in ASL (most of which have been replaced) doesn't say anything about whether the people who used those signs believed in the caricatures.


With the new wave of self-consciously "offensive" comics (Sarah Silverman, George Lopez), it's often said that can they get away with it because their audience doesn't really believe, in a literal, non-ironic way, in the stereotypes that are being played with. But I sometimes wonder if the extensive reliance on these stereotypes -- this is Russell Peters' whole career, in a nutshell -- really helps people understand each other better. Sometimes it feels more corrosive than cathartic.

At this point I have a bit of a bad feeling in my mouth about Russell Peters, though I do recognize that he's a very talented comic, and I admire much of his earlier material. Who knows? Perhaps he'll have a version of a Dave Chappelle moment, where he takes it as far as he can go, and then stops to rethink what he's doing. Given what just happened to Don Imus after he said something not so different from Russell Peters' comedic bread and butter, I would have to say that's within the realm of possibility.

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