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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Anonymous Fire Fly said...

Peters doesn't seem to know anything about Indian people. He made the comment that South Asians were brought to Africa as "slaves"... Um, no. In fact, they were indentured labourers. Indentured labour isn't the same as free labour, but it's not slavery, and in fact it has a really complicated history with slavery, since indentured labour was for a time considered an alternative to slavery. Indentured labourers and slaves have also been at odds over a number of historical conflicts.

So much for in-jokes. He doesn't even know what he's talking about. He uses his brownness as a free pass to be a dickhead for money by making accent jokes.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Ms Baroque said...

Firefly, according to what you say, it sounds more as if indentured servituyde is the thing he doesn't know "anything" about.

anyway, I can't talk: this comedian is unknown in the UK. But the issues raised in the post apply also to the Borat movie - where although the irony is assumed, and the comic, Sacha Baron Cohen, is himself Jewish "so that's okay" - but there is an upswing nonetheless in copycat racism. I think the danger lies in assuming that the entire audience is made up of people for whom the irony is the point.

And anyway, if you weren;t still grappling with the real thing, why would it be funny?

5:56 AM  
Anonymous uday said...


That is some very good insight and a brand new perspective into ethnic typecasting.

In fact, this could even turn into a book of sorts, let me know if you plan to write got a publisher and a first customer ;)

7:01 AM  
Anonymous BaybeehGrl said...

okay . here is the problem with people these days. you have to understand that the jokes he makes arent going to be accurate , they are JUST JOKES . they are made to make people laugh , not to be judged by what he is saying wrong . it doesnt matter what he said that was wrong or insensitive , its about him makig money doing what he does best , MAKING JOKES .

9:38 PM  
Blogger BBChaz said...

Russell Peters makes jokes about a wide range of racial stereotypes and languages. In his Outsourced DVD he comments on various Asian languages, so what's wrong with him commenting on sign language?!

If there were no Asian people in the audience, would that mean he couldn't make any jokes about them?! It's social commentary and I feel his jokes acceptable because he is making observations rather then criticisms on cultures/languages/race.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now much has been said about this man named Russell Peters.

We all agree how talented this man is, and how much balls it must take to stand front of an unpredictable audience, and make jokes about every group there is, not just yours or mine alone.

I am a brown man, and have stuttered all my life. Notwithstanding, I was not once offended when he made jokes about people who stutter. Why? Because, all his jokes lack the malicious intent to hurt anyone.

Quite naturally, it is understood that people who do not choose to be who they are, should not be ridiculed, but if criticizing one's disability brings a smile to thousands, I'd allow it - after all, no one is perfect, and neither is Russell Peters.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous vinod rai said...

Russell peters is an oddball. though he's pretty successful, its more due to an artful presentation. he's pretty light on anything he takes up. accent, or stereotypes or any informaton about the region that he picks on. he's awful with info on india, but he makes it up with his delivery.

in the end, he's entertaining, which is why he sells.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous smartygirl said...

sure deaf people are capable of stereotyping - but a couple of offensive signs doesn't mean stereotyping is "built into the fundamental structure of ASL as a language" any more than it's built into the structure of english or any other language.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous e bag said...

sure u might think russel is racist but all for all in the the end russel is one of of the best entertainers / comedians in the buisness right now even better than dane cook . by the way did u see him make that joke about vannesa hudgensat the teen choice awards 2009 i quote'girl u got to keep your clothes on'.well bye for now

4:56 PM  

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