South Asian Stand-Up Comedy
December 15, 2006
He saunters onstage in well-worn jeans and a crisp white shirt, fashionably untucked. One hand casually draped over the microphone stand, Russell Peters scans the audience and, head bobbing disarmingly, notes, "Clearly we've got some Asians in the house -- I saw all the Honda Civics in the parking lot."
Spotting some fellow Indians, he adds, with the easy smile of an old friend: "And the brown bastards -- look at you. There's a lot of closed motels in town right now, I tell you that."
Pause. Smile. Points to a mixed couple in the audience. "A white guy with a brown girl. Good job, buddy."
"Her parents must be soooo happy..."
North Americans of South Asian descent such as Mr. Peters are the latest arrivals to North American stand-up comedy. It's a genre that "has been linked from its start in the 1950s to issues of race and ethnicity," according to Matthew Daube, who is writing his dissertation on the subject at Stanford University in California. On a continent largely defined along black and white racial lines, South Asian comedians are carving a niche for themselves and, in the process, propagating positive identities for the very minority groups they kid.
In many ways, their success relies on the same principles that make or break all comedians. Curt Shackelford, who books emerging comedians in the Washington, D.C. area, says the most important key to success is likeability. "Within the first 20 to 40 seconds, you decide whether or not you like this guy, and if you like him he can do pretty much anything and you will laugh."
At some point, every comedian bombs and the trick is to learn from the humiliation. "It's like boxing: if you get knocked out and you come back to fight for the title and win it, then you're a real fighter," says Mr. Peters, who now occupies, as he puts it, "the lofty position of being the first South Asian comic to grab that mike and hang onto it." The first, too, to garner multimillion dollar earnings ever since a pirated copy of Peters's DVD appeared on the Internet in 2003 and spread like wildfire in a classic example of viral marketing.
And, as it was for the American Jewish, black and East Asians who came before them, South Asian comedians have to find ways to deal with the issue of race. Witness Mr. Peters's introductory jokes, or those of fellow comedian Dan Nainan, who kicks off a set in his hometown of Bethesda, Maryland, by telling the audience, "You're asking yourself, 'what the hell race is this guy?' Well, my father is Indian and my mother is Japanese."
"Which means I get my sushi at the 7-Eleven." (Like the motels Mr. Peters mentioned, Mr. Nainan is referring to the convenience stores in North America that are so often owned or operated by South Asians.)
Kicking off with jokes about race "is a defusing technique of naming the elephant in the room so everyone feels more comfortable about it," Mr. Daube explains.
Mr. Peters's quip about the mixed couple has an added twist -- it is the Indian parents who will be upset, not the boy's white family. South Asians in the audience immediately recognize an all-too-familiar situation, while others get the message that Indian parents are no different from their own. In this world of comedy and for the duration of this act, Mr. Peters is saying, there is no superior race or group.
Joking about race and ethnicity is risky, says Mr. Daube, because laughter "can be used to keep people in their place and be very aggressive and negative." He agrees with Mr. Shackelford that likeability is key, but to use laughter in a positive way, it must also be coupled with knowledge.
Here, South Asian comedians have an advantage. As cultural hybrids, they're using comedy to bridge a sensitive gap between the disparate worlds they inhabit. Comedian Azhar Usman, a Chicago-born son of Indians, talks about Islam in a show he co-founded called "Allah Made Me Funny." Mr. Nainan, the sushi-eating 7-Eleven patron, roots all his material in his own multicultural experiences. And Mr. Peters is quick to let the audience know he is not teasing blacks in general, but specifically the cool Jamaican kids he grew up with in a minority-dominated suburb of Toronto.
But religion is the one topic Mr. Peters will not touch: "You can talk about people's cultures because you can learn about it," he says. "But the minute you talk about religion, that comes down to interpretation. And the way I interpret it might not be the way a real Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist interprets it." Mr. Usman not only tackles religion, but the identity of a Muslim male. Taking the bull by the horns, he stands on stage sporting a beard, cap and tunic. "Let me start off by telling you I'm not Osama bin Laden's evil younger brother," he says. "I'm his cousin." Beat. "Osama bin Laughin."
Ms. Lawrence is an arts writer in Washington, D.C.