What was the skinniest part of Emperor Napoleon?
-The bony part.
So you want to be funny? It’s a hard life – just think of the firestorm that met last month’s Oscars night. A good number of North Americans laughed at host Seth Macfarlane’s schtick, while a good number of people… did not.
Up here in the Great White North, one of our great joke meisters is Russell Peters. He too, can be an acquired taste. His riff on a new, all-Indian hockey team, the Toronto Maple Sikhs, featured this imagined commentary: “And here comes Singh down center ice, he passes it to Singh, Singh shoots it over to Singh, Singh shoots at Singh – he misses!“
Peters got death threats for this joke, and threatened by a group of three punks at one of his shows (Peters threw a couple of punches and escaped). The comic writes about his shock in his memoir, Call Me Russell (2010, filed in adult non-fiction at 920).
Peters was born in Canada, an Anglo-Indian raised as a Christian, called a “Paki” as a child and bullied endlessly until, in his late teens, he learned to box as a way to defend himself. The idea that he’d offended Sikhs was horrifying to him: “My biggest fear was that my audience would misunderstand me, and I wanted to be clear to this community that my comedy has never been about hatred.” He met with a group of Sikh elders, who assured him that the jokes were not wrong. Hoodlums, the elder continued, weren’t real Sikhs; such people “were not part of his community.“
But Peters was the first Indian on the comic stage in Canada, and those who’ve been long victimized have a hard time seeing that laughter can come from a position of strength. Peters hopes to help build on cultural confidence.
Nonetheless, Peters decided never to make jokes with religious undercurrents again – to ensure he didn’t offend. But having said that, like any comedian, he tells jokes about what he knows. That, he says quite clearly in this book, is what makes a comic funny – that authenticity and insider knowledge. “When you’re the first at anything, you’re going to be the first to run into problems, and that’s what happened to me when I decided to take on comedy about my own people…. There is a fine line between laughing and being laughed at, and my own people wanted to be sure that I understood the difference. I always have.“
Not that Peters doesn’t exaggerate. His infamous imitation of his immigrant father’s Indian accent is actually taken from a friend’s dad – his own had a solid British accent. But that wouldn’t be as funny.
This memoir is an engaging – though not hilarious! – read about the life of his immigrant parents, his bond with his brother, the importance of family. There’s also a rather honest chapter about his sex life – it’s good to see a straight guy admit he has, at times, been a real jerk to women, and why (guys, don’t do these things). Dropped in throughout are anecdotes about the hard work needed to break into the comedy business – and, tiresomely, a lot of Hollywood name-dropping. But then, a working class kid who’s a bit star-struck by his new entourage can be forgiven.
Peters has also overcome attention deficit disorder (he flunked out of high school), a problem which may have actually helped him on stage. Regardless, he can focus on writing, rewriting, refining, perfecting each darned joke. Here’s one more: “I saw a white guy driving a cab the other day. Who the hell do these white people think they are coming over here and stealing our jobs?“
Russell Peters started doing comedy at 19. Jay Leno was in Grade Four.
You’ll find lots of advice, some of it similar, from Jay Leno in How To Be The Funniest Kid In The Whole Wide World (2005, filed with a yellow dot).
– Do what you know.
– Make fun of your parents, your family, your neighbours.
Always, always have a pen (or a cell phone) with you, to record funnies as they occur.
Funniest Kid is full of funny jokes – if you’re young (see Napoleon). (“What do you call a couple of neurosurgeons?” “A paradox.“) Older folk will find the first few pages interesting, as they offer a rundown on the ways to push yourself to become a comedian. Start by copying someone, perform all the time and everywhere (Peters offers this advice, also, with practical suggestions on how to get a few minutes on stage anywhere), then start to create your own style. “The more truth there is in a joke,” Leno writes, “the funnier it will be to people because they will be able to relate to it. So if you are nine years old and you are telling a joke about your parents, people will be able to identify with you and laugh along.” Farting, Leno suggests to the nine-year-old wannabe, should be – ahem – restricted to performances for those of like age.
Now, no more butts. Get out there and make someone giggle.
– Eleanor Brown, March 8, 2013