This week, The Globe's Peter Scowen sat down for breakfast in the middle of the afternoon with Russell Peters and three Toronto comics. The venue was Cora's in Vaughan, Ont., near Peters's Canadian home (he lives in Los Angeles). The Indo-Canadian Peters, one of the most successful comics in the world, was born in Toronto and raised in suburban Brampton. His honest and raw new autobiography, Call Me Russell, has just come out. He and the other comics, all chosen by him, agreed to share their thoughts about the comedy business, race, what's funny and what isn't, and the things you can never joke about. Which turns out to be nothing.
The other comics were Ron Josol, a Filipino-Canadian; Jean Paul, who was born in Trinidad and raised in Toronto; and Arthur Simeon, who was born and raised in Uganda and moved here as a teenager.
I liked your book.
Peters: Did you read the whole thing?
Peters: You son of a ....
So are there any subjects you can never joke about, that it's too soon to be funny about?
Peters: It's never too soon for anything.
Seriously? You'll make a joke about Colonel Williams right now?
Peters: I don't know his deal so.... Is that the guy who killed a bunch of people?
Paul: Two people.
Peters: I just don't like the fact that his name is Russell.
Paul: Someone actually said that last night: 'We had Russell Williams perform here before.' I was like, I'm sure he killed.
Josol: And the room went quiet.
Is there anything that can never be funny?
Peters: There's things that can be funny that I just won't talk about, like religion. To me it could be funny but I'm not going to take that chance, because way too many people are looking for God nowadays. I'm not much of a believer in all that stuff.
What happens if you try it?
Peters: I don't want to try it.
Paul: I mean, comedy's got to be genuine too, right? It's like if you're selling something and you don't really buy into the product, you're not going to be the best salesman you can be.
Peters: There's people selling it better than me. Bill Maher goes on that subject quite a bit and it's fine, let him go for it.
Paul: I'm pretty much the same. Politics or religion. It's because people are so passionate about it, and I'm not as passionate.
Peters: I don't know anything about politics, for one, so I don't touch it, just because I don't want to look like an idiot. Because so many people love it.
Simeon: They're passionate.
Paul: Wars are started over it.
Simeon: I don't touch it.
So what's always funny? What can't miss?
Peters: Sex. Sex is always funny. I mean, your basics: Your sex, your bodily functions is always easy.
Peters: If you have a funny family. There's nothing funny about going, 'Yeah my dad just came home from work. He works at a car dealership. He's a top salesman.'
Josol: [imitating an imagined audience]It's so true! It's so true!
Simeon: If your father is Russell Williams, then that's hilarious.
Peters: [to Simeon]Have you done any Russell Williams jokes?
Peters: No? You're from a country that had Idi Amin. You should be all over it.
Peters [turning to The Globe and Mail's videographer, Rosa Park] You look Nepalese. Where are you from?
Park: My last name is Park.
Peters: You're Korean. So it really is Rosa Park.
Paul: She sits on the middle of the bus.
It's refreshing to see someone being so unabashed about asking people what their ethnic background is.
Peters: I think it's the way I grew up. My dad would always do that. We'd almost play that game, wherever we'd go [imitates father] 'You see that guy? I bet he's blah blah blah.' We'd walk by and he'd ask, Where are you from? 'I'm Polish.' [imitates father again]'I told you!
Josol: Don't you find Americans are more sensitive about that?
Peters: I find everyone is sensitive. It's actually funny when people get weird about it. 'What are you?' 'What do you mean? I'm a human!' You're a dumb-ass, is what you are.
Simeon: People get uncomfortable to bring up race. White people, for instance, can never say 'black person' without twitching....
Peters: Or their voice dipping. I think there was a [lowers voice] black [returns to normal voice] guy here.
Paul: Or they stress the A. He's blaaaaaack.
Simeon: You end up going to the other side when you get sensitive about it. You won't be able to say 'black' but then you hear things like, 'He's the ethnic guy.' What does that even mean? 'Ethnic.' Or he's the 'urban' guy. What do you mean, the 'urban' guy? Just say black!
When someone says the word black, are you listening for the way it's said?
Peters: You have to! When it comes out naturally I don't even pay attention to it. But when they stutter step then you're like, wait a minute. Or they give you the awkward breath and giggle after. 'Black guy [awkward exhale, heh heh]' The old breath and giggle.
Josol: You don't have that when they talk about Asians. 'Yeah, that guy with the slants.'
[general raucous laughter]
Do you expect any backlash when you say those kinds of things?
Peters: No, because I don't think of it that way. I think when you're writing it from a place of honesty it's all about intent. What's your intention when you say something? Like when I wanted to know what Rosa was, my intention was just to know what Rosa was. I want to know who I'm looking at here. I'm looking at a Korean girl, a Chinese guy and an English guy.
You do that a lot with your audience.
Peters: Yeah, I like to know who's around. Honestly, I don't like to talk about people when they're not there.
Paul: What if the audience is all white?
Peters: Then ... screw 'em.
Do you find as up-and-comers that there's pressure to be like Russell Peters?
Paul: Hell no.
Simeon: Not at all....
Peters: Hey, let's not get carried away here. Remember why we're here!
I hate to do this but I want to bring up the term 'political correctness.' Is that something you worry about?
Peters: No. Who is political correctness for?
Paul: It's to make people feel better.
Peters: I don't know what it's for. I don't know its purpose. I think it's kind of like religion. It's for mind control. It's to control the masses from saying things. It's almost like, we have freedom of speech out here, but we also have political correctness. ... That's a nice way of saying you can't say this.
It must be frustrating sometimes.
Peters: It's not frustrating for me because I don't [care]about it.
Is Canada more politically correct than the United States?
Peters: No, not necessarily. I think we're a harder audience over here.
Josol: For sure!
Peters: We're a little stiffer. I don't know what our problem is, but I think that's why we get so many great comedians out of Canada, because we have to work a little bit harder.
Josol: It's a lot easier in the U.S.
Peters: Yeah, they will laugh a lot easilyer. Easilyer? Easier.
Is it the result of our cultural makeup?
Peters: I think we're a little more reserved, you know? Canada's mentality is, I don't want what I don't need. I just want enough. And America's mentality is, Give me everything, and I'll trim it back from there.
Paul: You think that's why Canadians apologize so much?
Peters: We do apologize a lot.
How do you handle hecklers?
Josol: I just challenge them to a fight.
Simeon: [laughs]When you work with Ron, then you know you're safe.
Josol: I got heckled so much my first time on stage, my act turned into a thing where I was doing so many jokes in a minute that a heckler couldn't jump in. They were like, damn, I can't get in there. It was a barricade of laughs. As a result ... it became my style because I got heckled so bad the first time I was on stage and it killed me.
Simeon: I think we have Ron's DVD name now: Barricade of Laughs.
Josol: That's good. When you guys get heckled, do you guys have stuff you make up on the spot, or do you go stock?
Peters: I used to go stock. Now I gotta go made up.
Paul: Me too. People can relate to it right away. It's a lot funnier.
Paul: They also say things like, 'We thought we were helping the show. Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Help you out?' No, idiot, you're here to see ME. We're not a duo.
Can you actually shut a heckler up?
Simeon: It all depends on how you do it. As soon as the crowd turns on them - you know, 200 other people or 10,000 other people - they get the point and shut up. At the same time, if you show the hecklers any kind of fear, the crowd goes, This guy can't cut it.
Paul: They smell blood.
Simeon: They join in.
Judging by Russell's book, it takes a long time to break into comedy in a way where you can make a living at it.
Josol: I think in comedy it's 15 years before you get [anywhere]
Paul: I have four years to go!
Every business requires that you put your time in, but that's extreme.
Josol: You just don't do an act that's one way. You have to learn how to travel with it. Someone who's been doing it for 10 years won't be able to play as many places as someone who's been doing it for 15. They won't be able to take on hecklers as well as someone who's been doing it for 15 years.
Peters: Then there's guys that get the world handed to them, that make it in two years. But then when it all ends, which it will, then they're on their ass and they're done. Like, they can't come back from that because they never had the experience before that.
So what keeps you going?
Peters: You love what you do. You have to love doing it.
Simeon: You? Or us. Because....
Josol: He's made money! We're broke.
Peters: These guys all knew me when I was broke. Except for Arthur. I was very wealthy when he met me.
Simeon: I'm just here for the food, people.
What is it you love about it?
Peters: It's performing. The immediate gratification. The audience reaction. You know, just that feeling of being loved by all these people.
Paul: I do love it, and the people really do give it to you right away. That's why it hurts so much when they don't laugh, because it's almost like they're judging you personally, as a person. Whereas someone sings a song, you may not necessarily like the song but you like their voice and go, Well, that's not bad. But a joke is crap, they just stare at you.
Does it all come down to the writing?
Peters: Well no. You could be the best writer but if you can't perform, what's the point? There's tons of comics that are one or the other. Some are great performers and have no material; some are great writers and have no performance ability.
Paul: And some are both.
Peters: Some are both. [pause]Thank you very much.
What is your audience?
Peters: It depends on what city you're talking about. If they're a more comedy-savvy crowd then I can bring in a different kind of comic.
What does 'comedy-savvy' mean?
Peters: Aware of not just me but of different types of comedy. They're comedy fans, not just Russell Peters fans. A lot of my fans are just Russell Peters fans, which doesn't necessarily make them comedy fans.
Simeon: I have the same thing too. A lot of my fans are just Russell Peters fans.
Do you guys look at Russell Peters and his success and wonder if you'll get there? Will it be worth doing for 40 or 50 years if you never get there?
Simeon: Why you got to bring that up?
Josol: You can't plan that. I'm enjoying going through the stuff that he jumped. He blew up and he jumped the U.S. road where nobody knew you. He hit the stages with everybody ready to see him. So I'm like, this is the path that Russell never took. And it's terrible!
[laughs all around]
Peters: They're enterprising in the U.S. They'll sell their CDs, their pictures, their shirts, whatever, and they'll sit there and sign them and everything.
Josol: I'd make half as much money if I didn't do the U.S. stuff. Canada's $40,000 a year.
Peters: That's the most you will make. That was me on a great year - $40,000. That would have been a phenomenal year.
Simeon [pretending to be shocked] That's it?
So how do you get into the U.S.?
Paul [under his breath] Arizona border.
Josol: He [Russell]brought me, had me open for him. And I started talking to people because I'm not going to be opening for him forever. So it became a networking thing.
Peters: It really is about who you know. I feel like, for lack of a better word, being ahead of these guys, it's my job to pull who I want up with me.... I would give them the introduction and I would think it's their job to make it happen from there. Ron is really good at, you know, socializing after the show, and....
Josol: I ... [makes reference to performing an extremely lewd sexual act]
Peters: I was going to say ... [reference to even more extremely lewd sexual act]
Do Americans come up and do the road in Canada?
Josol: They try.
Peters: They try. They do. But here's the thing: You finish your shift at being a lawyer - I guess there's lawyer shifts - but you're not going to work at a law firm then go to work at a Burger King.
Josol: There's 300 clubs there, there are 30 here.
Peters: And they pay proper over there. It may not be phenomenal but it's at least better than you'd be getting here. They undersell us here, and that's really the bottom line in Canada, that they don't put a proper value on comedy.
Is if because of a monopoly, because there's one or two chains of clubs controlling everything?
Peters: I don't even think it's that. I just think they don't have the foresight to say, 'Look, we're selling a great product here. Why don't we charge people a little bit more for this. And really plug it!' It's almost like they take it for granted. It's like, we're here, and the comics are here, and whether this comic is here or that comic is onstage, it doesn't matter, people are going to come this weekend.
I should let you guys go. I've been keeping you too long.
Simeon: Oh yeah, we're sooo busy.
Peters: You know, there's a lot of Monday-night gigs....
Simeon: That 40 grand is not going to make itself. Okay, so uh,....
Josol: That's two good ones!
Simeon: I'm killing. I'm killing.
This discussion has been condensed and edited.