Storytelling for Squares

Storytelling for Squares

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The Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, and Russell Peters Trade Gap

22 October, 2013 , , , , , , , , ,

“You haven’t listened to Russell Peters before now?” my Indian friend asks. I know what that rising pitch in her voice in the word “You” means. The rest of the sentence will be Hindi for “idiot!”

I’ve been called stupid before:

“What do you mean ‘Who is Robbie Williams’?”


“That singer? That’s Kylie Minogue. You know, Kylie. No? Minogue. When were you born?”

It’s not my fault. I’ve got witnesses. “America is not part of the world,” South African comedian Trevor Noah explained to Laughspin creator Dylan Gadino. “You dictate your own culture… . Look at comedians,” he continued. “Russell Peters is one of the few world superstars, but his success in America is paltry in comparison. This guy is a behemoth. In South Africa he sells out arenas. In Dubai, in India, in Canada, Australia, just name a country that speaks English and Russell Peters is literally destroying there, and in America, it’s like hit or miss. ‘Yeah,  we know him.’ ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of him.’ ‘Eh,  maybe…not so much.'”  [Here at  26:00]

The first time I heard Peters, I laughed until I cried. So why the lukewarm response in the States? I don’t know. I haven’t read the white paper yet. One clue, however might be in the fact that I did not laugh as hard the second time I heard the same routine. His material is heavily ethnicity versus ethnicity, and male versus female, as Patrice O’Neal’s, but unlike O’Neal, Peters’ performance depends on theatrics, slapstick, and cliche, less incongruity resolved. Peters’ voices and timing hold me fast. He is an amazing performer, but the material is less satisfying the second or third time around.  Perhaps more importantly, I never feel as if Peters is inviting me in. He holds me at arm’s length. He is egalitarian in his observations, certainly. Everyone gets roasted, but is that enough today? Could it be that Americans are, in fact, part of the world and when it comes to race or ethnic humor they have simply had a lot more experience being there and doing this kind of schtick? Noah Trevor has a point, and here is another I think he will appreciate: If humor is the adaptive trait we believe it to be, then it needs to adapt. Peters demonstrates no underlying attempt at desegregation in either his material or affect. He keeps each group in its own circle, while often transferring the most painful truths over to another’s voice. Peters’ “father” often says the mean things, not Peters. It feels like All in the Family all over again.

Review Peters’ performances (such as here.) We will discuss audience appeal and the impact of tone, credibility, Superiority Theory, Incongruity Resolved Theory, adaptation, and perspective. 

As for why Robbie and Minogue never made it in America? Spelling? Olivia Newton-John? The failure to hire a no-nonsense Swedish producer? Too many hard questions. The frog is on life support. But at least we can see one healthy sign: the United States has been trying to come to terms with its vast heterogeneity for a while now. It usually screws it up, but every generation or four, someone sees a way to advance.  Patrice O’Neal was onto something.

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