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?