Ethnic Humor in Stand-up Talk-show: The Analysis of Ethnic ...

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Ethnic Humor in Stand-up Talk-show:

The Analysis of Ethnic Identity of Immigrant Comedians

Yuan Xie

The Pennsylvania State University


This article analyzes the stand-up talk-shows given by Joe Wong and Russell Peters in which ethnic humor has formed a significant part of their talk-shows. Though both the comedians are immigrants from Asian countries (China and India) to western countries (America and Canada), they are of different generations of immigrant in local society. They reveal their psychological and sociocultural adaptions in the process of acculturation differently, and their immigrant identities are displayed with generational distinctiveness. This article mainly focuses on the discursive devices used in talk-show as humor interaction via mass medium and the comedians’ ethnic/ national identities reflected in the process of humor interaction based on the transcripts of their talk-show performances.

Keywords: immigrant, ethnic humor, ethnic/national identity, comedian, generation

Ethnic Humor in Stand-up Talk-show:

The Analysis of Ethnic Identity of Immigrant Comedians


It is always a controversial topic on the ethnic and national identity of immigrants who form a distinct community with local citizenship and heritage cultural background. Immigrant comedians who have been constantly assimilated in and adapted to local culture display their immigrant identities differently according to generational patterns and the extent of acculturation in local society. Researches have also shown that “there are variable outcomes to acculturation including both psychological and sociocultural adaption” (Berry & Sabatier, 2010, p.191). Joe Wong and Russell Peters both adapt themselves into the culture of their national society, but the former one as the first generation of immigrants has gone through longer and more arduous struggle to enter full citizenship in America; while the latter one was born in Canada, which naturally and legally made Russell a citizen of Canada without any effort of his own. Their involvement in both their heritage culture and that of their national society shapes their immigrant identity through psychological and sociocultural adaption, but the extent to which they adapt into local culture and the way that they position themselves in the national society vary from each other.

Scholars have explored the connection between individuality and humor interaction, maintaining that “humor offers a customary way of displaying and creating one’s personal, social, and relational identity” (Shardakova, 2013). As immigrant comedians, Joe Wong and Russell Peters not only use discursive devices including both linguistic discourse and non-verbal discourse to achieve the humorous effect of stand-up talk-show and entertain the audience, but also construct and unfold their immigrant identity.

Ethnic humor, as defined by Apte (1987), is “a type of humor in which fun is made of the perceived behavior, customs, personality, or any other traits of a group or its members by virtue of their specific sociocultural identity” (p.27). It is apparent in the data set that Joe Wong and Russell Peters both include the perception of their own Asian traits (and people who share the same heritage culture in their mother country) and those of western people (“white people” as recognized by Russell) in their humor talk-show “to win friends, acceptance, and material success” (Lowe, 1986, p.441).

Stand-up Talk-show as Mass Media Discourse

The Presentation of Ego

Stand-up talk-show as a form of monologue humor mainly involves the comedian’s personal performance rather than the interaction between the comedian and the audience. As a competitive business in mass media, it is always crucial for the comedian to grab the audience’s attention and be the controller of the stage. In order to maintain the attention from the audience and keep amusing them throughout the show, the comedians need to deploy discursive devices and strategies to get the audience continuously involved in their performance.

As Borns (1987) said, “the very act of performing stand-up requires a great deal of ego with regard to the audience”. Different from daily interaction which usually requires equal opportunity of both sides to participate in and contribute to the interaction, stand-up talk-show needs the comedian to be more “aggressive” and “dominant” to convey the message that “I want you all to listen to me now”. Thus, the materials of humor are usually retrieved from personal stories and experiences of the comedians, but relate to the audience in one way or another. The possible ways to get the audience involved are to target the joke at the audience directly or to provoke empathy from the audience. For example, Joe integrated similar experience of undergoing poverty into his humor as following:

Joe Wong, Ellen Show

Joe: and lot of bad economic news this year. (..)Were you guys worried about economy? (2.2)(audience: yeahhhh) I’m not (2.2) coz I grew up poor: you know, if I become poor agai:n, I just feel young.

By asking “were you guys worried about economy”, Joe actually did not expect any answer from the audience. His intention of posing the question to the audience was to remind them of the possible tough struggling with bad economic and the empathy they had on that topic. But all of sudden, he turned the focus of the talk to himself and mocked his own tough time growing up with poverty. His perspective to look at the economic issue was different from that of the audience because he looked at the positive side of it and created a discrepancy between his feeling and that of the audience. The conflict was short but strong since the audience clearly knew what the reality was, but Joe’s mockery of his heritage culture of being poor suggested a positive but self-consoling attitude toward poverty. By doing so, Joe also kept the ego of himself as the center of the topic while involved the audience now and then as a whole participation framework.

Jokes Targeted at Audience

Another strategy used by Russell was to directly put “face threat action” on the audience and made them as the target of the joke. Teasing the audience is a very common device used in stand-up talk-show as it constantly gets the audience involved with a strong sense of participation, especially when it is targeted at an individual person. As it is shown in Russell’s talk-show, he used his finger pointing at one of the audience and got him involved.

Russell Peters The uniqueness of Indian, Canadian, American accents

Russell: Sir (pointing at the audience), you look like a rich Canadian…You’re minority.

By judging the appearance (maybe the wearing, etc.) of that audience, he built up an intimate relationship with that audience as if he had known about his audience’s financial situation well. The attention was shifted from the comedian to that audience, which made that audience have a sense of getting involved in the performance. Also, Russell skillfully included all the other audience into his joke by comparing that individual person with other audience and mocking the Canadians as poor people. Though the joke seemed to pose a face threat action on the audience, it did not create problematic situation due to its purpose of entertainment, and it successfully seize the audience’s attention by getting them involved in the performance.

Coherent Structure as a Logical Cycle

For both Joe and Russell, they usually organize their jokes with several short episodes that have certain connections between each other so as to form a logical cycle. The following excerpt is from one of Joe’s talk-shows known as My Green Card Expires.

Joe Wong, My Green Card Expires

Joe: See: I grow up in a poor neighborhood in China (with both of his palms open in lower position before chest), and: the middle school that I went to (.) one year. decided to pave the dirt road (.) with bricks and cement. (..) And the students were required to (.) bring bricks to school [and] ((both hands down, glance from right to left))((4.2))

Audience: [hhhh] ((4.2))

Joe: We worked really hard for three (right hand with three fingers up indicating three) [weeks] (3.4)

Audience: [hhhh] (3.4),

Joe: and finally (clenched fist lifted up a little bit) we built a [road] ((1.2))

Audience: [hhhh]((1.2))

He started his talk-show by giving a story of his childhood of building a road for the middle school he went to. Though he joked about the child labor issue in China with his own experience, he set himself as the representative of a generation that had experienced bitterness of life. Then he moved on to his next episode of explaining children being badly spoiled that they even don’t know how to read the analog watches any more. The comparison and contrast created by developing the jokes in sequential and logical order was kept throughout the entire performance until he finally proceeded to his last episode of his son as following:

Joe: I was like, “Wow, you walked half a block [by yourse:lf?” ](surprised look, hands widely open in front of the chest) (1.2)

Audience: [hhhh] (1.2)

Joe: “That’s amazing!” (eyes widely open, hands up in front of chest)But in the back of my mind (hands down, and then thump up pointing to back, face changed into disdainful look), I was like, [“Big deal!”] (hands down)(6.8)

Audience: [hhhh] (6.8)

Joe: When I was a kid, I built a roa:d!

Joe’s construction of his performance as a coherent structure was accomplished by going back to his first episode of his childhood story of building a road. The generational difference and stereotyped images of two generations were compared and contrasted to convey the message that the younger generation has been carefully and gently parenting without being hardened by tough life. This turn was unexpected but formed a logical and integrated cycle. It created an effect of unpredictability that the audience suddenly realized that Joe’s jokes were organized with logical links rather than randomly distributed.

Laughter as a Way to Participate

Due to the time limitation and the constant pressure of losing audience’s attention, the humor conveyed in the comedians’ talk-shows need to be culturally-adapted and salient enough for the audience to get right on the spot. The more obvious response from the audience is the laughter as a way to participate in interaction. In this way, the comedian has the access to measure whether the jokes have been understood and appreciated by the audience, and the extent to which their jokes have achieved the hilarious effect. During this interaction, the comedian’s pace of speaking and the interval between each episode is a salient signal for the audience as an indication of laughter. For example, Joe usually speaks in a relative slow way and there is comparatively long interval between each turn. The turn can be completed both grammatically and prosodically to indicate potential space for change of turn in interaction. By yielding his field of speech and letting the audience to take the turn in the interaction (even though it is not verbal interaction), the comedian allowed time and chance for audience to reflect on and give reactions to his humor. Thus, laughter provides a way to participate and signal the presence, attention and appreciation of the audience.

Also, laughter is crucial for the comedian to proceed with his performance by gaining support and positive confirmation from the audience. Although there are a range of strategies that have been claimed by researchers for participants to offer support for humor (Hay, 2001), there is no doubt that laughter is one of the most common signals of recognition, comprehension and appreciation in humor interaction. In addition, stand-up talk-show is different in a way that audience is mainly positioned as recipient of humor with little chance to fully participate in the interaction. Also, the purpose of stand-up talk-show is for entertainment so that the hearers do not have the responsibility and pressure to pretend that they enjoy the humor so as to keep the conversation smoothly carried on. Thus there is no obligation for the audience to give fake support to save the interpersonal relationship between the interlocutors. Thus, laughter in stand-up talk-show can be considered as the support for humor and participation in interaction as a way to give the comedian the confidence to carry on.

Self-mockery and Self-presentation in Stand-up Talk-shows

Many researchers who focus on the interpersonal aspect of humor claim that entertaining others and creating a positive self-image is the central function of humor (Hay, 2001; Shardakova, 2013). Though the role of humor can be altered according to the type of humor, interpersonal relationship between interlocutors, specific context and so on, the major role of humor in stand-up talk-show can be considered as entertainment. However, the immigrant comedians in these cases usually do not create a positive self-image directly but use self-deprecating jokes to mock themselves or their people who share the same heritage culture. Besides the presentation of self in an idealized and impressive fashion, it “juxtaposes the presentation of self as a ridiculous character” (Ungar, 1984, p.131), which also serves as a way of self-presentation to win the audience.

Joe Wong used to be a chemical engineer, which formed part of his social identity and was used as one of his self-mockery jokes in his talk-show. The following data is transcribed from Joe’s talk-show called My Green Card Expires in which he depicted himself as a nerdy scientist who was an expert in science while a loser in romantic relationship with girls. This self-mockery joke is about his failed communication in daily life with a girl in which he got rejection when he asked a girl out. He was not giving up but asked again if the girl was sure because to his knowledge NO could mean Nitric Oxide instead of negative rejection. This joke is a typical one to describe the people who are so obsessive with professional knowledge that impedes their smooth communication with ordinary people who do not share the same knowledge as they do. For example, a TV series called Big Bang Theory in which four genius scientists always messes up with girls because neither of them can understand each other sometimes. The discrepancy of implied meanings and the gap between different interpretations among interlocutors in communication is not a rare situation in daily life, but it can be exaggerated in comedy to achieve humorous effect.

Joe Wang, My Green Card Expires!!

Joe: So. I came to the US for college (hands open and closed), and: I was really into scie:nce. which (.) really helped me in the: romance [department] (..)

Audience: [hhhh].

Joe: Like: once I asked this girl out (right hand up in lower position)(.), and she said no. (..)I said, are you [sure.](5.2)

Audience: [hhhh]

Joe: And she said to me, hey Joe, NO means NO. (..)I said well (..) it also means [Nitric Oxide ] ((7.4))

Audience: [hhhh, applauding]. ((7.4))

As reflected in Joe’s talk-show, his notion of romantic relationship is a subject that can be studied like other fields of science in university department. His boldness to question his interlocutor’s answer also indicates the certainty of his interpretation of “NO” as “Nitric Oxide”. His self-image as a dull scientist who are too “smart” to have girls around is constructed in his humor. This concept of self-mockery provides a counterpoint to the dominant view that self needs to be handled with care and humor is intended to build up positive image of the speaker. There is no doubt that Joe Wong won the laughter and applause from the audience, which indicated his success of this part of humor. Thus, Joe Wong’s violation of conformity to the positive role expectation and depreciation of himself contribute to his construction of self- presentation as a nerdy but funny scientist.

In addition, self-mockery is not only in the scope of personal presentation but also in the one of ethnic presentation. In Russell Peters’ talk-show called The uniqueness of Indian, Canadian, American accents, he confessed the funny accent of Indian English. Though he positioned himself as one member of his heritage cultural society as an Indian and defended for his people from the judgment of other cultural communities, he uncovered the upsetting “secret” of his own ethnic group that was not elegant or admirable.

Russell Peters The uniqueness of Indian, Canadian, American accents

Russell: Here’s a message to you. I’m on behalf for all Indian people. My brown people don’t get upset. I’m letting out our secret. But just let you guys know, Indian people are fully aware of what their accent sounds like. We don’t actually need YOU: (9.8). We know exactly what it sounds like. We know it’s not the coolest sound in the world.

Though it seems that he made every effort to claim for no judgment to his Indian people, he actually brought up this topic and admitted the “secret” of Indian accent that “it’s not the coolest sound in the world”. Ungar contends that “aligning actions can be accomplished by self-mockery” (Ungar, 1984, p.129). However, the alignment with the audience most of whom are local Canadians was violated by the division of the concept of “we” and “you”. Even though Russell does not encounter the same situation as his brown people do because he was born and brought up in Canada so that he does not have the typical Indian accent, he claimed his right to represent all Indian people and defended themselves as an intrinsic community. As a result, his humor of Indian accent can be counted as self-mockery since he included himself as one object to be depreciated. However, the violation of alignment in this situation does not create problematic incidents but leads to the hostile-like situation in which two ethnic groups tease each other in a hilarious manner.

Ethnic Humor and Ethnic Stereotypes

Ethnic humor has formed a significant part of the immigrant comedian’s stand-up talk-show, in which they constantly joke about their personal experience as a “newcomer” in their community and the conflicts between their heritage culture and their national culture. It is generally based on ethnic stereotypes as a set of shared beliefs about ethnic groups. Thus, the analysis of ethnic stereotypes can serve as a way to understand the perspective from which people from different ethnic groups perceive and evaluate each other. Though immigrant comedian’s procedure to enter the full citizenship in local society and their assimilation into the local culture is mostly long and difficult, they enter laughing by using the more delightful aspects of ethnic-generated humor to be accepted by the local majority and mediate the conflicts between groups. Thus, the newcomers who have undergone negative stereotyped prejudice will tell the previous struggling story of their own in a humorous way. For example, Joe joked about his struggle with the American history lessons that he had to take as one of the steps to gain the citizenship of America.

Joe Wong Late Show with David Letterman 04/2009

Joe: I tired really hard to become a US citizen (..). And I had to take these American history lessons (..) where they asked us questions like (.) “who’s Benjamin Franklin?” I was like [“ahhh….” ](leaning backwards) (7.2)

Audience: [hhhh] (7.2)

Joe: the rea:son our convenience store [got robbed]? (12.2)

Audience: [hhhh, applauding] (12.2)

Joe: “What’s the second amendment?” (..) I was like [“ahhh….” ] (4.8)

Audience: [hahaha] (4.8)

Joe: The rea:son our convenience store [got robbed]? (12.2) {There is the picture of Benjamin Franklin’s on the one-hundred-dollar bill. The second amendment is about Gun Regulation.}

Audience: [hhhh] (12.2)

Joe: “What is Roe VS. Wa:de?” (..)I was like “ahhh….” (2.2) “Two way:s of co:ming to the [United States]?” ((11.2))

Audience: [hhhh, applauding] ((11.2))

Joe’s misunderstanding of the questions related to American history was due to his lack of shared historical past which excluded him from other members of the ethnic group. The requirement for him to American history may be the consideration of obtaining basic knowledge that is shared among the majority in the ethnic group so as to claim that they share the same psychological acknowledgment of their value, common ancestry and peoplehood. However, the effort was ridiculous and probably in vain because it is apparent that remembering the historical events is definitely not equal to self-identify and be identified by other members in the ethnic group as congener. His effort only seemed to be meaningful in the way to obtain the local citizenship but did not endow him with the acceptance into the society.

Also, Joe mocked the significant event of the second amendment and Roe VS. Wade in American history. The second amendment on gun control protects individual’s right to bear a gun for personal use, which results in social disturbance and uprising crimes to some extent. That is why Joe said the second amendment was the reason that the convenience store got robbed. As for Roe VS. Wade as a landmark decision on abortion, Joe misheard the name of the event as “Row VS. Wade” and interpreted it as two ways of human smuggling to America. These two topics were both brought into talk by failure of comprehension or phonological recognition, which uncovered Joe’s identity as an outsider due to lack of the background knowledge and language proficiency. Also, these two jokes were directed at different ethnic groups as the targets of joke. It is obvious that the joke of the second amendment was directed against the in-group by the out-group in which Joe as a newcomer mocked the gun regulation of America. But the joke about human smuggling was from one out-group against another group who are illegal immigrants to the U.S.A. Though they are all immigrants to America, they have different social and legal status, which makes them be excluded from the local ethnic group as all outsiders but with clear boundaries between the each other.

Another salient example of Joe’s joke about the discrimination against himself as an outsider in American society played an important role in mediating the tension between two ethnic groups. He not only teased the ethnic prejudice he came across in daily life but also included himself as the weak side who were financially underprivileged, less linguistically competent and ethically prejudiced.

Joe Wong Late Show with David Letterman

Joe: I’m an immigrant (..), an:d I used to drive this used car with lots of bumper stickers(.) that are impossible to pi:le off (..). And one of them said (..), “If you don’t speak English(..), [go home! (glowering)”] (shaking head slightly)(9.2)

Audience: [hhhh] (9.2)

Joe: an:d I didn’t notice it for two [years] (two fingers up)(13.2)

Audience: [hhhh] (13.2)

In this episode, Joe depicted himself as a poor newcomer who could only afford a used car in this country and he was discriminated against by someone he didn't know. While speaking out the words written on one of the bumper stickers, Joe glowered at the audience as if he was threatening people with anger. Joe acted as what a racist did to him with his exaggerated facial expression. This joke, like most of the ethnic humor, is inevitably aggressive and harsh, but Joe survived and went through all those by unconsciously ignoring the fact that he had been constantly discriminated against. The slowness of reaction to such ethnic offense actually hindered the explosion of the conflicts between two ethnic groups. However, it still conveyed negative message about the situation of immigrants who have to face with ethnic prejudice and the only possible way to make it through is to ignore the discrimination in one way or other.

According to Fave and Mannell (1976), ethnic humor can be employed as a dramatic way to furnish positive information of the ethnic group which suffers from negative stereotypes posed by other groups. Also, Lowe (1986) suggested regarding stereotypes as concept-system with both positive and negative functions. Immigrant comedians as a group of people have been cultivated in the social realm which their heritage culture and local culture are shared and immersed throughout their whole life. As a result, I think that the stereotypes targeted at the ethnic group do not necessarily have to be prejudice or discrimination against certain ethnic group but as “labels” being attached to the ethnic group by either insiders or outsiders of that ethnic group. Consequently, the jokes with the features mentioned above that disparage the ethnic group are appreciated most not by the external group but by the ethnic group itself.

Joe Wong, C-SPAN2, RTCA dinner at the White House (Annual Radio & Television Correspondents’ Dinner)

Joe: So(.) I became an US citizen in 2008(..) ehh (.)which I’m very happy about. (applause from audience) Thank you very much. America is No.1. That’s tru:e coz we won World Series [ever’year]. ((6.8))

Audience: [hhhh] ((6.8))

This joke could only be comprehended based on the knowledge that only America and Canada take part in the World Series game every year, which makes the joke an irony rather than a sincere compliment and admiration. But apparently the audience did not get offended and they enjoyed it instead. Personally I think it is due to two reasons: it corresponds to the national passion play and ritual known as “Americanization”, and it is funny which indicates a lack of seriousness. It reflected the America-oriented society in which American are proud of their nationality and their power all over the world. In addition, Joe expressed his happiness of becoming a US citizen. Despite all the efforts and difficulties to obtain the full citizenship in America, Joe was still willing to leave his own country and go through all the struggles as if there was a much better life in this new country. Also, people around the world seem to make every effort to come to America even by illegal means as implied in Joe’s “Roe VS. Wade” joke. In this way, Joe actually transformed the pseudo insults into disguised compliment (Fave and Mannell 1976) by conveying the message that America is like a fantasyland that people all around the world will dream of.

Generational Differences of Ethnic Identity

As newcomers into a new society, immigrants’ ethnic identity is not only shaped by their view of self but also influenced by the public opinion (Wiley, Perkins, & Deaux, 2008). Immigrants’ identity in this way is constructed based on one’s own and other’s view of one’s group in the social context of multiculturalism. Berry (1997) contributes to the two key dimensions that have effect on acculturation which in turn alter immigrant’s identity: the degree to which immigrants find it important to establish relationships with the host country and the extent to which they find it important to maintain cultural values of their country of origins. The ethnic identity of immigrants is likely to be influenced by generation with the main reason that the first generation’s “frame of reference is more likely to include the country of origin” (Wiley et al., 2008)

The ethnic identity and the extent of their sense of belonging in host country are different from generation to generation in Russell’s stand-up talk-show. Russell Peters was born in Canada into an Indian family, which made him a second generation of immigrant in Canada. His father, however, is the first generation of immigrant in Canada. My analysis of their respective ethnic identity will be focused on their attitudes towards their heritage culture, their belongingness to the host country, and the generational differences in ethnic identity.

“Past-me” VS. “Present-me”

As the first generation of immigrants who probably enter the host country after their adulthood, they usually have long experience immersed in the sociocultural conventions of their home country. Therefore, they usually face with sharper conflict and more salient effort to adapt into new ethnic group. As suggested by Fave and Mannell (1976), “immigrant is only capable of amusement by temporally differentiating between ‘past me’ and ‘present me’” by “attitude switching” instead of “attitude change” (p. 120). The identity as shaped and reshaped in two different ethnic groups may make the first generation hard to fit into either one of them but solve the conflict by switching their cultural values and ethnic identity according to the people and surroundings. This can be illustrated by Russell’s talk-show about his father’s effort to be accepted by the local neighborhood by altering his attitude toward Canadian food.

Russell Peters How to become a Canadian citizen

Russell: Son, tonight we’ll become Canadians. (looking around secretly as if to avoid being watched) I said, “Dad, eh.. I was already born here. I think I got it covered. (smiling proudly) Okay, but what’s your plan?” “Son (looking around again), I have bought a barbecue.” “What are you gonna do? Cook the rest of Canada? When there’s only one left?” “No, Canadians like to eat barbecue.” “Dad, they don’t eat THE barbecue. But…cool, what’s your plan?” “Tonight, you will have the barbecue in our back yard.(looking around with one finger pointing down) We’ll invite all the neighbors. They will come over, eat our food and think we’re Canadian. (one finger pointing at head and smiling slyly) I said, “Dad, if they eat our food. They’re gonna know we’re not Canadian.”….”No, no, son, I’ve bought WHITE food. For the barbecue.” “What HELL is WHITE food?” “You know, hamburgers, HO:dogs.”…. He was standing behind the grill looking so proud, and I walked to the back yard. He goes, “aha, son, aha do I look Canadian? (nodding and smiling proudly)” “You look like an Indian guy in Canada. Haha.”

In this excerpt, Russell told a story of his father who “schemed” to invite their Canadian neighbors to have barbecue in their back yard so as to make themselves look like real Canadians rather than immigrants. According to Russell’s father, his sense of ethnic identity could be reflected in food as part of one’s ethnic culture so that he tried to adapt into the neighborhood by showing people that “we’re having white food”. Russell’s father’s sense of “our food” and “white food”, however, was not stably equal. On the one hand, by saying “eat our food and think we’re Canadian”, Russell’s father actually considered barbecue as part of his food convention as if he was a real Canadian whose traditional food was barbecue. On the other hand, Russell’s father had poured scorn on Canadian food and named them “white food”. The label that he put on food showed the boundary between his own ethnicity and that of Canadian. Thus, it is certainly true that Russell’s father is eager to get involved in local society by disguising himself as one of the members who share same traditions, and he was proud to be regarded as a Canadian. However, he was virtually excluded from the local community due to his deeply-immersed ethnic identity of his home country. His attitude towards himself kept switching between “past me” as an Indian who truly valued his heritage culture as part of his identity and “present me” as a new comer who was desperate to win acceptance and inclusion in the host country.

Russell, on the other hand, perceived himself in a totally different way from his father in the conversation. Firstly, Russell had a clearer sense of “our food” by saying “Dad, if they eat our food. They’re gonna know we’re not Canadian”. Instead of trying to disguise his ethnic identity as the second generation of immigrant, he took it more honestly by acknowledging that “our food” was traditional Indian food. Also, Russell took a more tolerant manner to Canadian food so that he teased his father’s way of categorizing hamburgers and hot dogs as “white food”. The reason why he did not spare every effort to get involved into local community as his father did was that he clearly knew he was born as a Canadian, which has been legally and naturally accepted by the public. His sense of “our food” as Indian food, however, was passed by his father generation which was almost impossible to be removed from his family. In addition, he was proud of his social identity as Canadian citizen by saying “I was already born here. I think I got it covered”, and mocked his father’s silly behavior by saying “You look like an Indian guy in Canada”. Both of the generations, however, share the same attitude to be involved and accepted as insiders of Canadian ethnic group.

Disdain for National Culture VS. Concept of Self-hatred

As I mentioned before, the attitude towards national culture and heritage culture can be varying from generation to generation in immigrant family. Acculturation and assimilation can be a long psychological and sociocultural process for individuals to be totally identified as one member of the ethnic group and recognize themselves as an indispensable part of their heritage culture. In the following excerpt of Russell’s stand-up talk-show, the two generations of this immigration family unfold totally different stance for American culture which can be considered as part of the “white society”.

Russell Peters American culture

Russell: The immigrants come here and they talk shit behind American’s back. And I don't like it coz I was born in North America. So it pisses me off…. But every immigrant come, you know, the first thing they do, say “Americans have no culture”. That’s what they say. My dad used to say, “The bloody Americans have no culture”. Like, “’k, dad, they have culture. They have their own thing going on, which makes theirs, makes part of their culture, which means they have culture.” “No, show me, what is their culture? What? show me, what? What? What?what::? What is their culture? Hamburgers? Hodogs? Is not culture.” “ok, first of all, hamburgers and what?” “Ho:dogs” “what the hell is Ho:dogs?” “Ho:dogs, you know, Ho:dogs?” (lower head and use fingers to show the shape of hotdog) “you know hotdo:g?” “don’t try to give them a fancy name. no, okay?” (one finger pointing at front, like threatening)

Russell expressed his negative opinion to the immigrants who criticize American people by labeling those people as “immigrants” and immediately distinguished himself from those immigrants by clarifying the fact that he was born in North America. Thus, he aligned himself with American people who are customarily regarded as typical white people. Though Russell does not share the same nationality with Americans, he positioned himself as one member of the “white society” due to the place he was born. Also, he gave his father’s example as the one who would say bad things about American culture, which indicated that he excluded his father as an immigrant who had different identity from him.

The two generations’ discrepancy on the opinion of American culture created the verbal conflict. Russell’s father was challenging his son and claiming that “the bloody Americans have no culture”, which could be a bold and salient face threatening action to any American. Russell tried to mediate the conflict by mildly reminding his father that Americans did have culture, but he was not giving up his stance to defend for Americans. The father, however, aroused more forceful and fiercer challenge by posing the imperative sentence to demand his son to prove he was wrong. The imperative sentence “show me” imposed relatively higher status and power over his son as a father but also directed contempt on American culture. By disdaining “white culture”, the father implied his honor for his heritage culture with superiority and dignity.

Despite the fact that Russell’s father held negative opinion towards “white culture”, he claimed his ethnic identity as an insider on Canadian society and would not allow his son to reveal his ethnic identity as immigrant. The discrepancy between others’ view of him as an “outsider” and his self-positioning as one local member reflects the cultural assimilation and the sense of “self-hatred” as defined by Lewin (1941). Though it does not necessarily generate hatred to oneself due to the one’s ethnic identity, Russell’s father did show a more negative attitude towards his membership group than do representative members of the domestic culture.

Russell Peters The uniqueness of Indian, Canadian, American accents

(Russell’s father talked with a woman on the phone to purchase a couch and the woman he spoke with knew no English.)

Russell (acting as his father): “You don’t come to my country who can’t speak the language! Click!” My dad looks at me and goes “immigrants!” (eyes widely open and angry) I go “Dad YOU ARE an IMMIGRANT!” “Hey you watch what you say to me!” (lifting hand as if to give a slap)

This excerpt of Russell’s stand-up talk-show is similar to the one given by Joe about the bump stickers saying “if you don’t speak English, go home”. But the people who said the words switch from a local racist to an immigrant himself. The father used imperative sentence as if he became the host of “his country” which is apparently not his home country, and held hostile attitude to other immigrants who shared the same social identity as he did. The son’s reaction to his dad’s words was penetrating with the usage of the “are”, which directly pointed out the factual truth that his father himself IS an immigrant. His father then became furious and threatened his son to watch his language. The word “immigrant” is like a taboo that he labeled other immigrants with superiority and prohibited his son to use it for himself.

Maintenance of Selfness

Second-generation immigrants form their identities in a context different from those of the first generation. The extent to which their family values their culture of home country can have magnificent impact on the second-generation’s construction of selfness. However, they are usually more easily to be adapted into the local community because they are brought up in the same social context as other local citizens, but with the influence from their immigrant family.

Russell’s self-positioning as a Canadian was salient in his talk-show, but he also revealed his maintenance of selfness as an Indian, which is different from his father who would cover that identity as much as possible.

Russell Peters The uniqueness of Indian, Canadian, American accents

Russell: White Canadian people, especially, Canadian white people. When I say Canadian, I mean, you’re Canadian, your parents are Canadian, your grandparents are Canadian. You’re real Canadian. Canadian people, YOU have an accent.


Russell: Here’s a message to you. I’m on behalf for all Indian people. My brown people don’t get upset. I’m letting out our secret. But just let you guys know, Indian people are fully aware of what their accent sounds like. We don’t actually need YOU: (9.8). We know exactly what it sounds like.

Though Russell was born in Canada and he is all “white” except for his physical appearance (maybe the influence from his Indian family as well), he distinguished himself from “real Canadians”. On the one hand, he accepted western culture and recognized himself as Canadian when he talked with his father. On the other hand, he declared his ethnic identity as part of the Indian community. As for Russell Peters, he started his adaption to and assimilation with Canadian culture unconsciously and naturally right after his birth in Canada. However, his national identity and ethnic identity are blurred as well probably because of his family background and even his physical appearance. For example, as a Canadian, he said “I’m on behalf for all Indian people. My brown people don’t get upset. I’m letting out our secret. But just let you guys know, Indian people are fully aware of what their accent sounds like. We don’t actually need YOU”. With the pronouns used to “label” himself, Russell took the stance as one member of Indian community who defended the whole group of Indians, immigrants or not, that they don’t need people who are not Indian to judge their accent. The usage of “you” and “we” can be generic to the extent that they do not refer to any particular individual, but the difference between “you” and “we” are the exact boundary between two camps, that is, local Canadians (real Canadians) and Indians (no matter immigrants or not).

However, when his dad made every effort to be accepted by his neighbors as Canadian, he was proud that he “got it covered” since he was born in Canada. Legally he is Canadian, but he kind of excludes himself from “real Canadians” who are Canadians all their generations. His native language is English and he has been educated under the influence of Canadian culture, or what we call western culture. But his ethnic identity as second generation of immigrant and his physical appearance (what he called as “brown people”) separates him from “white folks” and makes his ethnic identity complicated.

Russell’s presentation of his ethnic identity seems to be inconsistent and contradictory, but personally I think that it can be analyzed from the perspective of the genre of discourse and participant’s framework. As I mentioned earlier in this paper, it is very important for comedians to keep their “ego” or what is called “selfness”. For one thing, they need to keep the audience’s attention all the time. For the other thing, it is crucial to set up a critical image of oneself that is unique, innovative and original. The creation and construction of “big personality” will help audience make themselves special that will not be easily changed by the public or be copied by other comedian competitors. Though Russell constantly aligned himself with the audience as part of the indigenous community, Russell maintained his “selfness” as an Indian and made full use of this advantage to construct his own special social stance that will not fall into the same social and racial hierarchy as the rest of the audience.


Stand-up talk-show as humor interaction involving verbal and non-verbal discourse is studied in this paper to analyze the way in which immigrant comedians successfully conduct the interaction with the purpose of entertainment, and display their ethnic identity. Though there is a clear distinction between the generations of immigrants of ethnic identity, it cannot be denied that immigrant comedians will possibly turn their ethnic identity as an advantage to build up special and individualized image on the stage to win the audience. Also, the construction of individual ethnic identity can be deeply influenced by one’s family background, social context, value orientation etc. Thus, further research can be done on analyzing from the perspective of the nature of discourse (e.g. genre, modality, participant’s framework, purpose, etc.) as humor interaction, and the ethnic and sociocultural background of individual immigrant comedian.


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Transcription Conventions

((4.3)) Numbers in parentheses indicate the length of time in seconds during which there is no talk. Single parentheses are used for intra-turn silences, double parentheses for silence between turns.

(.) A period in parentheses indicates a stretch of time, lasting no more than two-tenths of a second, during which there is no talk.

: A colon indicates that the preceding sound was elongated in a marked pronunciation.

? A question mark indicates a marked rising pitch.

[ ] Brackets enclose those portions of utterances that are spoken in overlap with other talk.

_ Texts that is underlined was pronounced with emphasis, i.e. Some combination of higher volume, pitch, and greater vowel length.

[hhhh] Laughter overlapped with speech


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