Russell Peters, the 46-year-old comedian from Brampton, Ont., riffs on age, career and the art of politically incorrect comedy.
In 2009, I was in Rome doing interviews for the international opening of the Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons and was chatting with a Singaporean journalist.
“You’re from Canada? Oh, do you know Russell Peters?” he said excitedly, naming the only famous Canadian he knew, as if everybody in Canada knew each other.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I do know Russell Peters.”
I’d known Russell since the early ’90s when he was a new Yuk Yuk’s comic. I’d been one of the first to give him a newspaper mention (I plugged him in a “What’s On” column, with the shorthand “Indo-Canadian homeboy,” which he loved).
I watched his act evolve, interviewed him and kept up a friendly relationship. When we’d meet, we’d play catch-up on each other’s lives.
By ’09, Russell Peters was a global star and a millionaire, placing annually in the Forbes list of top-earning comedians. I leaned on our relationship at one point to join him and his entourage on tour for an interview. We hung out in Washington, D.C. (a place he’d never played), where we were approached, as we walked the streets, by fans wanting to take photos. The majority seemed to be either Asian or South Asian.
Peters—who’d struggled in his youth with attention deficit disorder and failing grades—did not always seem a candidate for success. But he hit two sweet spots.
First, he went viral before viral was a “thing.” A person or persons (he says he never discovered who) had taken a CTV Comedy Now! special of his, cut it into bite-sized chunks and posted bits on the Net, which were shared by every digital means available (mainly email in a pre-social media world).
Second, he mined his own life for laughs, having grown up in Brampton, Ont., the son of Indian immigrants. If you parsed it just that narrowly, you’d be speaking to the experience of hundreds of thousands.
But his comedy had struck a much larger nerve. Young adult children of immigrants were likely to be urbanized and Westernized. Their ethnicity was no longer their parents’ stigma but a part of their identity they were confident enough to joke about.
And comedy itself was still very white. There was a huge unaddressed market for someone who’d speak to his contemporaries with the opener, “Where are all my brown bastards?” His approach was epitomized by a bit in which a bargain-hunting Indian tries to buy a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag from a Chinese vendor who won’t give him one. In front of an audience more likely to embrace stereotypes than reject them, Peters would inevitably find a South Asian doctor to milk for laughs. Oddly, he began to get requests from people to make fun of their backgrounds too.
The act came with a disregard for eggshells many had learned to walk on. More than once, he heard me use the word “African-American,” and would say, “It’s okay, Jim. You can say, ‘Black.'”
He did it from within “the circle” of ethnicity, but his attitude was bound to hit walls outside it.
Which is probably why something like the Juno joke-bomb was inevitable. Skin colour offers no immunity on topics that have been rendered no-go zones by shifting societal standards and polarized sensibilities.
Part of Peters’ personality might consider that a challenge. But he’s also clinical about audience response and will avoid themes that have died, even if he’s not sure why they did in the first place.
Next: Russell Peters riffs on age, his new CTV/Netflix series and the art of comedy…
ZOOMER MAGAZINE: How did The Indian Detective come about?
RUSSELL PETERS: We’ve been working on this show for about five years. It’s changed a lot from where it started, but I’m very happy with what the show is now. I’m an executive producer on the show, so there’ve been a few tweaks here and there that I’ve weighed in on to make it more reflective of who I am and my own tastes.
ZM: Frank Spotnitz is a seasoned and in-demand creator-showrunner—The Man in the High Castle, The X-Files—what was the experience like developing a show with him?
RP: Frank was great. Once we got him on board, we literally spent a long weekend at my house in Mississauga with Frank, Smita Bhide (writer), my brother Clayton (who’s also a producer on the show as well as my manager), Paul my other manager (also a producer) and producer Mark Burton and hammered out the characters, overall story and other ideas for the series.
ZM: The premise for The Indian Detective—a Toronto cop who unexpectedly finds himself investigating a murder in his parents’ Indian homeland—doesn’t make you roll with laughter. Was the appeal that you could tap into the dramatic side of your persona?
RP: I’ve been looking to do more dramatic work, but as a comic everyone’s always like, you have to do comedy. I love comedies but I wanted something more. Frank wrote my character Doug D’Mello around my personality. So Doug is a lot like me but different enough that it’s interesting for me at the same time. Basically, I wanted Frank and Smita to write a straightforward drama, and then we added the comedy to the show from there. The comedy in The Indian Detective is really funny, especially the scenes between myself and the great Anupem Kher (who plays my father, Stanley D’Mello) and the drama is solid with the brilliant work of Hamza Haq who plays the
villain, Gopal Chandeker. We got very lucky with the cast. Everyone delivered and forced me to step up my game.
ZM: What is harder to perform for you, the comedy or the drama?
RP: When a show or movie is well written, it’s actually easy to do either. It’s when it’s not well written that it’s hard.
ZM: At this stage in your career, are you hoping to do more films and television and less of your stand-up tours?
RP: I can never not do stand-up. I still do spots at clubs around L.A. even when I’m off tour just because. I’d like to do more film and television. I enjoy it for the most part (except those early call times!), but I do love being on tour, except for being away from my daughter. Being away from her kills me.
ZM: How has she changed your life?
RP: Being away from my daughter is the hardest part of this business. She’s six now and she makes me laugh like nobody else. When I’m home, I try to pick her up from school every day (she lives with my ex-wife) and try to spend as much time with her as possible. She’s my No. 1 priority.
ZM: How has your comedy evolved as you’ve aged?
RP: My comedy has become more personal as I’ve gotten older. I talk a lot more about who I am now and how I see the world—not just race and culture but having a daughter and being in relationships.
ZM: Does ageism exist on the comedy club circuit?
RP: Comedy isn’t a race. There’s no finish line, but there’s definitely an industry preference for the “new young kid” who may have a great 10 minutes but not much else. The thing about comedy is that it can take almost 10 years for you to find your voice. I’ve been doing it for 28 years now and continue to learn something new every time I get on stage.
ZM: Do you have any cruel jokes about seniors?
RP: I’ll be 47 this year and find myself feeling “old man-ish” a lot. I don’t know any of the current music, other than what my six-year-old daughter tells me she likes (Shawn Mendes). I’ve become like my parents when they used to talk about Bill Haley and His Comets being “real” rock ‘n’ roll, except for me it’s ’90s hip hop versus today’s rap music.
ZM: Do you think the world has tipped too far into political correctness that it’s difficult to navigate as a comedian? The jokes you started out with earlier could you still make them today?
RP: I’d still make the same jokes from earlier in my career if I could only remember them but, yes, people are way more sensitive today than they ever were. I’m responsible for what I say. I’m not responsible for what you understand. I know what my intent is, and my fans know what my intent is (which is what makes them fans). But if you’re against someone, you’re going to hear whatever you want to hear, however you want to hear it. I’m not a politician where I’m asking everyone to like me or vote for me. A comedian is supposed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable. We see the world differently and comment on it. There’s no malice in what I’m saying. There’s no intent to harm. You can’t apologize for that.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2017 issue with the headline, “The Joker”, p. 45-48.