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.
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?