The ABCD of Comedy: Russell Peters
The “somebody’s going to get hurt real bad” man on his latest tour, Mumbai and his hatred of EDM
“They were black. You can say black. They know they’re black.” Russell Peters suggests I not be coy when referring to the fact that most of the friends he grew up with in Canada were African-Americans. Peters didn’t have many Indian friends up until he was in his twenties. “It was very different for me, ’cause I just assumed that we all grew up the same way. So the first time I met Indian kids, and heard Indian names, I was completely blown away. I was, like, what kind of name is that?”
Peters’ mother is from Kolkata, and his father was from Mumbai; both his parents are “100 percent Anglo-Indian.” Having watched interviews with Peters’ parents, I can tell you that his father doesn’t sound anything like Peters’ impression (“somebody’s going to get hurt”) of him in his standup.
Peters was bullied as a child and the only way he knew how to counter that was with humor. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t figure out why people wanted to bully me, so I was trying to defuse the pain with laughter. I figured, if you can make them laugh, you know, then, their anger is not real. I could not determine whether it was just a thing for them to do – to bully me, whether they were genuinely mad, or what their deal was. I think the only thing that was really difficult was to be prepared for how hard they were going to hit me,” he says, adding that once he learnt boxing, he could defeat their aggression.
Back in 1997, Canadian former TV host Allan Gregg did a video profile about Peters in which Peters explained his comedic persona as follows: “There are intellectual comics because they are smarter guys. There are political comics because they know about politics. I don’t know anything about anything. I just know what I know. I know a lot about racial issues because that’s all that’s ever been an issue in my life.” Peters does not exactly offer profound insights on race issues, the way Richard Pryor or Chris Rock do. His brand of humor lies in a shallow nook of observational comedy. He does not tease out the complexities of racial tensions or purse social commentary in his jokes. His material draws on the behavioral quirks that define cultures, and is enlivened by his crowd-pleasing, pitch-perfect delivery of accents.
Peters has filled up stadiums. He has a strong presence all over the world. But the critics never quite embraced him. He says he doesn’t pay heed to their opinion of his work because “the critics aren’t the ones buying tickets and the critics aren’t the ones who made me, so they definitely aren’t going to be the ones that break me.” He does, though, admit to a tender gut. “Entertainers, in general, are all pretty sensitive, so we don’t want to read something negative about us.”
Peters originally wanted to be an actor. Comedy was only meant to be a means to that end. He suggested he was trying to be a “legitimate actor with larger roles” in a recent interview with digital magazine Culture Map. But it seems like we shouldn’t take these suggestions seriously. Peters responds to questions about this earlier aspiration of his with an odd mix of cocky composure and resignation. “The thing about film is, it is what it is, and I am not really part of that boys club that is the film business. It’s like high school, and if you’re not in with the cool kids, you’re not in with the cool kids. It’s one of those things where, yeah, I’d like to do it; but I have been in this game now for 24 years, and I make my living without that world. Sure, it would be great, however, I will not be played out like a tool.”
It is three hours before Peters is to go on stage for his show in Portland, a stop on his Notorious World Tour. While he still firmly latches onto his cultural/race-inspired drift on the Notorious tour, he also talks about what’s going on in his life, about “being a father, divorced and stuff like that.” “It’s more about fatherhood and how it changes you and stuff like that. You know, I am one of those comics who, when I would hear a comic start talking about his kids, I’d be like, ‘Ugh, that’s going to be a snore fest.’ But when Louis (CK) talks about his kids, that’s just funny, so it made me hopeful. Like, you can make this funny but you have to make it real,” he says.
Peters plans on concluding the tour in India, in October or November this year. While Indians are gold to Peters’ standup material, in one of his acts he spoke about how a visit to India was a reality check, and made him realize he couldn’t imagine living in the country. He clarifies that he does not actually feel that way. “I love it there despite what people may think. It’s funny ‘cause how people think I feel about India and how I actually feel about India are two very different things. I actually think Bombay is one of the only cities outside North America that I could actually live in. That’s a pretty big statement for me because I am very North American in my way of thinking.”
Peters is 42 now, and he still DJs every day. He compares spinning on his turntables to someone playing the guitar to relax. But, Peters isn’t into any of the new music that’s coming out. “I think, at a certain age you just tune out of what’s new; nothing excites you, and nothing impresses you anymore. And the bad music now is equivalent to the same bad music that was happening in the 1990s. You know, it’s just a new generation of douchebags discovering the same bad style of music. I don’t like that Euro-trash. I can’t stand it, and all that loud techno, what they call EDM now, is horrible. It’s the most popular music in the world. It’s terrible. There’s nothing redeeming about it. It’s spineless.”
While saying this, he is aware of how he sounds. “I know, I do sound really old. I am aware of that. That’s the best part. I even talk about it in my act. I’ve become the guy I never wanted to be.”
This story appeared in the July 2013 issue of ROLLING STONE India.