Born in Toronto, based in Los Angeles, Anglo-indian Russell Peters is now a comedy superstar, packing arenas worldwide and opening a new Netflix series
There’s this Anglo-Indian guy, going on about Indians trying to bargain with Chinese shopkeepers in Toronto, and defying his father as a child on the advice of a white friend—with disastrous results: “Somebody gonna get a-hurt real bad”. The guy’s on stage, in front of a sold-out crowd in New York, London, Sydney, take your pick. Here’s the funny thing: Him.
Delivering the punch lines is that guy’s job, one he does so well that he’s among the world’s top ranked comedians today. That’s Russell Peters, 43, born in Toronto to Anglo-Indian parents who moved to Canada from India, and the first performer of Indian heritage to make it big in the world of comedy.
On October 14, Netflix, the DVD delivery and Internet streaming company based in California, kicked off its new series of original comedy stand-up specials with Peters’s “Notorious” show. “He is prolific, fresh and a global force that will resonate with our members around the world,” said Netflix executive Lisa Nishimura about the comedian who grew up in and near Toronto and now lives in Los Angeles.
In its annual list of the world’s highest earning comedians, published in July, Forbes ranked Peters at No. 3, with earnings of $21 million in the previous 12 months. That was just two spots below the long reigning emperor of comedy, Jerry Seinfeld. Still, the magazine added, “…Peters’ remaining challenge is conquering the American fan-scape”. In an interview, Peters said, “I may not be a household name in the States, but I can only think of one or two other guys who play and sell out the arenas and theatres that I do.” Those include world famous venues such as Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in New York, London’s O2 and the Sydney Opera House. In the O2 arena, his 2008 show broke an attendance record with over 16,000 fans. His YouTube videos have chalked up a staggering 75 million views.
YouTube is the platform, which, by his own telling, launched him into the big league. While Peters was playing gigs since the early 1990s, one of his TV
acts wound up on YouTube in 2004 and went viral, giving him instant stardom. “To put it in perspective, in 2003 and early 2004, I was flat broke,” he says.
Today, Peters owns homes in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Mississauga, a Toronto suburb. He has six cars, including a Bentley Mulsanne, a BMW M6 convertible, a Porsche Cayenne and a Mercedes SL 63 AMG convertible. Until he was 30, Peters lived in his parents’ home and his first car didn’t have a cassette deck or air conditioning.
A lot of the comic’s material is inspired by his family’s and immigrants’ experiences in North America, and he doesn’t flinch from touching on racial or cultural stereotypes. “If you’re politically correct, chances are you’re not coming to one of my shows. I get to go onstage and say things that everybody thinks all the time, but can’t say out loud,” says Peters.
He’s not joking when he says he’s not afraid to be blunt. In his 2010 memoir Call Me
Russell, which he coauthored, Peters recounted interviewing actor Aamir Khan in London for a show on BBC Two just after
Lagaan was released. “I had never watched a Bollywood movie, so I didn’t know who he was. The producers gave me the movie to watch, and I remember falling asleep before the opening credits finished,” he wrote, adding Khan “acted like a f****** pr***” during the interview.
But Peters confesses to having a soft spot for his parents’ native country. Growing up in Canada, he described himself as “Indian”, and often visited his extended family back in India, in Kolkata and Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh. “I’m not just saying this, but I love everything about India,” he says. Peters in fact headed back to India as part of his “Notorious” world tour, performing in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore from October 25 to November 1.
His ties to family are tight. “My dad was the funniest guy I ever knew,” Peters says of his father Eric, who often faced racism and was forced to take up blue-collar jobs to support his family. He died in 2004. Peters “loves Indian food” and “mom’s cooking especially”. Says his elder brother and manager Clayton, “He’s generous to a fault with his friends and family. He bought our mom a condo in Vegas for her frequent trips there. He gave me a Porsche Boxster as an early 50th birthday gift, and as a thank you for doing a good job.”
Peters is divorced and has a twoyear-old daughter with his ex-wife in Los Angeles. “My daughter always makes me laugh,” he says. While Peters didn’t say if he was dating anyone now, readers of his book will know there are seemingly few women he didn’t—to paraphrase for use in a family magazine—“date” earlier. Former girlfriends include porn star-turned-actor and fellow Indo-Canadian Sunny Leone.
Peters, who has acted in several English movies including the Indo-Canadian production Breakaway, says he’d like to do more films. He recently announced a partnership with Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company Overbrook to develop a sitcom. He’s also excited about the Netflix series: “It validates what I’ve been doing all these years.”
Interestingly, the second performer in Netflix’s new series is also a comedian with Indian roots—Indian American Aziz Ansari. “It’s great that there are more and more of us breaking through into mainstream comedy. Fact is, when I was growing up, you never saw us on TV in North America,” says Peters. Today, he is a comedy superstar and can pick and choose his shows, but Peters still likes the gigs he started with. “I love doing stand-up. I love playing the clubs,” he says, and especially when the audience is “completely mixed—Indian, Pakistani, Arab, Filipino, Chinese, White, English”. Peters has been cracking ‘em up for nearly 25 years. And in that time, they’ve made him laugh too— all the way to the bank.
PETERS IS INSPIRED BY HIS FAMILY’S EXPERIENCES AND DOESN’T SHY AWAYFROM RACIAL HUMOUR.