Russell Peters wants to make you laugh. He just hopes you’re not so ‘woke,’ you won’t be able to.
I’ve been waiting for almost three hours for Russell Peters to appear on my computer screen. It’s a strange, modern way of being stood up: staring at a screen, waiting nervously for a stranger’s face to pop up.
He’s on tour, preparing to go on stage in Chicago in less than 30 minutes. I’ve resigned myself to being rescheduled.
So I’m surprised when he finally appears, adjusting his hair in the camera. He’s in the green room of the theatre in Chicago and I’m shocked at how calm and engaged he is despite the comings and goings of his fellow comedians.
He’s apologetic for making me wait. I get the feeling he’s used to — if not agitated by — being booked for back-to-back commitments. There is a sibling issue. His brother is his manager.
“My brother gets to sit home in one place doing whatever it is he does and I’m not able to do what I want to do,” says Peters. “I have to do everything that everyone else needs me to do first.”
The comment makes me feel slightly guilty, but also sets the tone that he is not a guy who censors himself or provides lip service, so I push on, excited, for an interview that is now three hours in the making.
If you haven’t heard of Russell Peters, you might be American. One of the most successful comedians everywhere else on the planet, Peters has been unable to fully break through into the US market, a confusing fact that prompted Chris Rock to call him “the most famous person nobody’s ever heard of.”
To Canadians, though, he is an icon — uniquely “ours”: named Toronto’s first Global Ambassador in 2008 and inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2011. Forbes Magazine has listed him among the world’s highest-earning comedians many times.
In 2009, Peters beat Chris Rock’s UK record for attendance at a stand-up show by selling 16,000 tickets at London’s O2 Arena. He also set attendance records for the biggest comedy shows in Australia and Singapore.
Oh, and if you want to check out his act without leaving your sofa, he pioneered stand-up comedy specials for Netflix. Beginning with 2013’s Notorious, Peters is responsible for making that streaming platform so accessible to his fellow comedians.
But let’s back up for a second because in order to understand his comedy, it’s important to understand where he came from.
Peters was born in Toronto five years after his parents emigrated from Kolkata, India. The family finally settled in nearby Brampton. It was early on in his young life that he discovered that he was funny.
“I knew I had the ability to make people laugh,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be the class clown because the class clown was kind of a dick. The class clown is the guy being loud and obnoxious in the classroom and the comedian is the guy making the kid beside him laugh.”
On a rowdy night in 1992 he had an experience that would have a huge impact on his fledgling comedy career. The Blue Jays had just won the World Series and the streets of Toronto were packed in celebration.
“I was being a smart-ass kid and there was this old man walking towards me,” he recalls. “I turned to my friend and said, ‘that looks like George Carlin,’ so I yelled at him ‘Hey George!”
The look-alike responded, “How ya doin’ kid?” Peters uses a perfect Carlin accent as he relays the exchange.
He walked Carlin back to his hotel and was given some valuable advice: get on stage as much as you can. Do it where you can, when you can. He took the advice to heart.
“Maybe we’ll work together someday,” Peters said as they parted ways.
“You never know, kid,” said Carlin. “It’s a crazy business.”
(Spoiler alert: they would eventually work together, nine months before Carlin’s death).
Peters’ breakthrough came with a return to CTV’s Comedy Now! in 2004. He earned a Gemini Award nomination for the episode, but the greater win came when footage of his performance surfaced on YouTube, making him an international viral sensation, before that was really a thing.
As his career took off, it was his focus on his Indian upbringing and racial stereotypes that formed the launching pad. Political correctness took a back seat as his impression of his parents and parodies of South Asian culture left audiences in stitches.
His family, whom he describes as “quick and funny in their own way,” offers plenty of material for his act. He also uses the ethnicity of audience members to make the material feel inclusive.
Political correctness is a loaded topic that Peters breaks down for me in a, you guessed it, non-politically correct way.
“My generation started political correctness out of necessity because our parents were old school and they had a certain way of talking and thinking,” he says. “And it was our job to change that. We started it with the right intention and then, much like everything else, it spiraled out of control.”
Now we’ve got people who don’t want to be male or female, he says. “Non-binary – I don’t even know what the fuck that’s supposed to mean. I can understand you’re gay, straight and bi and all that, but now you don’t want to be male or female. That’s where you fucking lost me.”
The last thing he wants is for people to get so politically correct – so “woke” – that they won’t be able to have a laugh anymore. Laughter, he explains, is the magic elixir that makes life good. And if you don’t like to laugh, Peters is going after you specifically with his comedy.
“You can’t walk through life without laughter,” he says. “You’re going to be a miserable person. It’s always the people that say they don’t have a sense of humour – those are the people I want to crack all the time.”
Laughter was something he had to rely on even more heavily in the past year and a half, while struggling through the global pandemic. It forced him to face some inconvenient truths of his own: his spending was out of control and his relationships were unraveling.
“People thought I was financially secure, and I found out I wasn’t,” he says. “I had over-extended myself for many years but because I was making money constantly, it didn’t make a difference. And then when the money stopped coming in, I was like ‘oh shit’, I’ve got to start scaling back.”
For him, scaling back meant downsizing his homes, getting rid of “a bunch of cars” and settling some outstanding legal bills. Plus, his relationship with his son’s mother, which was already rocky, fell apart. It was a heavy dose of reality that he was not prepared for.
“It was awful, but it exposed all the holes I have in my life, so maybe it was a good thing,” he says. “As a person, it really woke me up. Now to me, that’s being woke.”
It’s at this this point in the interview that the chaos simmering in the green room boils over. I can hear the venue announcer welcoming someone to the stage with a roar from the crowd, and it seems that nobody in the green room knows which of them is supposed to be going on.
“Yoshi! It’s you. Go! You’re on! Don’t bomb!”
“No, it’s not. He didn’t say Yoshi, did he?”
“They played his music, I think.”
“No, no! Sit back down.”
As they debate, I feel my heart rate slowly rising. There’s an audience out there and they’re waiting! For me, the disorganization is triggering an anxiety attack. For them, it’s just another night in this crazy business.
Eventually, I assume that someone has taken the stage and I wrangle Peters’ attention back to the interview by pointing out that at age 50 he is getting old.
“Getting older doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “I’ve always embraced getting older. I tell everyone that I’m 51 already because I like the way it sounds. I live a relatively healthy lifestyle.”
This statement causes him to pause, smile and backtrack. “I mean, I’m going to eat a slice of pizza soon and I am drinking alcohol now and I will be smoking a cigar later, so maybe I’m not living my absolute healthiest life.”
He balances out these questionable health choices with the practice of Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art that provides both mental and physical relief for him. “I haven’t been able to train in over a month now and it is literally driving me insane. It’s my peace of mind. I get all my stress out, I get my ass beat, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful for you to get beat up.” In a controlled environment, he clarifies.
If all else fails, he can always rely on his mother’s genes. But just his mother’s, the rest of his relatives died young, including his father who passed away 17 years ago. “My mom will be 80 this year and if I showed you a picture of her when she was 40, she looks like she does now. So, she either gave up early or aged really well. She’s sharp, she’s still with it, active, lively.”
When asked what he attributes that to, he rolls his eyes. “Well, she never drank or smoked, so I guess maybe that could be it. But that’s not very fun. Nobody likes a loser.”
He is kidding, of course. He jumps between serious insight and comedic farce so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. One second his is talking about losing his “baby mama” and the next he is shaming the large man sitting next to him for finishing off a pizza.
He now yells at Yoshi to shut-up, apologizing to him sarcastically if this interview was getting in the way of his conversation. This is the third time in the last half hour that he has chastised Yoshi for being distracting.
Once I regain his attention, he brings the conversation back to that aforementioned baby mama. Peters recently ended things with the mother of his two-year-old son. The break-up was acrimonious, and co-parenting remains that way. It’s a much different experience from the one he has had raising his daughter.
“It’s different because with my daughter, although her mom and I didn’t really like each other, we got along for the sake of the baby,” he says. “It’s civil. We didn’t make it a litigious event. It’s different with my son’s mother. We speak through an app. If I want something, I have to ask a counsellor to ask her. It’s awful and there’s this constant helicoptering. But when my son is with me, he’s so happy. He’s laughing and running around, and you can tell he doesn’t get to do that where he is.”
He shrugs and is unusually quiet for a moment; thoughtful, almost sad. “For some people appearance is everything and for me, reality is everything.”
Despite the messy situation, Peters has not thrown in the towel on love. He was surprised to find a connection with a new woman soon after his break-up. It wasn’t something he was searching for or expecting.
“She’s an amazing person,” he says. “Although it’s my fifth engagement, this one’s going to the altar. Only one made it to the altar and that was because she was knocked up and I thought I’d be a gentleman and marry her. It lasted 14 months, so it didn’t work out very well for me.”
The difference this time? She put a ring on it. He proudly shows me the shiny band on his left hand, signifying the first time a woman has really locked him down.
I can hear the audience volume rising in the background and I’m getting the sense that Peters is due on stage soon. Time to wrap it up so he can go do what he does best. Actually, according to him, it’s the only thing he’s equipped to do. It’s a refrain that is standard for people who really excel in one particular discipline.
“If I weren’t a comedian, I would have had no career path,” he says. “I would have been the funniest guy working at Foot Locker at the mall. There was no direction otherwise. It would have been this or nothing.”
Luckily for him, it’s this. After 32 years as a comedian, he remains puzzled as to why audiences love him so much — why they come out in droves to see him perform. “I guess I’m just glad that they have low standards,” he says with self-deprecating charm.
I thank him for taking the time to speak to me and wish him good luck on his show. (Wait, are you supposed to say “break a leg” in comedy?) Either way, I don’t think he needs it. He’s the consummate pro.
He does, however, offer me the opportunity to speak with Yoshi. I politely decline.
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