Comedian Russell Peters hasn’t been punched in the face. Yet.
Within minutes of sitting down for dinner, he addresses the African American waiter as “The Black Greek” (“Dude, your name’s Nico?”), hides under the table when he learns a dining companion is of Iraqi heritage and lampoons someone with a “weird” Indian name: “What parent does that to their kid?!!”
FOR THE RECORD
Russell Peters: An article in the Nov. 15 Calendar section about comedian Russell Peters said that the upcoming movie TV movie “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever” would air on the USA Network. The movie will air on Lifetime.
Then he sees a South Asian waiter.
“Hey, are you Sri Lankan?” he asks. Yes, says the waiter, excited to be noticed by the comedian.
The waiter nods again.
“And they let you out here? Get your [butt] back in the kitchen.”
The diverse wait staff, a microcosm of his audience two days later at the sold-out Nokia Theatre, bust up laughing. Though teetering on offensive, Peters is one of them, and they love it.
Born and raised in working-class Toronto as the son of immigrant Indian parents, Peters has built a comedy empire by appealing to that wide yet overlooked swath of North America who check the “other” box.
While national conversations about race and culture still ricochet between black, white and occasionally Latino, the 44-year-old Peters has spent the last two decades riffing about the third of the continent’s inhabitants who don’t quite fit the profile.
If it was unclear before whether Koreans would laugh at jokes about Punjabis, or if Lebanese would find the lampooning of Caribbean culture funny, Peters has proved it’s not only possible, it’s lucrative.
Last year alone the performer made $21 million and was ranked third by Forbes on its list of the highest-earning stand-up comedians, with Jerry Seinfeld at No. 1.
Still, Peters is far from a household name. He’s never appeared on “Letterman,” never had his own HBO special, never done “Saturday Night Live.” And he’s gotten half the ink of Aziz Ansari, another South Asian comic who riffs far more about pop culture than race and reaches mainstream TV audiences each week through his recurring role on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
“That’s why this new tour is called Almost Famous,” says Peters of his new stand-up show, which will take him to Madison Square Garden on Dec. 11 and around the world well into 2016. “Most comics are never lucky enough to do one arena tour — maybe Dane Cook, Kevin Hart or Chris Rock if he wanted to. I’m on my fourth arena tour. So what do I have to do to get on ‘Stern?’”
Funny thing is, Peters doesn’t really need “The Howard Stern Show,” or any other outlet.
While his Hollywood profile is growing — he was recently a judge on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” had a cameo in Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” will be seen on the USA Network as Santa in “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever” and made news as the first comedian to create a Netflix original comedy special — most of his income is derived from his own touring franchise. He was the first comedian to sell out Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the first comic to sell out London’s O2 Arena and the first comic to fill the 20,000-seat Barclays Center in Brooklyn during his “Notorious” world tour.
The Bentley, the Porsche and the house in Malibu (one of three homes he calls his own) came from tapping into many veins of immigrant culture rather than mining one particular niche.
“Nice to see at least part of you,” Peters says to a woman in a hijab seated in the front row of his Nokia Theatre show last week. A giant screen behind Peters shows the logo of his Almost Famous tour: a generic “Hello My Name Is” tag with “Russell Peters” scrawled in the blank space.
“Are you black or Indian? ‘Cause it’s hard to tell,” he says to another surprised audience member, whose image is projected onto large screens at each side of the stage. “Only one way to find out: spelling bee.”
“You’re Moroccan and German?” he asks one more victim seated near the stage. “So the only thing your parents had in common was hating Jews?”
And so goes the first half of his 90-minute show — improv bounced off nervous but willing participants, much like the waiters in the restaurant. Every time he asks about someone’s background — Filipino, South African, Chinese, Indian, Persian — segments of the audience explode in applause.
“You see Seinfeld, you see a majority white audience,” Peters says back at dinner. “See Chappelle and you see a cross-section of white and black and hipsters. Come to my show and you literally see everybody. Hipsters, nerds, families, white, brown, yellow — the strangest mixes. It somehow resonates with them because the world is not just black and white; the world is mixed brown, yellow, French, Arab, Indian, everything. I represent that.”
In person, Peters looks much the same as he does onstage. His bristly, buzzed dark hair is defiantly unstylish. But his V-neck white T-shirt and gray blazer are crisp and more put together than many of his peers who make it a point to walk onstage rumpled and bed-headed. He wears a Rolex watch that he keeps playing with. Finally he takes it off: “Feel this,” he says. It’s heavy as cantaloupe. “It’s platinum — $80,000, well, 72 before tax. Stupid, right?”
Before you assume Peters’ Indian father had to eat crow over his son’s success because he wanted him to be a doctor, the comic — who is managed by his brother, Clayton, — explains he came from a blue-collar family where “nobody had a career, they had jobs.”
Peters says his father worked as a federal meat inspector and his mother worked in the cafeteria at Kmart. Both Anglo Indians, they brought their British names with them when they arrived to Canada from Calcutta in 1965.
“There was a never a college [or] university threat with me because a) We couldn’t afford it, and b) I was too stupid to go,” he says. “So my dad was like, ‘Dodging that bullet [Indian accent]. Whew, thank God he’s an idiot.’”
Far from growing up in a cloistered South Asian enclave, Peters said he came of age breakdancing and DJing in his predominantly black Toronto neighborhood. “I finally met real Indian kids when I was 19; they had these weird names,” he says. “Then they’d play an Indian song, and I’d be like, ‘What are you listening to? What is wrong with you?’”
Peters explored amateur boxing and DJing as possible career paths while dabbling in stand-up on open-mike nights at Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s comedy club (where Jim Carrey and Howie Mandel got their start). But by his early 20s, comedy was proving the most lucrative among all his ventures.
“I’d take any gig you offered me,” he recalls. “It’d be, ‘Hey, there’s a gig in Lister, five hours north of Toronto. They pay $45! I’m in.’”
Peters’ big break came in 2004 on Canada’s “Comedy Now!” show, clips of which went viral, eventually garnering millions of hits on YouTube. Routines from his 2006 “Outsourced” tour landed on Showtime and Comedy Central, and his popularity began to grow. By the time he embarked on 2010’s “The Green Card Tour,” he’d sold out venues from Dubai to Sydney and made his first appearance on Forbes’ 10 top-earning comedians list.
Along the way he moved to L.A., dated adult film star Sunny Leone, married girlfriend Monica Diaz, got divorced, and is now the single father of a 4-year-old daughter.
As with most performers, Peters is constantly thinking up new material. He says his newest bits for the Almost Famous tour are less about lampooning cultural differences and more about “the culture of being Russell.”
In his new show, he devotes nearly half the set to jokes about fatherhood, technology, sex and his penchant for porn. The Nokia audience members laugh but are more animated when they’re part of the joke. Peters senses the dropping temperature and pivots back to the audience, saying bad words in Zulu to a South African and reciting dirty limericks from India to a man from Hyderabad.
“With an L.A. audience, it’s always about me, me, me,” Peters says after his set. “You have to tailor-make the show so they feel it belongs to them. And you don’t just pick out one person; you pick like 10 people, then weave their stories together.”
Back at the restaurant, Peters’ security team arrives to meet him, one of whom he grew up with in Toronto.
“Nico,” he says to the waiter, “These are my blacks,” he points to his companions.
“Oh, so you do have black friends? Progressive,” chides the waiter.
“BYOB,” Peters shoots back.
The nervous blond busboy does his best to avoid the table.
But no one threatens to punch Peters. “That’s because I’m not judgmental,” he explains. “I’m more matter of fact. They can see it in my face and hear it in my tone. If you were to read [what I say], it would read horribly offensive. And great, now you’re going to write about it.”