Russell Peters has made his reputation by speaking to people that no one else is talking to. Much of his comedy speaks to North American immigrant communities of Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Jamaican and other Southeast Asian and Caribbean communities that remain invisible to the mainstream media and the broader white population. Peters’ new Warner Bros./Jack Records DVD and CD, Outsourced, was taped before a sold out audience at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, and gives viewers and listeners an excellent overview of Peters’ comedic genius. He paces the stage interacting with the audience, tossing off one-liners and engaging in impromptu dialogue with his fans. As much a humorist as a comedian, Peters doesn’t really tell jokes. Rather, he uses his wry observations on the subjects of race and class to illuminate our human shortcomings with the sizzling accuracy of a well-aimed laser. “I don’t put people down,” Peters points out. “I want to elevate them, but in a funny way.” His quick wit and ability to mimic language and accents allows Peters to create characters of all races and cultures and forge an immediate bond with his audiences, regardless of their racial and cultural background.
Peters has been doing stand up for 17 years and already has an impressive resume. He had a recurring role in the Canadian sitcom Lord Have Mercy and hosted his own BBC chat show Network East Late, where he interviewed Ismail Merchant, of Merchant Ivory productions, UK hit makers Faithless, Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend It Like Beckham and many other South Asian and mainstream artists and personalities. His movie credits include the comedy Quarter Life Crises, Eddie Griffin’s My Baby’s Daddy, martial arts flick Tiger Claws III and the forthcoming bank heist thriller The Take with John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez.
Peters has been nominated for four Gemini Awards [the Canadian equivalent of the Emmys]. He has been featured at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, HBO’s Aspen Comedy Festival, the Edinburgh (Scotland) Comedy Festival and many others across the globe. His TV appearances include CBC’s Comics! and two one-hour Comedy Now! specials on The Comedy Network in Canada. His Comedy Now! performance of February 2004 is one of the network’s most popular shows of all time. When fans placed segments of the special on the internet it created a global demand for Peters’ comedy and his popularity exploded. His website, www.russellpeters.com, gets over 3,000 hits a day and alerts his many fans to his upcoming shows via targeted email blasts. He’s performed in China, South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Jamaica, St. Maartens, Trinidad, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates and later this year will be the first North American comic to tour India.
Peters’ comedy is rooted in the reality of growing up brown in white Canadian society. “My family and I are Anglo-Indian,” Peters explains. “Anglo-Indians are a community of Indians from India who mixed with the British when they occupied India. Both of my parents are Anglo-Indian and their parents were Anglo-Indians and so on.”
Peters was a small child and encountered racism for the first time in 1975 when his family moved from Toronto to the suburb of Brampton, Ontario. “In the 70s Brampton wasn’t the heavily Indian community it is today. There was a lot of anger towards non-white people. White folks weren’t very friendly, so I grew up with the black kids. I’m always trying to understand why people hate other people when they know nothing at all about them. My act is based on trying to figure that out and that’s the art.”
Despite his success up North, Peters recently relocated to Hollywood, where he’s working on developing a new sitcom project. “Developing a TV pilot is great, but I’m never accepting typecast roles. If they offer me a million dollars to do a shuffling, bumbling Indian guy they can keep the million bucks. I like the money, but I’d do it without the money and I have done it without the money. The real reward is seeing the look of happiness on people’s faces when they hear me talking to their experiences in a way that nobody’s ever done before.”
Rob Light, a partner at Creative Artists Agency, the agency that also handles Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, put it this way: “Russell has a great future in comedy on TV and in movies. He’s getting attention from Hollywood because he’s already done it all on his own. He’s a naturally funny person with a multicultural outlook that allows him to be entertaining to people of all races and backgrounds. Nobody’s ever had an outlook like him before.”