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Inside Joke

The post-racial comedy of Russell Peters

From the October 2013 magazine
Photograph by Christopher Wahl
New king of comedy In the mid-’90s, Russell Peters was making $35 a night working clubs, and renting a room from his parents.

Live from Portland, it’s Friday night. A hot and sunny May day is done. Downtown, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is filling with mixes: African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, and so on. Oregon’s City of Roses is more than three-quarters white, but pale skin is scarce in this crowd of more than 2,500. Tonight there’s comedy for everyone, so everyone has come.

At stage left, New York’s DJ Spinbad juggles hip hop breaks on a Serato rig, warming the room. Behind the curtain at stage right, the opening act, Victoria-born Kristeen von Hagen, takes a last look at her handwritten set list. The concert director sits nearby, using a headset to guide the camera operators who stand outside the wings, methodically sweeping the front rows. Over his shoulder, the superstar of the show leans in to watch what they see.

Hello! Hello! Let’s look at them,” says Russell Peters, gesturing to a monitor on the director’s desk.

A camera has paused on three young, beautiful brown-skinned ladies. The director adjusts some controls, and a close shot of the trio fills the main viewer. They’re wearing tight dresses in vibrant green, teal, and blue, arranged in a line from pretty to prettier to prettiest. Blue, who has been snacking on potato chips, now sucks the crumbs from her fingers. Peters pumps a fist and hoots encouragement.

Von Hagen steps out and nails a twenty-minute set about her life as a recently married thirtysomething. As the main event approaches, Peters paces slightly, checking the time on his five-figure wristwatch. He buttons a dark blazer over his white V-neck, then makes a peak with his hands to fix the spike of hair rising from his brow. He is bright eyed and clean shaven, with a big nose and a wide, expressive mouth. He has slimmed down since recording his last special, 2011’s Green Card Tour, but he still looks to be carrying two bills, maybe some change. I keep glancing his way, but I miss seeing the ritual silent conversation with his father, who died almost a decade ago: “Are you here? Let’s not stink tonight.”

Spinbad plays von Hagen off the stage, then drops a booming intro for Peters. If you’ve seen his act live; if you own or have rented his DVDs; if you’ve watched him on television, Netflix, or YouTube—making you one of tens of millions—then you already know what comes next: long-form, story-based jokes about race, sex, and culture, bookended by candid conversations with the crowd about race, sex, and culture.

Russell Dominic Peters, an Anglo-Indian son of immigrants who grew up in deep suburban Toronto, is the Everyman of international comedy, a near-constant traveller who can disappear under a basic ball cap, but takes in the world from under its brim. He chats up strangers wherever he goes, and he has learned to mimic umpteen accents, from northern European to eastern Canadian, South Asian to West Indian. At times, his humour can be “corny and sentimental,” as he put it in his CTV variety special of two Christmases past. At others, it can be crass and horny: “The smaller your dick, the more you will fuck. You don’t believe me? Look at the two largest populations in the world!” Regardless, he is the most successful comic Canada has ever produced (you might think Jim Carrey—but acting, not stand-up, would be why). This summer, Forbes magazine placed Peters third on its annual list of the planet’s top-grossing comedians, with an estimated income of $21 million (US), his highest ranking yet.

Jerry Seinfeld, who tops the latest list, is the reigning hot comic for white crowds. Predominantly black audiences mass to see number six, Kevin Hart. But black and white is an outdated way to think about race, and Peters hails from the new school. Search YouTube for “russell peters beating your kids,” and you’ll find an eight-minute clip from his breakout performance, a nine-year-old CTV special, with over 18 million views:

Canadian parents, they’re a little too soft on their kids. And that’s fine, you know, whatever makes you happy. But you need to start beating your kids. I’ll tell you why….Kids now are growing up in a multicultural society. You know, you’re going to have white kids growing up with black kids and brown kids and Asian kids. They’re all going to be hanging out on the playground. You know what I mean? And they’re going to be talking about the ass whooping they got last night. Do you want that little white kid to feel left out? Beat that child so he’s not a social outcast.

Peters’ shtick is meant to include all comers, though he’s fine to reminisce over white-on-brown hate, and he sometimes uses the wrong F-word when discussing homosexuality. He likes to talk dirty. “I’m forty-two, and I still giggle at the word ‘Bangkok,’ ” he says during his ninety-minute Portland set, beginning a story about a Thai massage that came with something extra. Roughly two-thirds of the show is pre-written: crisp bits he chiselled in clubs before starting his current world tour, Notorious, in Muscat, Oman, in March 2012. The remaining third is crowd work, which he calls “freestyling,” borrowed from hip hop, where it means improvised rhyming. As he picks out audience members to interview, the cameras follow. In seconds, his targets are projected on a big screen above the stage.

At one point, he looks down and greets an Indian father and son with matching bald heads and beards. He enquires about their jobs, their tattoos, their love lives. He chats up a few Chinese students, a pregnant white woman, and perhaps a dozen others, working the theatre from side to side. “What style of __________ are you? ” he asks when he suspects a biracial background. “Tell me your __________ name,” he says to the immigrants he spots, filling in the blanks with their appropriate ethnicities.

Toward the end of the set, he gazes at last on Green, Teal, and Blue. The women are Arab, he quickly establishes. After a few moments’ banter, he asks Portland, and Blue in particular, “Do you know how disgusting I am? ” He admits to watching her before he came on, and pantomimes a more suggestive version of how she looked eating.

“How old are you? ” he finally asks.

“Twenty.”

“Twenty!” he repeats, groaning with the crowd. It’s a good moment in a great performance, and he may be the one enjoying it most. Doesn’t matter. He’s still their guy.

“I’m the voice of the invisible minority,” Peters offered in a 2011 interview on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, which is like Inside the Actors Studio for stand-ups. “The people I’m talking to or about, whether it be Arabs or Asians or Indians or Latinos or Italians, whatever…they’re hearing something that they’re not hearing from somebody else.”

Russell Peters was born in Toronto on September 29, 1970, five years after his parents, Eric and Maureen, arrived in Canada from India with a newborn baby, big brother Clayton. By the middle of the decade, the family had settled in Brampton, a bedroom community to the city’s northwest. Today it’s an immigrant haven of more than 500,000, with Indians as the dominant ethnic group (nationally, South Asians have become the largest visible minority, representing 4 percent of the population), but back then it was small-town and overwhelmingly white.

In his 2010 memoir, Call Me Russell, co-authored with Clayton and Toronto screenwriter Dannis Koromilas, Russell recalls an early bicycle ride around his new neighbourhood, the Gates of Bramalea. A white guy named Mr. Gould was outside watering his lawn. “As I rode past, the man said to me—a five-year-old child on a bike—‘Go home, you fuckin’ Paki,’ and before I knew what was going on, he’d pointed the hose at me.”

Russell was too young to know what the slur meant. Years later, he returned to Gould’s house and hurled a rock through the front window.

“Brampton was very blue collar and white trash back then. Shit was real, son,” is how he tells it now, more than a week after the Portland concert. We’re having breakfast at 2 p.m., ten minutes from his dapper mansion in Mississauga’s Lorne Park (he owns another home in Los Angeles and a third in Las Vegas). He addresses the diner’s wait staff by name, and casually flirts with our ponytailed server. After ordering, he pulls a package of vitamins from his pocket and sets it beside his coffee and juice.

Eric Peters’ job in India had involved public relations for an engineering firm. In Canada, he worked as a paint mixer, a night security guard, a police dispatcher, a clerk, and a meat inspector. His grand ambition, journalism, was thwarted in 1972, when, after being asked to interview for a reporting job at a Hamilton newspaper, he was dismissed on sight. His sons say he never forgot the humiliation.

Maureen Peters, who has lighter skin than her husband and sons, worked first in the cash office at Holt Renfrew, then in the accounting office at the Globe and Mail. When her children were young, shopkeepers often mistook her for Italian, Maltese, or Portuguese. Sometimes, Russell felt a distance from his mother: “I’d gotten used to being yelled at outside the home for my skin colour,” he writes in his book, “so as a kid I just kind of assumed my mom was yelling at me for the same reason—for not being white.”

Still, the family scratched out a version of the Canadian dream for themselves. Eric and Maureen gave their boys three trips back to India, plus visits to England, and the family spent several summers vacationing in Ontario’s cottage country. When Clayton was twelve, Maureen bought him a cassette recorder from Consumers Distributing, which he used to tape a Saturday night disco show on the radio while babysitting Russell. The brothers had plenty of uncles, aunties, and cousins, unrelated by blood but too close to simply call friends.

“Depression never hit my parents. My dad was pretty tough with that,” Peters says. “Where the fuck else are we going to go? It’s our home. It’s where we live. You’re not going to chase us out of here because you don’t like us.”

After being taunted and bullied all through school, he almost flunked out of grade ten, and a guidance counsellor finally compelled him to transfer to a technical school. North Peel was known locally as the “school for retards,” but its student body was half black, which is closer to brown than white. Russell befriended his new Jamaican and Guyanese classmates, and took up boxing at his father’s urging (he later devoted two years to ju-jitsu). He cracked the ribs of one tormentor, and threw another across a stairwell. There were no more bullies after that.

When he graduated, he tried to enrol in nearby Sheridan College. His application was rejected, but he went anyways, and busied himself spinning records on the campus radio station as DJ Russell. During this period of drifting, his second cousin Andrew suggested that he try telling jokes at a club, a thought that had never crossed his mind.

“It had to do with growing up in a working-class immigrant household: that’s not for us; that’s for other people,” explains Clayton, a shorter, heavier version of little brother, with thick hair that’s going, going, gone grey. A former oil and gas industry exec, he has managed Russell’s career since 2005. “I don’t know that I ever consciously said, ‘Hey, my brother’s pretty funny,’ ” he says over our Thai lunch in Toronto. Still, he took Russell to scout his first comedy show, and his first improv performance.

In 1989, at a Yuk Yuk’s amateur night in Toronto, the nineteen-year-old went up in front of about fifty strangers. He had nothing prepared, and he doesn’t remember what he said. It was over in three minutes, and earned about that many chuckles. It took him months to try again, but this time he got real laughs. Simple as that, he was hooked.

A gruelling, low- or no-paid slog through Ontario’s far-flung comedy cellars followed. In Timmins, Peters gigged in a video store’s basement. In Whitby, he told jokes at a mini-putt in exchange for finger foods and a few laps around the go-kart track. The stage was inside a giant golf ball.

When the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992, he joined a parade of Torontonians celebrating the victory. On Yonge Street, he had a chance encounter with a personal hero, comedian George Carlin, as they walked among the crowd. “It doesn’t matter when, how, where,” Carlin advised. “Just get up there and try it.”

“You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth, like the fact that there’s a bigot and a racist in every living room on every street corner in this country.”

Carlin said that, too, during America’s George H. W. years. Race, of course, has been something to joke about for as long as jokes have been around. At the birth of modern stand-up, circa 1950, comics like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce spoke boldly on a range of social issues, including race relations. A decade later, Bill Cosby avoided racial jokes, calling them a crutch. His contemporary, Dick Gregory, who was bitterly funny about racism (“I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night”), became an ally to Martin Luther King Jr. and a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Through him and others, comedy became subversive, a means to the end of fighting the power.

Then came the titans: Carlin, Pryor, Allen, Murphy, Rock. In the main, there was a lot of talk about white, a lot of talk about black, and less talk about brown, red, yellow, or anything else. What little was said was often ugly. “I don’t like that shit, that Arabic that the motherfuckers be speaking in the 7-Eleven,” Eddie Murphy declared in Delirious, his landmark 1983 concert film. Then he made pig noises. “That’s a word in Arabic….That means some shit to them.” For this, he drew a big laugh—and, later, a phone call from Cosby, who scolded him for cursing.

Peters had no example of a successful brown comic to follow as he toiled in tiny rooms, only Carlin’s encouragement. Just get up there and try it. He paid $200 a month to rent his room from his parents, and borrowed money from them to buy a Saturn SL, the cheapest vehicle he could find. In three years, he put almost a quarter-million kilometres on that car, hustling between comedy bookings, DJ gigs (he had a busy sideline playing at Indian parties), and the arms of two girlfriends who lived on opposite sides of Toronto.

In the mid-’90s, he worked his way onto the Yuk Yuk’s circuit, making $35, $50, $100 a night working clubs, bars, and any odd place across the country. He had built up thirty minutes of useful material, half of which he really believed in. The best stuff was about his dad, a juiced-up version with an amplified accent and a furious temper. Too cheap? Some people thought so, and accused him of exploiting his own heritage for laughs. In 1995, he told this joke about an all-Indian hockey team:

…and here comes Singh down centre ice. He passes it to Singh. Singh [passes] it over to Singh. Singh shoots at Singh. He misses! What’s this? A fight! Uh-oh! Here come the ceremonial daggers!

He received death threats, and while there was never an attempt on his life he was confronted in a club by three angry Punjabi men. One took a swing, so he punched two of them, pushed the other, and split.

“Itook a gig in South Africa in October 2003. I got fucked on the money, but I needed money, so I had to do it,” Russell says while awaiting his egg white scrambler, English muffin, chicken breast, and home fries. He was sharing a townhouse then with Clayton, who was paying the lion’s share of the bills. Their father had recently been diagnosed with skin cancer, and his health was failing rapidly.

“I remember flying back. I was in economy, in the back of the plane, in a middle seat,” he says. “In first class were Bono, Edge, Beyoncé, her parents, [her sister] Solange. I was like, damn, if this plane goes down, no one’s gonna give a fuck that I was on it. Then you cut to a year and a half later, and shit is all different.”

What made shit all different was his third television special, an episode of CTV’s Comedy Now! that aired in the winter of 2004 (his earlier specials had aired in the mid-’90s). He killed with stories about his dad and his own attempt to haggle with a Chinese merchant—spawning the catchphrases “Somebody gonna get a-hurt real bad!” and “Be a man”—but the life-changing thing happened more than a year later. Some anonymous stranger uploaded footage from the special to the newly launched site YouTube. It went viral beyond imagination, racking up millions of views worldwide. Peters had been discovered by an international community, though he had no idea how.

“I didn’t know about YouTube, and I didn’t know about file sharing, and I didn’t know about torrents. I knew nothing,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to update my iPod….All I played on the computer was solitaire.” Bookings started pouring in from all over the English-speaking world. He was soon selling out theatres for consecutive nights, making $30,000 to $40,000 a pop.

There was just one problem: he had nothing to offer fresh audiences but stale material. He hustled to quickly build another set, but piracy bit him again, and it hurt. A “douchebag Indian promoter” in New York recorded him performing almost an hour of post-Now! material, then posted the whole thing on YouTube without his knowledge, let alone his consent.

The days of travelling comics being able to use the same bits for years on end were over. Like all comedians, Peters would have to work harder, following a pattern carved out by Carlin. First, spend a long, intense time developing new material, then an equal amount performing it. When you complete the cycle, throw everything out and start over from scratch.

In this way, he made and released three wildly successful feature-length DVDs—Outsourced in 2006, Red, White and Brown in 2008, and The Green Card Tour three years later—from his increasingly expansive tours of the same names. As a side benefit, criss-crossing the planet exposed him to new people and cultures. He mined the experience for more accents, more material, becoming as perceptive, and as funny, about other people’s mores as he had always been about his own.

The organic nature of this change has allowed the artist to grow, if not mature, along with his material. Just two years ago, he told Marc Maron, “I feel my comedy is not up to par with my status.” Watching his set, I thought, okay, he may have been right—then, but not anymore. I saw a pro who can, and probably will, flick jabs at whoever crosses his path, who knows how to dig in when he lands something solid, and who has knockout power that lasts into the late rounds.

“Have a good one,” our server says as Peters settles the breakfast bill.

“I already have a good one. I just wish I had a bigger one,” he replies. It’s a riff on a Carlin joke, one of his favourites.

“Ithink I’m a control freak. If you look at everything I’ve done, it all puts me in control of what’s happening. The sports I like: I box. I did ju-jitsu. You’re the only person in there who can help you win,” he says. “DJing, you control the crowd. You’re controlling their mood. Stand-up, you’re the only one up there.”

Peters and I are zipping across Toronto in his all-black Porsche Cayenne, one of seven luxury rides in his stable. “Control” isn’t the first word that comes to mind, but he makes a solid case. He says he didn’t get intoxicated until he was thirty-one, for fear of losing that grip. “When you drink, the real you comes out,” he says. “The first time I got drunk, I was laughing at everything. I, apparently, am extra-happy deep down inside, and I hold it back because I don’t want other people to feel shit about themselves.”

What’s not to be extra-happy about? His marathon Notorious tour ends in October, in Bangalore, India. Afterward, Netflix—the newer, better YouTube, with an audience that now dwarfs those of traditional cable networks—will debut concert footage of last spring’s show in Sydney, Australia, recorded before a sellout crowd of 15,000; plus a four-part making-of documentary.

Meanwhile, coming off the road will afford him the chance to spend real time with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Crystianna. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Monica Diaz, whom he met in 2010, and who was three months pregnant when they married, with no pre-nup, at a Las Vegas chapel. The union lasted less than two years. “I didn’t try marriage because I was in love,” Peters explains when I ask what happened. “I tried it because I met a girl and she got pregnant. I liked the girl at the time, and I wanted the baby.” He is single now and, if it’s not already obvious, more than ready to mingle. He showed me pictures on his phone of a well-known actress he was seeing, and coolly arranged for a woman from Denver to fly in and meet him at his hotel after he was done performing. “I don’t think I’d ever get married again,” he tells me. “That’s not who I am. That’s not the lifestyle I want.”

Several hours after my interview with him, my wife and I arrive at a swanky golf club in North Toronto, where he’s throwing a surprise birthday party for his dear friend Rob Fernandes, whom he calls Cousin Bob. There are perhaps forty guests here, thirty-odd people linked by family and friendship, plus the two of us. This is the Russell “vacuum,” as those close to him call it: come into his world expecting a short visit, and find yourself welcomed to hang out for a while.

We’re late for the big reveal, but when he sees us he leaves a conversation to say hello. He introduces us around the room: “This is my buddy Matt. He’s writing a story about me. And this is his wife, Leila. She’s an Arab.” (He asked about her background as soon as he noticed my wedding band.) He sends Paul “Pick” Pickering, his long-time friend and security guard, out to the Porsche to retrieve a bottle of tequila that’s better than anything behind the bar, then shares a toast with us.

Cousin Bob is a hip hop junkie, so Peters has arranged for a special gift, a private concert by Smif-n-Wessun and Buckshot, New York rappers who had a string of hits during Bob and Russell’s youth. He flew them up earlier in the day, along with Spinbad, who now mans the turntables as the MCs (plus Bob, who seizes a microphone to join them) tear through their back catalogues. The room, the show, the liquor—even the gleaming new Audi in the parking lot, Cousin Bob’s other gift—it’s all on Russell.

It’s past 1 a.m. when the manager finally orders the music to stop. Most of the guests have left, and Peters’ stash of tequila has been vanquished. As we exit, he stays on to conquer more of the night.

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  • Horatio

    He makes jokes, mostly based on racial stereotypes. Now rich. Lucky idiot.

    That is better journalism than this useless puff piece.