Russell Peters Celebrates 25 Years in Comedy With Massive Crowds, Big DVD Sales

Russell Peters Career
Terence Patrick for Variety

Russell Peters feels a little shortchanged.

Variety is celebrating the Canadian comic of Anglo-Indian descent for his 25 years in comedy at the Montreal Just for Laughs fest, but, he jokes, he’s been in comedy for 26 years.

Still, he’s pretty thrilled with an honor at a festival that helped him early in his career.

“It’s the biggest comedy festival in the world, the most important, the most prestigious — and it’s Canadian,” he says.

But Montreal is not the first comedy festival that he participated in; that would be the 1994 Toronto Comedy Fest. “There were only one or two years of that; I don’t think it went very far,” he says in his Malibu home. “But Just for Laughs was always the big one. That was the one you always tried to get.”

In 1996, the first time he performed there, he paid for his flight and hotel room, and made his mark at the Comedy Night in Canada sidebar. Just for Laughs topper Bruce Hills says he got a sense that Peters would go far.

“He always connected so well to an audience,” Hills says. “Performing in front of a large theater for the first time, he was comfortable in front of people. He took the moment and did something great with it. You got a sense he could go a long way. He connected with different races, with different ages; he was someone you could relate to.”

Since then Peters has undertaken four arena tours: 2006’s “Outsourced,” 2008’s “Red, White and Brown,” 2013’s “Notorious” and his current, “Almost Famous.”

There may be more than a little bit of truth to that last tour title. While Peters is well known abroad, in 2014, Forbes wrote that he is “the 43-year-old (comic who) pulled in an estimated $21 million last year, but chances are you’ve never even heard of him.”

To Hills, he’s an international star. “I find him funny and honest,” he says. “He truly picks up on things others don’t. His comedy instincts are great. He’s honed it in all corners of the world. He’s performed in front of royalty in Dubai, the 02 Arena in London, Madison Square Garden, the Sydney Opera House (and) small clubs when he’s handling new material.”

Peters’ doesn’t shy away from provocative subject matter in his act, but it always finds a way to relate to his audiences. It started with bits about his family, mostly his dad (“Somebody’s going to get hurt”) to a Hong Kong shopkeeper who refuses to bargain (“Be a man, do the right thing”) and Indians (“We are winning”).

These days, his material still talks about race, but now includes bits about technology and other modern issues.

“It’s all in the eyes,” he says, pointing at his own. “So long as you are smiling, people won’t feel offended.”

However, religion and politics are not part of Russell’s act. “I am an atheist,” he says, but he doesn’t want offend believers. “And I know nothing about politics.”

“There’s been a fair amount of criticism about his material, the racial stuff, the ethnic stuff,” says his brother and manager, Clayton Peters, adding that recently another comic called it “hacky.” “The racism (Russell) experienced at 5 and 6 years old affected him and influenced him. This material comes from a very personal place. As he explores it you get to the commonality.

He’s talking about his Indian father but he could be talking about a Greek father, an Italian father, a Latino father, a black father. And that’s why we get the diversity in the audience because obviously all the other ethnic groups who are there to see him, they are responding to the commonality of it. They respond (saying) ‘Hey that’s my dad, that’s my mom, that’s my daughter.’ We couldn’t have built the business we have, sold out the arenas we have, if we were just relying on the South Asian community.”

Peters started his career as a DJ. As a teenager he was sent to a trade school in Toronto and then a community college where he found his way to the college radio station. That’s where he discovered he enjoyed being a DJ.

“Back then that was real DJ’ing. That’s when you had to bring an assortment of records and try to figure out what this crowd was going to dance to,” he recalls. From wisecracking between songs to comedy was a short step.

“I wasn’t very good at all,” he says, “but I got a couple of chuckles, which is all I really needed to encourage me. After the third time on stage I had a great reaction from the crowd. I was hooked. I was like, ‘I gotta do this more. I want to get really good at this.’

“I played a lot of open-mic nights,” Peters says, starting with Tuesday night gigs at Yuk Yuks in Toronto in 1989.

Peters calls himself a “boxing nerd” and uses terms from that sport. For instance, he recalls a gig when he got too cocky after a few performances and then fell flat. “I got a chin check,” he says.

Were there other occasions when he bombed? “Many times,” he responds. Not only in his early years, but other times too, including his first stint at Just for Laughs Fest when the announcer told the crowd “this guy is nervous,” adding to his tension.

He took a year off in 1992 without meaning to. “I had girlfriend at the time. I was so enthralled about having sex on a regular basis that I was like, ‘comedy schmamedy, look at this.’”

But he eventually realized he’d been off the boards for year and went back.
In February 2004, when Peters’ comedy special aired on Canada’s CTV, many people saw the perf and emailed clips to friends.

“That was the shot heard around the world,” Clayton says. “That caused the business to explode. It was a convergence of that product being a good product and the fascination with this new way of seeing videos on the Web. It became global and that’s what launched the entire growth of our business in the past 10 years.”

Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of “Modern Family,” says via email, “I was introduced to him by my very discerning children, maybe seven years ago, and found him hilarious and approachable and very original — original in that what he lacked in snarkiness cynicism (the coin of the realm in comedy these days) he made up for in genuine insight, and in just plain likeability. He makes me laugh.”

Manager Paul Canterna recalls a Friday night performance at Madison Square Garden when Peters felt he was “off.” “To anyone else it  was a fine performance,” Canterna says. But Peters was unhappy with himself. “The act didn’t feel right, the shirt didn’t feel right.” So he went out and bought a new outfit, spruced up his routine and the next night was a huge hit.

Roseanne Barr was among those who saw that performance. In an email she writes, “He’s the only comic who can do crowd work at Madison Square Garden —I saw it and was blown away — he held the capacity audience in the palm of his hand.”

For a long time, Peters has produced and distributed his own shows on DVD via his website, although he’s not taken the digital route yet.
“The $5 download doesn’t work for me,” he says.

Yet the comic has not been able to successfully translate his success in standup tours to sitcoms or movie roles. When they visit network toppers, Canterna says the execs may not have heard of Peters, “but everyone from the valet parker on up recognizes him.”

Jon Favreau, who cast him in last year’s “Chef,” says, “The only role left to be cast was the police officer in Miami. There wasn’t much to the role at the time, but I told him that we would make something of it if he wanted to give it a shot. What you see in the film was mostly improv. He turned something small into one of the funniest scenes in the movie.”

Peters’ next project is the film “Ripped,” which is now shooting in Texas. Written by Billiam Coronel and directed by Brad Epstein, the pic revolves around two stoners who smoke some particularly strong weed and wake up 30 years later when the world has changed.

“I would love to do a sitcom, but the only roles I’ve gotten are when my friends put me in their films,” Peters says. He attributes this to not doing well in auditions, either due to nervousness or cockiness.

But casting director Linda Lamontaigne says he actually does well in auditions because he’s humble and takes direction well. After he auditioned for “Family Guy,” the producers asked for him to voice more characters. He’s taped episodes that will air next year.

“My goal is to get him into anything and everything,” she says. “I think he’s incredibly talented.”

Montreal’s Hills adds, “We’re happy to play a small part in his 25 years. Russell is one of the artists we love and it’s great to be in business with him.”

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