Comedian Russell Peters is tired of being asked about whether he watches Bollywood movies. That aside, despite a long day of back-to-back press interactions, he’s as jovial as ever, never missing an opportunity to drop a one-liner and take jibes at those in the room.
One of the most popular global comics, Peters is in India to promote his new Deported world tour which he calls his most ‘personal, self-deprecating and introspective’ show till date.
For many, Peters was a big deal in comedy before comedy itself became a big deal. Aside from being among the first comics to perform at massive arenas around the world, like the Barclays Center in New York and London’s O2 Arena, he’s known to set trends and pave the way for fellow comics. He’s the first comedian to have a Netflix special and perhaps among the first to step away from the streaming giant. He’s been vocal about the fact that he’s done with the platform and his next special will be on Amazon Prime Video.
Outside of stand-up, Peters has had a fair tryst with acting, with roles in films like Jon Favreau’s Chef, romantic comedy New Year’s Eve, as well as serving as the lead for Netflix series The Indian Detective. Known for his audience-banter and racial stereotype-based humour, Peters has built his career on doing accents and impressions aimed at all ethnicities, which has no doubt contributed to his global appeal.
In between his barrage of one-liners, Peters spoke to me about the Indian comedy scene, propagating stereotypes and the dangers of platforms like Netflix. Edited excerpts:
You’ve said your Deported tour is personal and different from what you’ve done before. Was there ever any apprehension about whether audiences that have loved your earlier shows will connect with this?
No. I mean, I’ve been doing it now for the past year and it’s been probably one of the best-received sets I’ve had in a long time. I think people really appreciate the fact that I’ve moved on to something more introspective. It shows my vulnerable side, because if you think I’ve got confidence, wait till you see me on stage proving that I don’t. But I do it really confidently (laughs).
You were a big deal in comedy before comedy became a big deal. Considering how many comedians are out there now, is there a pressure to be everywhere and be on every platform?
No, I don’t ever pay attention to that because I was a comic well before all the social media stuff started. I was a comic before the internet started, and I’m going to be a comic long after it’s dead and gone. Just because Instagram goes down one day doesn’t mean I won’t have something to say the next day.
Even though YouTube was what propelled me to international waters, I was already doing international comedy at that time. And again, I didn’t put myself on YouTube. It wasn’t a calculated thing at all. Somebody put me on there, but I’m glad as hell they did.
You’ve been doing shows in India for quite a few years now. Do you feel Indian audiences have changed over time as they’ve been more exposed to comedy?
I haven’t been back here in about four years, so I don’t know if they’ve changed yet. A lot can happen in four years. When I was here four years ago, the boom wasn’t what it is now.
Are you familiar with the Indian comedy scene at all?
I’ve been hearing more and more about local comics now. I haven’t seen any of them, so I don’t really know what they’re talking about or how they are on stage. So I don’t know what the people have been consuming here but I know what I do and I know that I’ve been doing it for thirty years, so what I’ve got is tried and tested.
One of the common criticisms against the Indian comedy scene is that it’s only around 5 years old and yet the most popular comics have all been given web shows and stand up specials on various streaming platforms. Whereas in the West it takes years for a comedian to establish themselves before being given similar opportunities. Do you think that’s a good thing?
It’s not a good thing. It’s terrible for you because they’re not coming up the way comics come up. That’s probably the worst thing you can have happen to you because how do you follow that? When you don’t have the room to get better at it. The beautiful thing for me is I didn’t make it until I was 15 years in and that’s a long time to be putting in some time. Literally half my career has been successful and the other half has been me trying to get to successful. The hard road is the best way to go, and just because you got a corporate gig that you didn’t do well at, that’s not the hard road. You just made a lot of money. The hard road is doing a shit gig in a shit town with shit money and having a shit result.
Many would say that with a platform like Netflix making it so accessible, there’s never been a better time to be a comedian. But you’ve said that you feel platforms like that are causing an over saturation. Has it become like a measure of credibility? If you’re on Netflix you’re legit, if not you’re not?
I don’t see it like that because the amount of comics who shouldn’t have specials that do – that’s what’s watered it down to some extent. In the 80s and early 90s, there was a show on TV called An Evening At The Improv and that’s what kind of fed the boom which was huge, similar to how it is now. It was this show that put comics on TV every night but the problem is, they started putting so many comics on that show, about 90% of them were not that funny and it kind of killed comedy and I think that’s exactly what’s happening right now. It’s just too much and it’s a very crowded boat so I decided to get off and that’s why I’m on Amazon now.
Your Netflix series The Indian Detective wasn’t very well received in India, but you’ve said it was a big hit in Canada and that’s the audience it was aimed at. Was it strange to make a show set in India about Indians for Canadians on a global platform?
Here’s the thing, and I’m glad you brought this up. With The Indian Detective, I told them when we were shooting that we need real Indian people on it with real Indian accents who can really speak Hindi, who are not faking it. And they said, ‘nah they’re never going to notice’ and I said they’re going to notice, they’re a billion of them! And it’s that untrueness that to me let us down, over here at least. I was very popular in Canada. But I understand it when people criticise it over here. I agree with you 100% because that’s exactly what I said.
Is the spin-off The Indian Spy going to be in the same vein?
That’s going to be a spin-off movie similar to this, but also the mistakes that were made detective are going to be corrected in the spy.
You’ve done a fair bit of acting. Is that something you enjoy or is it natural progression for a comedian?
I mean, its a natural progression for a comic but I also do enjoy doing it. I wanted to be an actor when I started doing comedy and then I was told very early that I wasn’t good looking enough. And now with more and more opportunities coming up, now I hear I’m too old, too fat and I’m like I’m never going to win this battle, so I just stay in my lane and when things come to me I take them.
Comedian Vir Das has previously talked about how you paved the way for brown comics to perform in the smallest corners of the globe. Do you think about the impact you’ve had in enabling Indian comics to be accepted around the world?
I don’t actually ever look at it like that because I was so focused on making sure my career maintains (laughs). But I’m honestly glad it helped all the others. I mean it was never my intention but I’m glad that that’s the result.
But there were struggles. Those gigs that I was getting internationally before I was anything were tough. I got gigs in Hong Kong before it got handed back. I got gigs in Dubai when Dubai was just a desert and you’d perform in a nightclub and then you’d go to like Abu Dhabi but it was like the basement pub. So you were doing shit gigs in other countries but for me it was really cool, I was this guy from Canada who’s doing comedy and getting to go to all these countries and they were paying shit money and you were flying economy, but I only saw it as a plus side at that time.
Politics seems to be playing an increasingly important role in comedy. Do you feel pressure to be more political now than before?
I don’t think they’re asking us to be political, I think it’s something you either choose to do or you don’t. So I don’t feel any pressure, it’s not my world. It’s kind of like if I decided to go up and start talking about cricket, I don’t know anything about cricket. It’d be ignorant of me to try and give you my insights. I mean when you watch the nightly news and late night news, it’s all politics and political humour. Do you want to pay money for something you could’ve heard for free on tv and probably better? So I stay away from it because I just wanted to give them a break. You speak to what you know. Just be honest. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I’m not pretending to be smarter than I am, I know my limits.
There’s been a lot of discussion about comedy based on stereotypes. You even said before that you can tell from the laughter you get, whether the audience relates to the joke or are making fun of the people you’re talking about. Is that something you think about more now?
Yeah, you can tell what kind of laugh you get from them. That dictates whether they liked the joke because they got it or because (the stereotype) sounded funny to them. And I don’t really do that much racial stuff anymore. It’s not that I gave up on it, it’s just that I’ve kind of exhausted the genre a little bit. If I meet another culture and they happen to have something interesting or quirky or funny about them, I’m more than willing to explore it but I’m not going to go out of my way to seek them out. I feel like I’ve moved on from that.
Given just how many aspiring comics there are in India right now, do you have any advice for those looking to make their mark?
Don’t look to make your mark, just look to do comedy and become really good at it rather than becoming something from it. I honestly never thought any of this was possible. If you look back at when I started in 1989, it was not a possibility. I just did it because I wanted to do it and make people laugh. I just innately wanted to get on stage. Even now when I’m home and I jump in on The Comedy Store in the week – you’re on these shows with these killers. Big heavy hitters – Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, Chris Delia, Bryan Callen, Dave Chapelle, Jeff Ross – and you have to go on with all these dudes and they’re all firing big missiles and if you don’t land correct, you’re going to get taken out. It’s just that energy of ‘man I really need to step my game up’. And that’s when you really find if you’re a comic or not. Am I doing this right, do I have what it takes? It doesn’t matter. 30 years in you still ask the same questions. You just got to keep challenging yourself.