If you don't know who Russell Peters is you will soon. That is because he has a mother load of the best medicine--laughter up his sleeves. This Indo-Canadian comedian has twice been nominated for a Gemini Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy Award). He was also nominated for Best Male Comic at the 2004 Canadian Comedy Awards. A sixteen-year veteran of the standup comedy scene, Peters' material remains on the cutting and sometimes biting edge of racial humor which is generally directed at stereotypes. And he clearly knows and understands the history and culture behind his humor. He mimics accents from around the globe with mirthful accuracy, making fun of while at the same time showing respect for all nationalities and races equally.
Peters has been performing to sell-out crowds across the country with his signature theme surrounding his father's pet admonition, "Somebody gonna get hurt real bad!" He was recently at Atlanta's Roxy in front of a diverse crowd of every age and ethnic background. Khabar caught up with the comedian after the show.
Are you politically incorrect?
I don't think I am. I think I'm politically accurate. And what makes me successful is that everyone is scared to go there. My theory is if you go there in the right way, it's doable. People are so sensitive. I think we live in a really bad time. I think minority groups, instead of coming together with everybody else, are separating into their own groups. As Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest said, "Progressions can't be made if we're separate forever." We're never going to progress past this point if everyone keeps behaving this way. For instance when I'm trying to do new material and people in the audience keep shouting, "Indian, do more Indian. And I'm like, "Dude, we're not the only people in the world." We live in a big world with many other people and we need to welcome everyone the same way we welcome each other.
You seem like someone who knew all along that they could make people laugh. Did you?
I knew I could make people laugh. I didn't know I could make a living out of it until I was 19. I told my brother I might like to try stand-up. He took me to an improv / theater-sports class, and then he took me to Yuk-Yuks, a comedy club, for try-outs. That's how I got started.
I imagine there are a lot of Americans who don't know what a Gemini is.
(Laughing) There are many Canadians who don't know what a Gemini is. I'm a Canadian who doesn't know what a Gemini is. I know what it's like to be nominated, but not to win.
Isn't it more important to be nominated?
No. If it was an Emmy, sure. But when it's a Canadian award? No. It's almost insulting at that point. "I lost to who? Come on, man!" When you lose at the Emmy's you can say, "Yeah, but look who I was up against." In Canada it's like, "You lost to who? Are you kidding me?
Does your material come to you naturally or do you feel like you have to work at it?
I'm always working at my material. You never get past that. I threw some new stuff out tonight. I didn't know where it was going to go, so it went exactly where I thought it would go ? nowhere. (Laughs). But I also like to think off the top of the head. I am all about saying the first thing that pops into my head. I think that's what separates comedians from "normal people." Comedians have no filter. Real people filter everything: "I can't say that, because it's rude, it may hurt someone's feelings." Comedians don't do that, they just go for it.
How much of your performance is scripted and how much of it is playing off the audience?
I like to mix it up. The audience was kind-of rowdy tonight. They weren't a listening crowd. So I wasn't able to do my act. I want to be able to come out and do my act but sometimes I can't because the crowd gets too rowdy. I can understand their excitement. They've seen me on the Internet and they hold me in higher regard than I hold myself. (Laughing) But at the same time it's not a friggin' rock concert. Sit down. Watch. Laugh. Enjoy. It makes the show better. It's something of a double-edged sword to have an enthusiastic audience. It's great that they're there with great energy but at some point a comedy-savvy audience understands it's best to sit, watch, laugh, and listen.
Is the mainstream ready for South Asian humor?
I think so. But I don't consider my act South Asian humor. I'm a South Asian guy doing comedy. But I don't do South Asian humor per se. I never thought the Indian community would look at me and regard me as the guy who is going to "break them out."
Who are your favorite comics?
Don Rickles, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy They are all my influences. My style is very Don Rickles, talk to the audience, make fun of them, but don't hurt their feelings. I used to listen to George Carlin when I was a kid and I think he was brilliant. Eddie Murphy is the one who made comedy so Rock&Roll. He made you want to be a comedian. When I went to see him in 1985 in Toronto's Maple Leaf Garden, he sold-out a 15,000 seat arena. That was insane. I wanted to do that.
What advice would you have for South Asians who aspire to be comedians?
Do your thing. Do you. Don't do me. Don't do somebody else. Do you. Talk about your experiences and your reality. And don't rely too much on one type of humor. Just be funny.
What are the highlights of your career?
Headlining at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last year. I was the first South Asian to sell out the Apollo. Hosting Miss Nude UK 2001 was quite the thrill. A phenomenal gig , might I say. Now its doing theaters, sitcoms and movies. It's all ups right now. I dare not think about the other side of the hill.
What country stood out the most in your travels?
South Africa. I just love it there. It's beautiful, the people?. It was the first country to really make me feel like a rock star. They were crazy. I had billboards with my face on them. I had to change my name at the hotel when I was checking in!
What do you want people to remember you for?
I want to be remembered as the first guy to do this. The first guy to take comedy this far and the first guy to make it happen for us like this. Like Grandmaster Flash said, "I don't care who comes after me or who's better than me. I was the first who did it." I can always quote hip-hop artists. I'm a hip-hop junkie.
Life looks bright for Peters who was to move to Los Angeles in February. He has caught the Warner Brothers's eye and Fox has ordered the pilot for a sitcom crafted around his humor. The script was written by Tom Brady of The Simpsons, Home Improvement, The Animal and The Hot Chick, fame. Taping for the pilot begins in March and the show is expected to air this fall.
By MICKEY DESAI
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