"Comedy isn’t politically correct," Russell Peters tells us in an exclusive interview before his India tour
The Canadian comedian talks to us about writing comedy, the NRI identity, and his take on today’s ‘offended culture’
For many Indians, Canadian comedian Russell Peters’ shows were the first introduction to international stand-up comedy, especially ones that tackled topics of race and immigration from a South Asian point of view. No one can easily forget his Nigerian, Chinese and, of course, Indian impersonations and spot-on observations. The comedian, who once famously said, “I don’t make stereotypes, I just see them”, became a hit with stand-up specials such as Outsourced, Red, White and Brown, and Almost Famous.
Now, the 48-year-old is on a world tour with his new show, Deported. Indulge caught up with Russell just before his India gigs, set to be hosted by Supermoon, Zee Live. Excerpts from the interview:
Sticks and stones
Born in Toronto to Anglo-Indian parents, Russell Dominic Peters began doing stand-up in 1989. The turning point in his career proved to be a YouTube clip of his performance in the show Comedy Now! that went viral, like no other video of its kind. The segment in question had Russell enacting impersonations about various ethnic groups in a way that made him instantly popular across the globe, and actually shaped what is now very much his brand of humour.
Unfortunately, a lot of the racial humour in Russell’s acts inevitably draw from his childhood. “I grew up in Brampton in the 1970s. For me, that meant that I faced a lot of racism as a child — beaten up, spat on, called names and more. It’s because of that experience that I explore race and culture in my act. I’m still trying to understand racism and different cultures, and people’s experience with race,” says Russell. For a note, the comedian considers Eddie Murphy, George Carlin and Steve Martin as his comedy icons.
This new show, Deported, as the name suggests, addresses more topics in the same vein. “This is more personal than some of my other shows. I’ve worked really hard on this set. It’s more self-deprecating and introspective than some of my other shows. It really reflects who I am and where I am in my life right now,” explains Russell. He adds dryly, “Mind you, it still has it’s silly moments.”
When we ask him about researching and writing for the show, he explains that comedy can’t be ‘researched’. “It has to be natural, and you have to be naturally funny. I know that there are a lot of new comics out there who are clever and well ‘researched’, but that doesn’t necessarily make them naturally funny, or even a stand-up comedian. Research is best reserved for writing, and not comedy. Personally, I just live my life and talk about the world the way that I see it. Hopefully it’s funny,” underlines the LA-based artiste.
The jokes that instantly set Russell apart were indeed rooted in his own childhood, as he spoke about growing up as an Indian in the West in a way that struck a chord with desi audiences, NRI or otherwise. The matter of an Indian upbringing has since become a go-to topic for many aspiring comedians. Russell’s 2006 show, Outsourced, made the line, “Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad!” — an impersonation of his father — a household phrase.
While today, South Asian comedians such as Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, Aparna Nancherla, Kumail Nanjiani, Lilly Singh and Hari Kondabolu are familiar faces in the circuit, it was Russell who really paved the way. Lately, Netflix specials, TV shows and tours have made Indian-immigrant culture popular on screen. “There are a lot more comedians out there now, and more of them are exploring race and culture — and that’s great. The NRI identity is different for everyone. They may not have experienced the same thing as I did, so when they do stand-up, they come at it from a different perspective,” Russell comments. For an afterthought, he adds, “Look at the stand-up scene here in India, and how it’s grown. I’m hoping to learn more about it on this visit.”
Sense and sensitivity
But that’s not all that has changed. Topics of race are under scrutiny constantly. Criticism about representation and cultural appropriation in the media is more active than ever now. People are more sensitive to racial humour and political correctness, whether it is about stereotypes, or the portrayal of a
Russell, however, remains unfazed. “I haven’t changed anything about my act to adjust to political correctness. Comedy isn’t politically correct — comedy is about truth, and the truth isn’t politically
correct either,” he states. While these subjects can get tricky, he believes that if people are going to be offended, there’s nothing you can do about it. “There’s a bit of an ‘offended culture’ out there now. Some people are just looking to be offended. Those people shouldn’t be at a comedy show,” declares the comedian, who has in past interviews said that he draws the line at joking on topics of religion.
In the last few seasons, Russell has dabbled in acting as well. Apart from a cameo in Jon Favreau’s Chef and a small role with Jon Bon Jovi and Katherine Heigl in New Year’s Eve, he starred as the lead in The Indian Detective, a Netflix crime comedy-drama series. But playing the cop from Toronto didn’t work so well.
“There probably won’t be a second season of The Indian Detective. Netflix wasn’t happy with the criticism it received in India — but we never made the show for India. It was definitely a Canadian show and while the show was flawed, people who loved it, really loved it. However, we are working on a spin-off feature, The Indian Spy. We start filming that next year,” reveals the actor, who is also a
huge hip-hop fan.
On the personal front, Russell just welcomed a child with girlfriend Jennifer Andrade. “My life hasn’t changed that much... yet! My son is only a few weeks old and I’ve been on the road for a lot of
that time. Right now he just eats, sleeps and poops. I can’t really add any value in that world, but I’m looking forward to spend more time with him when we wrap this tour,” he shares.
Although this tour takes him to Durban, Cape Town, Kuwait and all across the US, Russell is particularly looking forward to his shows in India. “Going to India is always at the top of my list of favourite things to do... Going to India to perform is even higher on that list! I’m so excited about bringing my Deported World Tour back to MY motherland. This is my 30th year as a professional comedian, and what better way to celebrate it than in the place that gave me parents, culture
and an identity,” he says, with a flourish.
Supermoon ft. Russell Peters
Deported World Tour will host shows
in New Delhi on May 31, Mumbai
on June 2 &3 and Bengaluru on May 29. Tickets: Rs. 1,750 upwards.