Russell Peters shares his success story- from a shoe salesman to an international superstar

Listed amongst the 50 best stand-up comics of all time, it is obvious that Russell Peters understands the importance of impeccable timing in comedy.

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The day we met, however, time was not his friend. Nor mine, for that matter. The wait stretched on interminably, making me crankier by the hour. So, by the time Russell and his brother Clayton Peters finally walked into the room for our photo shoot, I was certain ‘somebody was gonna get a hurt real bad’ — and it wasn’t going to be me.

“Hello bastards,” was Russell’s cheery greeting. In a moment, it dissipated the tension. It’s hard to be annoyed with a chap this chipper, even when he is being as politically incorrect as it is possible to be. “It’s all about the tone. No matter what I’m saying, people know there’s no reason to be offended because I’m insulting them with love,” says the Canadian comedy giant. In his thirtieth year as a stand-up comic, Russell is way past learning the ropes. He has been taking pot shots at people for so long, he’s a pro at it. He concurs when I insist that the threshold for what is acceptable has changed over the years, yet he is equally insistent that it’s all par for the course. “I’ve been on the journey since 1989 and so, of course, I recognise change. I’ve moved with the times. It’s not like someone says, ‘You can’t do that anymore,’ all of a sudden. 

Russell Peters Here's a look at the cover

There are certain words you take out of your vernacular (over time). But, I think, if you start filtering yourself as a comic, you’re turning into a civilian. It’s like losing your superpower. You know, it’s like you are Superman and then you try to be human again and you realise pretty quickly that it sucks.”

There’s no doubt that comedy is Russell’s superpower and he enjoys the perks that come with it. Today he owns multiple homes across the USA and Canada and a fleet of luxury cars that include a new Lamborghini Urus SUV, the Bentley Bentayga, a Porsche 911 Turbo S and a Porsche Panamera Turbo S. A huge fan of boxing and mixed martial arts, Russell sits ringside for all the big fights. “When Jon Jones fought Daniel Cormier, I was there. I’ve been to (Floyd) Mayweather Jr. versus (Manny) Pacquiao. I’ve been to so many sporting events as far as the fight world goes and I’m always ringside, which is very fortunate and very cool and I would say, maybe 80 per cent of the time, I got the tickets free.”

These days if I buy a pair of shoes for under $500, I consider them less expensive

It’s a far cry from the early '90s, when Russell worked as a shoe store attendant. “I was already a comic, but I obviously wasn’t making any money, so I worked at ALDO during the day. Then I would go do comedy at night and I would DJ on weekends,” he confesses. 

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Nothing exemplifies his dramatic change in fortune — courtesy comedy — better than his shoe closet. “I have 11 pairs of shoes with me on this tour and there are at least 200 pairs at home. Possibly more; I may be undercutting myself. These days, if I buy a pair of shoes for under $500, I consider them less expensive,” he laughs.

His shoestring budget days behind him, Russell is happy to share the good times with his nearest and dearest. Friends call his home in Los Angeles ‘the hip-hop hotel,’ dropping by and staying over even while Peters himself may be away on tour. “It’s a big house and I do have a housekeeper. It’s not like India where you have several housekeepers,” says Russell, who is amused when I mention that being on a Forbes list (The World’s Highest-Paid Comedians in 2015) means that a multitude of housekeepers would not be a stretch. The arena-packing quipster is quick to add that yachts and private jets aren’t acquisitions he’s interested in (“Jezz, no!”). Clearly, watches and cars are more his thing. “I’ve given Clayton two cars. He sold both of them,” says Russell, as much for my benefit as for the benefit of his manager brother, who immediately responds with, “Well, one was getting old.” Riffing comes so naturally to Russell, it’s hard to tell if he’s being firm or flippant when he says, “I would have taken it back, you know!”

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With his family often having served as the butt of his jokes on his way to worldwide acclaim, it is heartening to see the camaraderie between the Russell and his brother. His track record with marriage isn’t great (“I’ve been married only once and I don’t plan to do it again. You learn from your mistakes,” he says), but it is obvious that family comes first for this funnyman. An uncle from Kolkata has been invited to accompany him on the India-leg of his Deported World Tour and, if that isn’t indication enough of the softie settled within, Russell also confesses that home is where his kids are. “I am never anywhere long enough to feel at home, but my daughter is in Los Angeles and my new-born son is there too,” he says, so that anchors him.

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On the subject of family, I ask if Russell ends up embarrassing his mother, given the sexual innuendo inherent in much of his stand-up material. The question prompts a resounding guffaw. “You haven’t met my mother,” he laughs. “My mum’s more likely to embarrass me than I am to embarrass her.” 

My mom is more likely to embarrass me than I am to embarrass her

It is evident that this is a family that laughs together — and that Russell’s inimitable brand of comedy transcends any age barrier. “The demographic of my audience is very broad and I want to make sure everybody gets in on the joke,” says Russell. “Comedy should unify us and that’s what I want (to do). I don’t want a white guy to go, ‘I don’t know; he lost me when he did that Indian stuff.’ I want him to understand why I’m doing this Indian stuff, so it’s about inclusion.”

Thirty years in, Russell is clear that staying in the game is also about passion. “You keep it fresh because it is do or die out there. Somebody throws you in the ocean, you’re gonna try and swim. That’s just how it is every time I get up on stage. Top (of the game) or bottom, I’d still be doing it with the same intensity. Honestly, I just love doing it.” 

Humbled to be on a top list with legends like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy, Russell confesses that he has always chased the laughter and not the success. “In my own personal game I feel like I’m in a good place with it, but as far as the top guys go, you know, I’ve had my time up there and then there are new guys now that are doing great. You’re never going to be at the top forever and the people that are doing big things now are doing a great job with it. It doesn’t mean I’m off the list, but you’ve got to make room.”

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Going by the packed houses and sold-out shows that are fast becoming the trademark of his current world tour, it’s safe to say there must be room at the top. 

Before he made it 

BIG as a stand-up comic, he would DJ at gigs across Toronto to make a little extra cash. An ardent follower of the hip-hop scene, the comedian now counts legends like Big Daddy Kane amongst his closest friends. He is still asked to DJ at events from time to time (he’s the star attraction these days, of course) and, by his own admission, he takes his turntables seriously. But while he has kept up with the music scene, his other interests from the Eighties have fallen by the wayside. Breakdancing, for example. “I am 49 years old and breakdancing would really hurt now,” Russell laughs. 

“In fact, I was just watching one of these new breakdancing videos on Instagram recently and telling a friend that if breakdancing had been at the level it’s at right now back when I was doing it in the early Eighties, I would never have been able to do it. It’s bad enough that it took me three or four years to figure out how to do the windmill — which was a really cool move — and by the time I’d aced it, breakdancing started to fizzle.” That said, Russell has earned his stripes for being ahead of the curve as far as comedy goes.

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Insider gyaan 

Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad 

Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad

The true story of how this unforgettable punch line came to be a part of the act for Russell Peters

He can joke about it now, but getting ‘disciplined’ by his father while he was growing up was a painful experience for Russell Peters. “My dad did beat me, but not without mercy. No more than any other parent I suppose,” Russell confesses. It seems charitable of him to say so, because when I prod about the exact nature of these “ass whoopings,” he explains: “You know, you get a slap or you get hit with a belt — whatever it takes to get the job done.” He’s still a right brat this one, make no mistake, so the whoopings couldn’t have been all that bad. And, on the plus side, they’ve resulted in his best comedic material to date.

“Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad,” is the punch line that has become Peters’ signature, even though it was penned almost a decade ago. But, as it happens, it isn’t his father’s catchphrase.

“My dad actually never said that,” Russell reveals. “I was the DJ at a day dance — it must have been around 1993 — with all these Indian (origin) kids. They used to have day jams in Toronto because the Indian parents were so strict, they didn’t let their kids go out at night. Anyway, so the kids would skip school, a promoter would rent out a club, they’d put out fliers and I would DJ along with a couple of other guys (because I wouldn’t play the Indian music, I’d just play hip hop and stuff). For some reason, there were always fights at these jams. I guess you put a bunch of Indian guys together and they want to try and show dominance, but none of them could actually fight. It was always like ten on one and it was still sloppy! So, whenever there was a fight, I would always run to it because I knew how to fight; I was always like ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ you know, looking to pop one out. So, one time this fight breaks out and there’s all this gesticulation going on and people pulling each other, and then this other guy gets in the middle. He’s this Punjabi guy who had just maybe moved to Canada a couple of years ago and he says (in a typically North Indian accent): “Okay, no fighting today okay, or somebody gonna get a hurt real bad.

"When he said that, my friends and I started laughing hysterically, to the point that we had to run away from the fight because we were laughing so hard. (It was so memorable that) we just kept saying it to each other for years and years, until I finally decided to put it in my act.”

PICTURES: Shivangi Kulkarni

ILLUSTRATION: Azad Mohan

POST-PRODUCTION: Harish Gadwal

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