Russell Peters on Being Comedy’s Cult Superstar

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NBCUniversal

On December 11, Russell Peters will headline at Madison Square Garden. It’s the first time he’ll have played the Garden’s big room — he’s done the smaller WaMu theater before — but arenas are familiar territory for the 44-year-old comedian. He’s played, to name a few, Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, and London’s O2 Arena. In 2013, Forbes estimated that Peters took in $21 million, a figure that put him behind only Vegas mainstay Terry Fator and Jerry Seinfeld as the best-earning comics. He is, by just about any measure, one of the biggest comedians in the world.

So why can't he get a whiff from Hollywood? Peters, a Canadian of Indian descent, has never had a sitcom, never starred in a movie. There are some plausible theories. For one, his humor — decidedly un-alt and frequently concerning the immigrant experience — is not the kind of thing studio executives are going to get too jazzed about. And Peters, unlike, say, John Mulaney or Jim Gaffigan, doesn't look like a traditional sitcom lead. Still, for Peters, occupying the outsider role has been good for business. The name of his latest run of dates? The Almost Famous Tour.

We spoke with Peters a few days in advance of the MSG show.

You're playing Madison Square Garden, yet the name of your tour is playing on the fact that you're somehow under the radar. Do you still feel like that's true? Most comedians would kill to play an arena.
I sure do. I mean, it’s not called "the Almost Successful tour." Success has not eluded me — fame has. You look at other people who are probably funnier than I am and are critically more acclaimed than I am, and they’ll never be able to sell out an arena. But everybody knows who they are. Nobody knows who I am. The industry still has some old-school mentality of “we only allow one minority at a time.” I’ve had it proven to me time and time again.

Explicitly?
Oh no, they don’t actually say, “We can only have one at a time.” They can’t do that. But their actions speak louder than words. I’ll give you an example. For instance, back in the day, it was only allowed one black guy at a time. We have Eddie Murphy, there’s not allowed to be another famous funny black person. He even made fun of that in Hollywood Shuffle: “We need an Eddie Murphy type for this character.”

So there's only room for one Indian comedian in Hollywood at a time?
I’ve been doing this 25 years. I’m the first Indian stand-up guy to have the kind of success that I’ve had. However, that doesn’t mean I’m the most popular one, as far as the industry goes. I’m not in with any cliques or crews. I don’t have a TV show. I’m not in any movies. I have nobody who is gonna cheerlead for me, except for the fans. So nobody can stake claim to me. No network, no studio, nobody can be like, “We made that guy. That’s our guy. Let's make him happen.”

How else does that attitude show up?
The New York Times. My publicist reached out and said, “Hey, Russell Peters is playing the Garden. He’s sold out the Barclays Center, he sold out Radio City Music Hall for two nights. He sold out the Beacon. He’s done all these things, would you guys be interested in writing a piece on him?” And their reply was, “Uh, no, we just wrote a piece on Aziz Ansari in October.”

Oof.
We’re not the same guy, you know what I mean? So because Aziz is brown, they were like, “That’s it, we can’t write about another one.” It's not like they wouldn't write about two Jewish comedians in one day! But when it comes to white people, that’s okay. You want to take it personally, but you can’t. You just have to accept that’s the way it is. The more you keep me down, the further I will get without you.

Over the years, how much interest has there been from Hollywood?
I’ve had the sitcom deals and stuff, but, you know, they’re not genuinely interested. It's not, “My God, we think you’re great!" It's, "My God, that guy’s successful and makes a lot of money. How can we turn that into our money?” Then they can’t figure it out, because they don’t understand it to begin with. They can’t put their finger on what’s making it work. And when I tell them what’s making it work, they’re like “No, no, we can’t do that.”

Who's going to Russell Peters shows?
Here’s the thing: People are like, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of Indian people who go to watch him.” That’s not true. My act is only in fucking English. That’s the only language I speak. The audience is the most mixed cross-section of people that you’ve ever seen in your life. You can go to see Chris Rock and it’ll be majority black and a lot of white people. Go see Seinfeld, it’ll be majority white. But my audience is legitimately old, young, white, black, yellow, brown. It’s couples. It’s grandmothers. I’m like, What is the industry not understanding here? I’m literally reaching people that they don’t even know are reachable.

What do you think accounts for that diversity?
I don’t know. My subject matter is stuff that the industry is afraid of. They don’t like to talk about race. If there’s one thing America is fearful of, it’s race.

It's not like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle or a ton of other comedians don't talk about race.
But they usually just talk about black. Fair enough — It’s America. America’s very fixated on blackness, and that’s because that’s their own fucking guilt with all the things they’ve done and said, which I understand. Having grown up around black people my whole life, I get it. But I speak on behalf of all the people that are not being spoken about, and it’s not just Asians and Indians. It’s pretty much anybody who doesn’t feel like they fit in with the black or white. And there’s obviously millions of people that feel that way, because if there weren’t, I would be a miserable failure. The funny part is, the new act I’m doing doesn’t even touch on race that much. I’m talking about me and my life, and it’s not any different than a white comic. I’m talking about problems I have with technology and being a father and stuff like that. It’s probably the most mainstream set I’ve ever done.

Do you think that maybe the makeup of your audience is daunting to Hollywood? It seems hard to focus-group for diversity. It's a harder sell than saying, "This comedian appeals to young people," or something like that.  
I can’t figure it out because I’m too busy doing what I do. What someone should be doing is saying, “He’s got this big already without film and TV. Could you imagine if he had film and TV behind him, how much more we could be getting out of this guy?” But nobody thinks like that. They’re like, “Eh, he doesn’t need us.” And I can’t even — you know, the successful comics, they’ll be like, “Man, I really respect the way you’ve circumvented the industry and blah blah blah.” But none of them will be like, “Hey, man, you want to be in my film?”

So you feel frozen out by other comedians, too?
I don’t know if it’s intentional or what the scoop is, but yeah. I guess they figure, Well, he doesn’t need any money.

There's a rumor floating around online that you and Aziz have a problem with each other. Is that true?
Well, no, I had a problem with him. The first time I met him, he was very rude and dead-fished me and looked away when I shook his hand. I don’t want to say I’m a street guy, but I have a street mentality where I’m like, if you don’t look me in the eyes when I shake your hand, Imma smack the shit out of you! But we subsequently spoke and squashed any problem that was there. Now we’re cool with each other, as far as I know. Ultimately, we do completely two different types of comedy. He appeals to a completely younger audience. His comedy’s not for me, and mine’s probably not for him.

What's your impression of the comedy that seems to gets written about a lot more thoughtfully than your style — the more alternative, subversive stuff?
All the movies and TV shows have all the nerdy-geek comics: You grow a beard and wow ,you’re so different. They pride themselves on all this alternative shit, but how can it be alternative if every movie and every TV show you turn on, those guys are in it? Theoretically speaking, I am the actual alternative.

Is all this worrying about where you fit in vis-à-vis other comedians or in Hollywood — is this something you think about day-to-day? Who cares? You're doing pretty well for yourself.
[Laughs.] It’s a nagging mental problem for me.

You might want to consider therapy.
I have considered it! But haven’t done it. But the way I think about this stuff puzzles me because, I mean, I’m not a guy who likes to pat himself on the back, but I can tell you this: You can ask any comic that knows me, any comic at the Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory, ask them, “Is Russell Peters encouraging and good to all the comics?” The answer will always be yes. I’m not an asshole. I’m a give-what-you-get kind of guy, so I assume that other people would be like that, but that’s not necessarily the case. It can bother me.

Is there anything you're doing in your set now that feels like a step forward for you? Something that maybe you wouldn't have thought to do earlier in your career?
No. Like I said, I’m 25 years in this game now, and I’m comfortable with who I am. I genuinely feel like I'm in my prime.

What's the goal for you moving forward?  
People always say, "Russell, if you want to be in film and TV, you’re gonna have to write it yourself." I’ll be honest with you, I’m not that diligent with physically writing. What you’re seeing up there is stream-of-consciousness. So when it comes to writing my own project, I’m just not designed that way. But if somebody came to me with, “Hey, here’s an idea,” I could sit down and jam with them about that.

So there's not a specific goal?
Well, you know, I’d like to do films and TV. But if the industry’s not letting you in, the industry’s not letting you in. It’s like being outside of a nightclub and the doorman’s like, “Can’t let you in.” But he lets in some dickhead with a pair of shiny jeans on, and you’re like, “But I’m rich! I can buy bottles!” “Doesn’t matter, he’s popular.” You know what I mean? I’m holding a black card, and this guy’s walking in with a Visa prepaid.