Russell Peters: interview

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© David Johns
Posted: Thu Sep 16 2010

Brand, Kane, Howard… what is it about comedians and the name Russell? The latest to join the fold is Canadian Russell Peters - he tells Time Out about his ascent to fame, and why he's far from Mr Brand's biggest fan…

Russell Peters is by far the most successful Anglo-Indian comedian to ever come out of Canada, or anywhere for that matter. In 2007 he became the first comedian to sell out Toronto's Air Canada Centre, performing to more than 30,000 people over two nights. In 2008 he sold out New York's legendary Madison Square Garden. He's become an internet sensation with more than 20 million people having watched his material on YouTube, and next week he plays two nights at the O2 Arena. To find out more about his incredible rise to stardom, we phoned him one morning at his home in Los Angeles.

Hi, is that Russell?
'It is! Thanks for moving the time of the interview, I had to take my fiancée to the salon to get a facial. I'm like, “You know, honey, I could've given you a facial.” But seriously, though…'

Well, that wasn't how I expected to start the interview. I've actually gone a little red.
'You've gone red in the face - she almost got white in the face.'

Right… on with the interview. When you first started in comedy did you ever envisage that you'd achieve this level of success?
'There wasn't a grand scheme. My plan was just to be a comedian, travel around and make people laugh. That's all I ever really wanted to do. I look at everything else above and beyond that as crazy. I'll be honest with you, if I was still having to be on the grind, working clubs every weekend for say £200 a show, I'd still be just as happy. That wouldn't be a failure in my eyes at all.'

Presumably your family must be very proud of you.
'You know what's funny is people always say to me, “Russell, you're Indian, your parents must have been really opposed to you taking this career path. Surely they wanted you to be a doctor or a lawyer?” And I'm like, “Hell, no!” You have to remember my parents were very working class and nobody from my background had ever done anything like this before. Their reaction was kind of like if your child tells you they want to be an astronaut - you pat them on the head and say, “Yes honey, you go and be an astronaut.” So when I told them I was going to be a comedian and they simply said, “That's nice son, you go be a comedian.” They had no clue what it was or what that meant. They weren't like, “Oh no, not a comedian! You mean gigs, long months on the road, late nights and skanky chicks?” They had no point of reference for it at all. I might as well have said, “Dad, I'm going to make little houses on the moon.” “Okay, you go and make little houses on the moon, son.” '

Is there no tradition of stand-up in India at all?
'No, I would be their benchmark.'

Although a lot of people who come to your gigs discovered you through the internet, you've regularly played across the UK for years…
'I performed there all the time on the circuit from '95 to 2002 in every small gig, all over the place. I did every Jongleurs, every Comedy Store, the Balham Banana, Up the Creek and the Orangey Boom Boom. I did my time. I remember doing Madame JoJo's in 2000, a week or two before I went up to Edinburgh, and Russell Brand was on the bill doing an open mic spot.'

Did do you enjoy the British comedy circuit back then?
'I had a great time. I started performing comedy in Canada where the audiences are very different. When people in England go out to a comedy club, they're making a night of it. They've got a great attitude, they're like, “We're going to go out, have some drinks, have some food, have some laughs and have a good time. We're going to let off some steam after working all week.” In Canada it was never that, it was always, “I worked all week, you'd better be funny.” It's very begrudging in Canada.'

Are you still in contact with Mr Brand?
'Not really. I remember the Russell from 2000, when he was nothing like how he is now. He wasn't even close. He was a really nice kid. He'd come up very earnestly and say, “Hey Russell! It's me, Russell Brand, do you remember me?” And I'm like, “Yeah, I remember you.” And then I saw him at the Grove here in LA last year, so I went over to him and said, “Hey Russell, it's Russell Peters.” “Sorry mate,” he goes. “Can't picture you.” Really? You prick. And then he said, “To be honest with you, I don't remember much from back then.” I was like, “No, dude, you weren't that guy yet! I knew you pre-fucking-character. Come on dude, I've been in the game 21 years, I remember everybody.” It's a very small world and for comics that are successful, an even smaller one.'

Oops… On a more positive note, what can people expect from the O2 shows?
'It'll be my last tour as a single man, my last tour before I have a child and it's my DVD recording, so it gives the UK fans a chance to immortalise themselves on film and be there for a sort of historical event for me. It's just the material I've been working on for the past two years, so I think it's ready. I hope it is.'

Russell Peters' 'Green Card Tour' is at the O2 Arena, September 23 & 24.

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