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If you haven’t heard of Canadian comedian, Russell Peters, or seen the legendary 45-minute internet clip that made him famous in the United States, then you just might be the type of person who still watches movies on VHS.
When you finally pick up an iPod Video five years from now, perhaps then you’ll be able to download the pilot episode of a sitcom starring Russell Peters. But if you wait until then, you will be watching a pilot that is already five years old.
That is because Peters has just inked a deal with Hollywood heavyweight Tom Werner to create a sitcom at Warner Brothers Television based upon Peters’s comedy act. Peters will also star.
Tom Werner’s name should look familiar. Most television viewers recognize it accompanying the title Executive Producer in the ending credits of two decades worth of tremendously popular sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and That ’70s Show.
If Peters’s sitcom pilot is one of the lucky few that gets picked up by a major network or cable channel this spring (and there’s a good chance that it will), then you may find Peters in your home once a week. On the television, that is.
Indeed, there have been other attempts to produce an American sitcom with a Desi protagonist. Hollywood paid attention to the wild popularity of BBC shows Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars of No. 42, which featured Desis prominently, and wanted to duplicate the model here in the United States.
And so, in 2004, NBC made one of a handful of industry-wide attempts to peddle Desis to the American public with its pilot Nearly Nirvana—a show initially starring Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar), written by Ajay Saghal (a screenwriter perhaps most famous for betrothing actress Kelli Williams), and produced by David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer).
Nearly Nirvana successfully navigated past many pitfalls notorious in the development process for network television shows, but ultimately failed to win a slot in the fall lineup. (Instead, we got Joey. Thanks, NBC!)
But Peters’s sitcom will likely enjoy a better fate. Tom Werner is a powerful Hollywood player. He has a reputation for producing successful, high-quality television franchises. And, most importantly, he’s got a star who has already proven his popularity in intimate standup clubs, enormous amphitheaters, and on screens of all sizes.
In addition to his live standup performances all over the world, including a rare 11-year run at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal—one of the largest international comedy festivals—Peters starred in two one-hour specials on The Canadian Comedy Channel: Russell Peters is off the Hook and The Russell Peters Show. This second show won him the Gemini Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy Award, for best solo comedy show.
Peters hosted two seasons of the BBC talk show Late Night East in the United Kingdom, and was featured in the television series Police Academy. He has also appeared in Eddie Griffin’s My Baby’s Daddy (2004), and the upcoming independent film Quarter Life Crisis.
And, of course, he is most famous for a 45-minute video clip that was distributed all over the internet, inundating inboxes everywhere. Arguably, it was this clip that blazed him a path straight into Tom Werner’s office.
I first met Russell Peters on April 17, 2004 backstage at the Brava Theater in San Francisco. He was, of course, headlining. I was his opening act. At this point, his video clip had not yet been released on the internet. Yet, there was enough of a buzz about him to sell out a 1,000-seat theater.
I immediately liked the guy. Even in simple conversation, he was lightning fast with the funny.
To prepare for the show, I watched a recently completed DVD his manager had sent me. I wanted make sure he and I would not have overlapping jokes (I didn’t have to worry, his jokes were very different, because they actually made people laugh).
However, one thing about him remained a mystery. I’d heard he was an amazing comic, but as I watched, I wasn’t sure what was the big deal. Sure, his catalog of Indian jokes extended beyond just the “curry and accent” schtick peddled by lesser Indian comics. And, yes, his strength with mimicry and improvisation were phenomenal.
But why were my friends so maddeningly crazy about him? It wasn’t until I saw him perform live that I understood. But first, some backstory …
HOW TO GET YOUR OWN SITCOM IN 192 MONTHS
Peters says he told his first Joke when he was in, as they say in Canada, “grade eight.” It was 1983. Yes, most people tell jokes. Famed actress Uta Hagen once said we spend 80 percent of our time trying to make other people laugh. But there is a difference between a joke and a Joke.
A Joke is partially (if not wholly) premeditated. In other words, the deliverer of the Joke knows what he or she is doing. They’re trying to make you laugh, and if they fail, they will try again … five seconds later. They are compelled to do it. They have no choice.
“I think my first joke on stage was about how when you’re using someone’s toilet, you use the washroom faucet to cover the sound,” Peters said. “Or maybe it was about AIDS.”
Peters admits his first phase of jokes focused plenty on scatological humor. He says he then shifted into a “too-many-Indian-jokes phase” and, after that, a “hardcore blue phase” (in standup comedy, “blue” refers to vulgar humor), before arriving at his current voice.
What is that voice?
“One that speaks to any minority not currently being spoken to,” Peters said.
But he doesn’t stop at speaking to them. He also speaks like them. This “phase” began in 1995—a watershed moment for hardcore Peters fans because that is when he started doing his spot-on impressions of the subtleties of various accents, ranging from Taiwanese to South African Zulu.
But accents and strong material will only get you so far. The life of a comedian is not an easy one. “I was still making only $200 a night as a headlining comic just two years ago,” said Peters. He supplemented his income by DJ’ing parties and working at a shoe store. “Even though I had my own TV special, I was always broke.”
What kept him going?
“I met [comedian] George Carlin on the street and he told me to get on stage as much as possible,” said Peters. So he did just that. He got on stage as much as possible. For 16 years.
His first big break came in 1994 when the Toronto Star did a cover story with a picture of Peters performing at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club. “The reporter had come to see another comedian, but I stole the show!” said Peters.
Thanks to the article, almost overnight Peters could command headlining slots at comedy clubs, which lead to an invitation to the Toronto Comedy Festival, which lead to television specials, which lead to movie roles, which lead to…returning to his parents’ home again, broke, and bumming 20 bucks from his dad to go out to eat.
“My dad told me to get a job at Burger King. He said, ‘It’s a respectable job!’ But I said, ‘Dad, I’ve been on TV. People will come up to me and say, oh my God, you’re my favorite comedian…can I get Combo #4?’”
“I’D LIKE TO THANK MY AGENT, MY MANAGER, AND … THE INTERNET”
Something critical occurred during the same decade that Peters began telling jokes. Al Gore invented the internet.
Peters admits that the infamous 45-minute clip that made the rounds on the internet in 2004 helped him circumvent the traditional barriers into Hollywood. What’s more, he believes he found his comic voice after the clip marked his entry into the world of big-draw comedians.
“That’s when I knew people were coming to see me because I know a little bit about everyone,” Peters said.
Yet, despite all his good fortune (and by fortune, I mean fortune—Peters has earned enough this year to afford buying a house … in California!), Peters is still hard at work honing his act.
“I think I’m about to hit another level,” noted Peters. “I want to make audiences ‘hurt laugh,’” he said, referring to the holy grail for many comedians: an audience laughing so hard, their ab muscles are sore for the rest of the week.
And to reach this level, Peters continues his non-stop tour of small clubs and large theaters. Which brings me to my thesis for Why Russell Peters is Funny.
WHY RUSSELL PETERS IS FUNNY
“Canada produces great comics because Canadian audiences are hard to please,” said Peters. “Canadians demand a good time. It’s not just ‘going out’ for them.”
Yes, it is true that Canada has a phenomenal track record of providing America great comedians like Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey. But Canada’s high standards alone don’t account for why Russell Peters is a painfully funny man.
I hung out with him after a recent show at the Irvine Improv. In one breath, he provided advice (“You gotta watch the tapes of your bad sets—watch them just once, that’s how you learn.”), career opportunities (“This guy gave me his card to do a Christmas party— take it, call him, and ask for a thousand bucks.”), and dirty jokes (not fit for print, actually).
That’s when I realized: This man is funny because he’s your cousin. He’s like that cousin, or idea of a cousin, that is always smirking while hanging out, giving advice, and, yes, telling jokes. Hilarious jokes.
That’s why after his 16 years of working the standup circuit for lousy pay and without a fallback plan, many people can’t help but root for the guy. He’s our cousin, after all.
Sanjay Shah writes and performs comedy in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator of Badmash Comics (www.badmash.org).