As they enter the room, Russell ‘Teats’ Peters and Clayton ‘Toots’ Peters split up. Russell, one of the world’s most successful comedians, steps to the front where a long table is set up for the news conference. Watchful elder brother, Clayton sits right at the back. This is their fourth time on a major tour, and it’s the day before the show that will bring the curtains down on ‘Notorious’ and mark the end of 21 months on the road.
“It’s bittersweet and I’m kind of melancholy, it was probably my most successful tour. Would you say that Toots?” From the last row, comes the answer, “Longest, biggest, possibly most successful tour.” Coming from the comedian who’s broken ground and broken records, making USD 21 million last year alone (Forbes), this is nothing to sneeze at. The boys from Brampton have clearly come a long way – and they’ve done it by always having each other’s backs.
A face for every moment: Russell Peters at the Colombo news conference.
In his introduction to the memoir ‘Call Me Russell,’ Clayton writes: ‘We were latchkey kids, and my job was to make sure that my brother made it home from school safely and had something to eat.’ He remembers Russell as always being friendly and confident, while he was the more reserved of two.He says: ‘His outgoing, charismatic personality has allowed him to get to where he is today. And my reserved, cautious and quiet nature has allowed me to be there, right behind him, making sure he’s safe and secure as his fame and success continue to grow.’
It’s a family business in more ways than one. Russell has always mined his personal life for material for his comedy sketches. Fans have come to know and love his father through routines like “Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad.”(Says Russell: “It’s been around for 10 years and people still misquote it.”‘Hey Russell, somebody is getting hurt! Russell, somebody is hurting!’ “I’m like, ‘man I’m not going to say it for you.’”) The comedian mines this rich vein unabashedly, but he’s never skated over the disappointments and heartbreak that came along with being immigrants. When Eric and Maureen Peters landed in Toronto in the August of 1965 they had only their life savings – a grand total of $100 – and two steamer trunks into which they had packed their wedding gifts and the skin of a man-eating tiger from Eric’s last big hunt in India.
Like so many others of their generation, they made the move so their children could have a better life – at great personal cost. Eric went from being white-collar public-relations person for a German engineering company in Calcutta to being a paint mixer for CIL in Rexdale. (Eric would hate the smell of paint till the day he died.) Though Russell gives him a thick Indian accent in his act, Eric actually sounded more like a ‘British army officer’ but he still experienced his fair share of racism, as did Russell, who grew to hate the word ‘Paki.’It didn’t help that as a child, Russell had what would now be diagnosed as ADD. “See there was no description for it then,” says Russell, “there was no ‘This kid’s got ADD,’ they were like ‘He’s just stupid.’”
Knowing what it felt like to be dismissed like that has influenced Russell profoundly as a comedian. He works hard to ensure that everyone really gets his jokes. (At the news conference he talks about arriving in Sri Lanka and being “lei-d” by one of the organisers. “A big floral lei” he clarifies and then spells it out for good measure – “L – E – I.”). For someone with an inordinate number of penis jokes up his sleeve, it turns out Russell is still extremely culturally sensitive. While, for instance, his Indian jokes cut perilously close to the bone, he’s said: ‘There is a fine line between laughing and being laughed at, and my own people wanted to be sure that I understood that difference. I do. I always have.”
While he does play to stereotypes in his act, Russell also sees himself as an observer and a chronicler of cultures. “I think that’s why my act translated to so many people around the world because I’ve been to their places and I’ve seen how they actually live and people appreciate someone coming and telling the truth about them, whether it’s an awkward truth or funny one, it’s the truth.”
While his ‘Notorious’ tour has its fair share of truth telling, Russell draws on his experiences as a father and a recent divorcee for new comedy routines. (Be warned, it’s strictly adults only content). He married girlfriend Monica Garcia on August 20, 2010, after going down on one knee at Los Angeles International Airport a mere month before. Four months into their marriage they welcomed a little girl in the world. Crystianna is now three years old, and Russell says he’s actually enjoying fatherhood – marriage not so much. Monica and he had only known each other for six months before the wedding and were divorced in two years in what Russell describes as an “amiable split.”
Russell has always been frank about his love life, even answering questions on his relationship with porn star Sunny Leon. While he’s been in many relationships, he has a special place in his heart for ex-girlfriend Shivani, whom he calls ‘beauts.’ They’re still close friends because she was there when he had nothing. It’s another instance that demonstrates clearly that Russell Peters keeps score. In fact, ‘Call Me Russell’ is as much about him as the people who have stood by him – in his universe few good deeds go unrewarded or unacknowledged, but then the reverse is also true.
“I think loyalty is something a lot of people lack nowadays and I think we live in a time where you can just jump from thing to thing with no regard,” he says. “There’s no payment for leaving somebody behind or switching up…All the people that have been around me, have been around me for long time,” he says, then segues smoothly into a joke.“When we started my security guys weren’t my security guys, just my friends and now they’re my slaves. I’m kidding, they don’t get paid enough to be slaves.”
The room bursts into laughter, everyone in it just a little giddy and star struck. It wasn’t like this when Russell was last here in 2005 – and the difference in his reception is a measure of what a big star he’s become. As the cameras click and flashes go off, I find Clayton at the back. A chat with him is a reminder that however meteoric their rise, it was never inevitable. In fact, Russell was so in debt that when he received his $7,500 cheque for the 2003 special that made him famous, he signed it over straight away and stayed broke, though he now owed a little less. Clayton was still saddled with paying the mortgage and they had just heard their father had a form of skin cancer that would eventually claim his life. Things couldn’t have been grimmer, so when success came it caught them all by surprise.
“You don’t expect it, because the number of people who get to that is very slim,” says Clayton. Russell thinks they earned it with those 15 years where he laboured in obscurity, earning his chops as a comedian – whether in front of bored diners at a local pub or between a DJ’s sets on the dance floor. Newer comics don’t necessarily want to put the “roadwork” in, he says. “Those are the gigs that shape you, they’re the ones that determine how dedicated you are to this game…They didn’t make me who I am but made me what I am.”
Around the time Russell’s career took off Clayton chose to quit a corporate job he loathed and Russell offered him a job as his assistant. Scoffing, Clayton said he would be his manager instead. “In the early days we didn’t have conflict together as brothers but we had to learn to work together as business partners.” Always fiercely protective of ‘Teats’, Clayton says he came out of the theatre bawling after he watched ‘The Fighter’. A film about two brothers it captured how he felt so clearly: “I’m always more nervous for him, I’m more nervous than him at every single show. Once he gets up on stage, there’s nothing I can do for him. Whether he’s having a good show or a bad show, there’s nothing I can do. I only stop being nervous when the show is over.”
For his part, Russell has never forgotten the deeply humiliating ‘chin-check’ moments when he was booed off stage, but he says he continues to find inspiration in the work he loves. “When I write…my inspiration is I think of my daughter’s future, of my future, of my legacy…I don’t want to fall off but after 24 years, you’d really have to not care in order to fall off but I care still and I love doing what I do. That’s my motivation.”
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 10 November, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.