Russell Peters, 'Notorious' And Unapologetic

The Indian-Canadian comedian is known for mimicking accents and poking fun at race, culture and class. He's performed for audiences worldwide. All that after being bullied as the brown kid in a mostly white neighborhood. Peters talks to guest host Celeste Headlee about his personal life and his new world tour called 'Notorious.'

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, translated in English, his name is Joseph Green, but the Italian opera master as Giuseppe Verdi. We celebrate his 200th birthday in just a bit.

But, first, Russell Peters is a superstar comedian. He was born in Canada to Indian parents and he's known for his takes on race, culture and class and then, of course, there's his uncanny knack for mimicking accents.

RUSSELL PETERS: I may be considered American rich. That's cute to Arabs. Like, American rich. I have $10 million. Arab rich. I don't know which pants I put the $10 million in. I don't. Oh, maybe in the washer. I'll find it one day.

HEADLEE: That was Russell Peters there performing at London's O2 Arena in 2011. It was part of his "Green Card" tour. He performs to sold-out audiences all over the world and Forbes named Peters one of the top 10 highest earning comics in the United States.

He's now out with all new material. It's part of his world tour called "Notorious" and Russell Peters joins us now. Welcome to the program.

PETERS: Hey, thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: You know, I want to start by talking a little bit about your childhood. You were born in Toronto.

PETERS: Correct.

HEADLEE: Your parents immigrated there from South Asia.

PETERS: Yeah.

HEADLEE: You've said that it wasn't easy being a brown kid in this white town and I hope it's OK to mention that you were actually bullied and I'm wondering how that ended up affecting you.

PETERS: I grew up in a town called Brampton and now they call it Bramladesh, which is kind of funny.

HEADLEE: That is kind of funny.

PETERS: But then, in the '70s, it was just working class white people and then there was a few black families. I ended up hanging around all the black kids because they were the only ones not picking on me.

HEADLEE: You took up boxing to defend yourself, I understand, but I wonder - you know, it's kind of a cliché at this point, when comedians talk about using comedy as a defense mechanism. But is that true for you?

PETERS: It was very true because comedians - generally, we just want to be liked. That's all we care about.

HEADLEE: Well, what does your family think about it? I mean, you kind of portray in your comedy routines as your dad being a very kind of traditional, conservative in many ways guy. I mean, does he get upset when you mock him or the way he talks or reveal some of the things you've said in your home?

PETERS: He's been dead now for nine years, but he did get to see the first 15 years of my career, so he used to laugh at it because he knew he never actually spoke like that or sounded like that. I mean, comedy's all about the exaggeration and my dad did say some goofy things. However, his accent wasn't as heavy duty as I made it, so the accent, I actually took from my friend's father...

HEADLEE: Oh, wow.

PETERS: ...because he sounded like that and he actually said a lot of the things that I say onstage. It was actually my friend's father who did that. My dad would laugh because he would hear that stuff and go, like, yes. They do talk like that. And I'm like, well, you kind of talk like that, too, Dad, but you know.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen. This is a recent clip from a stand-up routine you did for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON")

PETERS: You want to get an Indian person upset? Tell them they did something illegal. I was like, Dad, was this legal? Of course, it was legal. It was totally legal. I was at an intersection, I put on my indicator - and this is where my dad screws up the sound. He goes - I go, did your indicator work? He goes, it worked just fine. Tock, tock, tock, tock, tock, tock, tock. I go, what the hell is that noise? That's my indicator. Why does your indicator have an accent? You know it's not an India-cator, right?

HEADLEE: So that's kind of - it gives people a flavor for the way you talk about your dad. Was that actually your father or your friend's dad?

PETERS: That was actually him, the things he said. He used to not be able to describe sounds the right way.

HEADLEE: Well, but some of the topics that you've entered into, I mean, you absolutely talk about racism flat out, no holds barred. You talk about immigration that way, terrorism, as well. You don't seem all that concerned that you're going to get in trouble over it, but you know, I mean, you have to have been paying attention. From some of the comedians who have said jokes that have gotten them in a little bit of trouble - they've joked about rape. They've joked about gay issues. They've ended up having to apologize for it.

Is this something that is kind of a conversation for you or for the comedy world?

PETERS: If anybody got offended from my act, they weren't fans to begin with and I'm not going to apologize to somebody who wasn't a fan. There's plenty of things out there that offend me, but I don't listen to them, so I don't need to be offended by them. They don't need to apologize to me. They're not speaking to me.

HEADLEE: So there's no issues that you think are off the table?

PETERS: Well, I don't really talk about religion just because, you know, some of my audience may be very religious and I don't want to offend their beliefs. I mean, I feel like, if you need it in your life, then enjoy. I don't feel I need it. I accept accountability for things that I do and say in my life and I feel religion is a way to hide behind accountability.

HEADLEE: So your new tour is called "Notorious." Why did you pick that name?

PETERS: Well, I started the tour in 2012 and it was the 15 year death anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G. He was my favorite rapper of all time and I was trying to figure out a way to pay homage to him.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters. His current world tour, as you just heard, is called "Notorious." When I went to Google to do my prep for this segment and I typed in R-U-S, the first name that came up was Russell Peters.

PETERS: Yes. I got it back.

HEADLEE: That is crazy. So, either you're sitting on Google all day long and planting your name or you're just that successful at what you do. How did you achieve that?

PETERS: I've been doing stand-up now 24 years. I've put in the time, first, I think, and then I got lucky with YouTube. I'll give an example of how fast it happened. In February of 2004, I played DePaul University in Chicago. Thirteen people came and they paid me $700 and then, by November of 2004, I was booked back in Chicago for three nights and I was making a ton of money there. You know what I mean?

HEADLEE: I wonder if you sometimes get worried because, when something goes on YouTube, it never dies. Right? You can always find it at some place and some incarnation. Do you get worried that people will take jokes out of context?

PETERS: Well, yeah. That always happens. I mean, that's always available to happen and, you know, on my 2008 special, "Red, White and Brown," I did a joke, saying that, to me, Portuguese sounds like Spanish being spoken by a deaf person.

HEADLEE: Because of all the sh?

PETERS: Yeah. Because a lot of the shush, like, you know, como estash. Like, it's the same language. It just sounds different. You know what I mean?

HEADLEE: Yeah. It's beautiful, though. I mean, it's a beautiful language.

PETERS: I wouldn't go that far, but that was 2008 and then, last year, I guess it, all of a sudden hit Portugal and I got inundated with hate from Portugal and it's funny because, out of all the cultures I've ever made fun of, the only time I ever heard complaints, even before Portugal got mad at me, was Portuguese people. For some reason, they were the ones that could not take the jokes and it wasn't even anything bad. It's not like I said they're horrible humans or anything, you know. I think the line that got them mad was when I said, the Portuguese went to India - because they colonized India first, before the British - and, as a person who's been colonized, I have the right to hold a certain grudge against it. And I said, they went to India looking for spices and I said, I tasted your food. You didn't find them. And, if that's the worst thing I can say to you, I mean, grow some thicker skin.

HEADLEE: Well, what happens when your daughter grows up and looks at your comedy routines and starts making fun of Chinese people?

PETERS: If you look at it as I'm making fun of them, then you're missing the point. If you look at it as: I've recognized this is the things they do and I celebrate it, then you're looking at it the right way. And, in America, they see it as I'm doing a Chinese accent. In Asia, they see it as a Hong Kong accent. It's kind of neat for me.

HEADLEE: Who are you imitating? You knew someone who is from Hong Kong?

PETERS: No. when I was in Hong Kong, I was buying stuff and the guy was talking and, every time he'd say something, I would ask - I would make him repeat it and, in my head, I was like making a recording in my head. I was like, two thousand. I'd keep saying it back in my head and I'd be smirking, but I'd be like, all right. Thank you, buddy. I'll see you later. And then I'd walk out of the store and I'd be walking down the street going, two thousand dollars. I would do it for my own - like, as a child. I'd be very childlike because I'd be giggling to myself. I'm not laughing at him. I'm just laughing at the way that I was able to copy the sounds I heard, you know.

HEADLEE: Well, I've got to ask you. You know, on this program, this year, we had Jimmie J.J. Walker, who became famous on the show - the American show...

PETERS: "Good Times."

HEADLEE: ..."Good Times." Right. And he was talking about how things are still tough for black comedians. I wonder if that's - you could expand that out to brown comedians. Would you still agree with that?

PETERS: I'm the first Indian one. I'm the guy that created that path for the other brown guys to walk through. I don't think it'll be as hard for them or it might be more difficult. It depends, you know. If they come at it from an original point of view, I don't think it should be that difficult for them, but then you look. There's a recent flood of Indian or South Asian comics and they're doing things that I wish I could do, you know.

HEADLEE: Well, I wonder what kind of - looking back over, you said, 24 years in comedy, what kind of wisdom have you arrived at? Do you have a life mantra?

PETERS: My life mantra is, everybody in my eyes is equal, whether - like, I don't care what your job is. I treat everybody like an individual and I accept everybody as an individual. I don't think that this person should act like that because I want them to act like that. I just accept it as - this person does that. This person does this and I do me. I can't be mad at people for being themselves.

HEADLEE: You know, I've got to ask you another question just completely out of curiosity because I've been amazed at the way that comedians have kind of taken over political discourse. I wonder what you think about that, the fact that many Americans now are getting their news from, like, "The Daily Show," which is on Comedy Central, or seeing Colbert as a popular political figure. I mean, what do you think about comedy sort of actually becoming reality?

PETERS: Comedy is the last bastion of truth, you know. We're the people that are - that say the things that everybody else is afraid to say and the news is so biased nowadays. You know, you could tell by what news channel you watch what news you want to hear. You know what I mean? I like watching "The Daily Show" and Colbert because I feel like I'm getting the truth.

HEADLEE: Even though it's fake news?

PETERS: It's not really fake news. They're giving you the news, but they're twisting it to be funny.

HEADLEE: And what about "The Onion?" I mean, maybe you've seen some of these places in which Onion headlines have fooled people. The Chinese government, for example, have believed Onion headlines. That seems like a really odd crossing over from real life and comedy.

PETERS: Well, that's because "The Onion" presents themselves like a real news channel. Unless you're in the know, you won't know that you've just been duped, you know. I've been fooled by "The Onion" a couple of times until I get to the bottom and see "The Onion." I'm like, I believed it. Now, I go straight to the bottom before I read something.

HEADLEE: Do you feel the need to become political, then?

PETERS: You know, it's not really - it's not my strong point. You know, there's people doing it better than me. I'm not going to try and go and cut their grass.

HEADLEE: Russell Peters, award-winning comedian. His new world tour is called "Notorious." He was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you so much and Happy New Year.

PETERS: Thanks, Celeste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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