Unless you’re whiter than Don Cherry’s hair, or have been living in a tree with squirrels for the past five years, you ought to know that Russell Peters is a comedian from Brampton, Ont., who struggled to make a living for 16 years until 2005, when an unauthorized YouTube clip from his stand-up show turned him into an international comedy sensation. He now performs to sold-out stadiums around the world and has more movie and television deals than most comedians can be bothered to envy.
In his memoir, Call Me Russell, we learn that nobody is more surprised by his success than Peters himself. “Many people see me as a celebrity,” he writes, “but I definitely don’t think of myself as one.” There are many reasons for this, one of which must be the more than 20 years it took him to get there. There’s also the matter of being the first Canadian-born, Brampton-raised, South-Asian stand-up comedian in the world. “There’s always that hyphen,” he writes, “I guess that’s what happens when you’re the first at something. … People think it needs to be qualified by something else.”
As befits someone who claims to be obsessed with the proper use of language, Peters has built his career on this hyphenation – which isn’t to say it was easy. Like many South Asians who grew up in Canada during the seventies and eighties, Peters was continually bullied and called a “Paki,” which he refers to as his “N” word. Adding insult to injury was his undiagnosed ADD/ADHD, for which he was sent to “retard school.” Eventually he took up boxing, successfully crushed a few bullies, and “from that time on … had a much easier time of things in school.”
Peters’s experience of racism extended to a fascinating childhood misconception about his own mother who, although Anglo-Indian, had fairer skin than Russell and was often assumed to be white. “I’d gotten used to being yelled at outside the home for my skin colour, so as a kid I just kind of assumed my mom was yelling at me for the same reason – for not being white.”
Although Peters claims to be a “mama’s boy” who shares more traits with his mom than anyone else in the family, his relationship with his father and elder brother were clearly the most significant in his formative years, and still are. We learn a lot about both men – how his brother went from looking after him when they were latchkey kids to his current role as Peters’s manager and co-author of the book. Peters details his dad’s difficulties as a new immigrant to Canada, having to start all over at the bottom because of the colour of his skin. Peters’s affection for his father is especially poignant when he details his fatal and strangely symbolic battle with skin cancer.
Shortly after his father died in 2004, a rogue YouTube video catapulted Peters to superstardom, for which Peters credits his late dad: “I believe my father – his spirit – is a guardian angel that helped me make it to where I am today.” Peters confides that before every show he talks to his dad and waits to get goose bumps, which is how he knows his dad is there with him. “And knowing he’s there with me,” Peters writes, “knowing I’ll be okay out in front of the crowd, that means I’m ready to take the stage.”
Another remarkable aspect of Peters’s life is the shocking number of people close to him who have murdered, attempted murder or been murdered. Of his friends from high school alone, one stabbed an ex-girlfriend; another kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and stabbed her father to death; another murdered a man he was trying to rob; another beat his own father to death for no apparent reason. Peters’s own grandfather was beaten to death in India, and Peters’s favourite cousin was murdered in the Dominican Republic. Just when he thought the curse might be over, his close friend, U.S. boxing champion Vernon Forrest, was murdered during a robbery in 2009.
Peters recounts in detail the various turning points in his career – including a fortuitous encounter with George Carlin in 1992. Carlin’s advice to the young, fledgling comedian was to get onstage whenever and wherever possible. Peters took Carlin’s advice and, 15 years later, hosted one of Carlin’s last shows in 2007.
Many people dream about doing stand-up comedy, but there’s a reason most us never do it: It’s really, really hard. Just because you're funny doesn't mean you can be a stand-up comedian any more than your ability to use Twitter qualifies you as a best-selling novelist.
Call Me Russell is not a funny book, nor a carefully crafted memoir. It reads like a guy with ADD telling the story of his life to his buddies while drinking beer, watching the game, and sexting the hottie he met the other night. In fact, after writing that last sentence, I discovered Peters didn’t write the book, but dictated it to his co-authors. But his fans will be glad he did. While somewhat disjointed, the book offers an interesting, intimate guided tour of Russell Peters’s personal life and his groundbreaking path to international success.
As much as this book may inspire and, as his brother writes in the introduction, “serve as a guidebook to all those kids whose parents discourage them from pursuing a life in show business,” Call Me Russell also demonstrates how difficult and utterly humourless the life of a Canadian comedian can be. As with all things difficult to achieve, you not only need talent, you have to really want it. And even once you get it, and you know you’ve earned every blissful moment and bleeding penny of it – even then, you still might not believe it.
Anne Fenn is a Toronto-raised, white-but-hyphenated humour writer-screenwriter-film-and-TV-development-executive and ex-Singapore-based expat who also teaches at Humber School of Comedy.