At one end of a boardroom table in the bowels of one of Toronto’s most luxurious hotels, a young woman is painting carrots with glaze. Next, she torches the skin of a turkey with a mini-blowtorch. A marketing executive from Procter & Gamble sits at the other end of the table, not bothering to look up from his laptop, barely grunting a hello. Public-relations women rush about as though the world has just ended and they need to issue a release.
Superstar comic Russell Peters is nowhere in sight. Yet. A huge pink Pepto-Bismol bottle is waiting for him by the cold turkey. So is Brother. That’s what he fondly calls his only sibling and manager, Clayton Peters. He’s sitting near the middle of the table, round as a Buddha, eating a big plate of French fries. He burps silently and smiles a greeting between mouthfuls.
With an estimated annual earning of $10-million in 2008, Russell Peters has been ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the Top 10 highest-grossing comics in the United States. He has sold out New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, London’s O2 Arena and Sydney’s Opera House. His clips on YouTube have 60 million hits.
And here he is, walking in after eating his lunch in his own suite to talk about Pepto-Bismol and its Feast For All campaign with Food Banks Canada to help families in need during Thanksgiving.
What’s hard to digest is the inanity of the scene. This must be celebrity, Canadian-style.
Mr. Peters reclines himself in a chair, almost supine, his legs stretched out in front of him. He places a paw on the Pepto-Bismol, and makes a show of repeating its campaign slogan, Feast For All, like a robotic pitchman, chucking his chin and flashing a winning smile each time and glancing at the corporate minions in an exaggerated bid for approval.
They smile, wanly, over their laptops.
“I wish my problem could be downgraded to Pepto-Bismol,” he laments in mock reference to his love for spicy Indian food, which releases more than just pleasure.
Quite apart from the merits of encouraging donations to the hungry, one has to wonder why Mr. Peters would subject himself to such a marketing junket. It could be that he doesn’t want Canadians to think he’s forgotten about them. That’s his reason for doing a one-hour Christmas special with standup and sketch comedy for CTV and The Comedy Network, he tells me.
The funnyman, who has hosted the Junos twice, started standup comedy in 1989 at the age of 19 after a youth spent in Brampton, Ont., the second son of immigrants who had come to Canada from India with life savings of $100. After an episode of one of his Comedy Now! performances was posted to YouTube in 2004, he never looked back. He moved to Los Angeles in 2005 and later to Las Vegas, where he now lives with his wife, Monica Diaz, and their daughter, Crystianna.
But his goofy Pepto-Bismol pitchman performance may also have something to do with the confines of fame. If you’re famous for something, even if you’ve outgrown its sophomoric bent, change is a risk.
“I’m getting bored with what I say,” he admits when I wonder if he gets tired of his brand of comedy – the son-of-immigrants jokes, the slaphappy disciplinary tactics of his late father. “Once you evolve, you have to be careful not to lose your base,” he says, serious for a moment. “You can’t just go right ahead and change. You have to do it slowly.” He pauses. “It’s like weaning off teats.” Another beat. “Nice teats.”
“I’m an observer,” he carries on in a mock tone of grandiosity. “I observe all the other cultures, too,” he says, widening his eyes into giant saucers.
Talking to him is like trying to corral a distracted 10-year-old. He willingly admits he suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. One minute, he’s serious, the next, inane, then puerile, then humble.
How old he is now?
I allow a silence for him to fill.
“And childish,” he says with a supercilious grin. Doesn’t it get harder to keep up his shtick as he becomes middle-aged? He offers a calm, considered response as if I’d asked him what he eats for breakfast.
“It gets a little more difficult. They’re young guys working overtime to beat you, to come up with the next level of stuff. You have to stay on your A game.” In addition to keeping up his standup routine, he has been trying to move into film and television. He appeared in Source Code, a sci-fi action thriller movie earlier this year. He had a role in Breakaway, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Several more movie roles are in the works. There have been several attempts at a TV show.
“I’ve seen four sitcom deals come and go,” he says, pulling a face. His I’m With Russell idea would be “based on my thoughts and experiences in my life,” he explains. “But you’re dealing with networks and everybody’s afraid to lose their jobs. They’re so PC.”
His rise from the ’burbs to a king of comedy is quite a rags-to-riches tale, I say, hoping to get something more out of him. “I don’t mind it,” he offers casually about the fame. But the accolades will never go to his head. “When you’ve been put down so much, it’s like being abused in a way. That’s always there as something that stays with you. You never really think you’re that great.”
In his autobiography, Call Me Russell, he writes that when he was younger, he was called “Paki” a lot, a slang term he considers “my N-word.”
“The best revenge is success,” he hoots suddenly, describing how people from his youth often approach him, trying to curry favour. “Oh, I ignore them,” he says. “So yeah, that feels good.”
A public-relations assistant scurries behind him to attend to the next interviewer, waiting in an adjacent sitting room. Mr. Russell blows up his cheeks and releases the air through pursed lips – the sound of flatulence.
“She’s not going to make it! She’s not going to make it!” he squeals, suggesting that she’s running to reach the washroom. Only some of the hangers-on in the room laugh on cue. Brother looks up from his plate of French fries with a small smile, like a parent mildly pleased to see his child dutifully perform his trick to entertain the guests.
Well, this party’s over.