Russell Peters has built a comedy empire skewering ethnic identities. Decades of calling people out in the audience to make jokes that flare hot and close to their race and cultures have clearly honed his ethnicity radar.
There isn't a second of hesitation upon meeting a reporter for the first time to break into a Korean greeting ("Annyeonghaseyo"), nor a moment's pause before joshing the photographer, calling him, "fei lo" which means "fat guy" in Cantonese (they had met once before, years ago).
Since starting stand-up in the late eighties in Toronto, Peters has followed his high-flying comedy star out of Canada for tour dates that read like details from an atlas, landing in Los Angeles and reportedly becoming one of the richest working comedians.
Yet, starring in a TV show has remained elusive until now. The Indian Detective, debuting on CTV on Thursday, is a crime caper comedy starring Peters as Doug D'Mello, a fumbling cop from Toronto who takes an impromptu trip to Mumbai and stumbles into an opportunity to bust an international crime syndicate. The Globe and Mail spoke with Peters in Toronto.
This show took five years to come to fruition. Now that you're on the eve of the whole world seeing it, how do you feel?
Having seen it now, pretty excited for people to see it. I'm a fan of it. I think it's really good actually.
You're a fan of yourself.
I'm a fan of the show. If it was my standup, I'd have a completely different reaction to it. Like, "Enh, could have been better."
Are you a perfectionist about your work?
I think perfectionist is an overstatement but somewhere along the lines of a perfectionist. I understand things should be wrong. If things are a little too perfect, there's something wrong with it. I embrace the flaws.
There's a Japanese term for that, an art term [wabi sabi]. You're supposed to make things a little bit imperfect.
See? The Japanese know what they're doing. As a Korean, I'm sure you're not very happy about that.
Tell me about shooting in India and South Africa.
Most of it was shot in Cape Town, but all the exterior stuff you need in India we shot there. You can't fake India. The noise, the colour of the light, you know what I mean?
This show stars someone of a "multicultural" background and it's not just you, it's the majority of the cast. Plus it's not taking place in a Western environment. Is Canada ready for that?
Canada is more than ready for that. We've got members of Parliament that are Sikh. Our Prime Minister is young and hip. We've got Drake and The Weeknd, who are making Toronto the coolest place in Canada. We are primed for this. We're looking for these things now. And I'm so glad I'm the guy who gets to do it before somebody else does. Because if I don't do it, somebody else will. It was never a question of if, it was always a question of when. And when is now.
Let's talk about political correctness.
I'm very anti-political correctness. I don't buy into it.
What does it mean to you?
It's hypersensitivity. People are afraid of words now. You gotta focus on intent. We're judging books by their cover now. You gotta pay more attention. You gotta put down the sensitivities. I say things onstage sometimes and I haven't said anything offensive but I hear the audience go, "Ooh" and I think, "Ooh? I haven't even said anything yet, give me a minute!"
What about when there has been controversy around you like the Melanie Joly comment?
See, to me that was all harmless. [Peters called the Heritage Minister "hot," causing public responses decrying sexism.] The reason I said that is because it was the Junos and the first presenter was a politician. And I'm like, shouldn't it be someone in the entertainment industry, maybe a musician? So that's why I was like, "Why is that person here?" That's why I said it and it completely got taken out of control and context and let's be honest, she was a publicist before, she knows what she did. It wasn't an accident it became what it became.
How would you like your show to have an impact?
It's kind of a fantasy situation. I'm just a regular constable in Toronto and I go to India and I get treated special. And I live up to the potential that I always knew I had. Do you ever just think to yourself, "If I could go back in time with what I know now, I would have been so smart," you know?
I try not to do that.
I know, because it's not possible, but it's that scenario that we're acting out on the show. A zero here, a hero there.
What are your favourite things about Mumbai?
It's the energy. The noise, the sounds, the smells. I only make fun of things I really enjoy. When I make fun of the sounds and smells of India, I'm actually celebrating them.
On the flip side, with Toronto as "home," even though you live in Los Angeles now, what is it that you want to celebrate about Toronto?
There's a line in the show, "I may as well move back to Brampton if that's going to happen." I drop little Toronto lines in there. The girl asked me what I like about Canada so much and I go, "Well, it doesn't smell … unless you go to Spadina in the summer." You know? It sounds like I'm making fun of it but really, I'm celebrating these things.