Long before Aziz and Kumail, one South Asian comedian was winning fans the globe over. Russell Peters, a fast-talking Indo-Canadian comic, went viral on YouTube in the early 2000s and became one of the most popular (and wealthy) comedians in the world. He’s well known in his native Canada and regularly fills stadiums full of fans during his sold-out tours. And in October, he became the first comedian to release his original comedy special, Notorious, to subscribers of media giant Netflix.
“I think Netflix is going to impact everything, not just stand-up,” Peters told Huffington Post in a recent interview. “When I signed the deal with them, a year and a half ago, that’s when they told me they were doing Arrested Development. Right away, I said, “I’m doing business with these guys. They had the wherewithal to bring that back, I’m in.”
South Asians who grew up in North America will remember Peters for his crass, yet charming standup routines that regularly feature impersonations of his strict father performed in an Indian accent. (“Somebody gonna get hurt a real bad.”) But as YouTube brought Peters work to a wider audience, his fame grew outside of Canada. Aside from standup, he’s gone on to star in films, television specials and even written a biography, Call Me Russell. So it makes perfect sense that when Netflix began releasing original comedy specials, they started with Peters.
Like all of Peters’ standup, Notorious highlights the comic’s trademark feature, accent mimicry. “I have a theory. If you don’t speak another language, you can fake it,” Peters tells fans during the special. “The trick is to know what another language sounds like and then when you do your impression of it, sound angry.” Throughout the one hour and 11 minute special, Peters mimics Miami Cubans, Lebanese-Australians, Mexicans and others to the delight of his diverse audience.
Luckily for longtime Peters fans, Notorious doesn’t recycle everything from prior acts. After all the comedian has come a long way since he was performing in nightclubs in Toronto. He’s gotten married. Published his memoir. Divorced. And he also has a two-year-old daughter. Much like Louis C.K. or say Kevin Hart, in Notorious Peters talks at length about life as a father. Childbirth according to Peters? “It’s like watching your favorite restaurant burn down.” Raising a daughter of Ecuadorian-Anglo-Indian heritage? “The last thing I want is my daughter living in America and sounding like an immigrant.”
But not to worry, hardcore Peters fans. Halfway into Notorious he brings out his sure-fire trick — the Indian accent that he channels through the voice of his late father. It’s clearly still an audience favorite. Mix in a healthy dose of self-deprecation, half-a-dozen jokes at the expense of audience members (“Where are the Arabs at tonight?”), ye-olde-microphone-as-the-penis trick (with apologies to his elderly mother in the audience) and you have a Russell Peters special.
But the 43-year-old Peters does have his hard limits, as he revealed during an interview about his 2010 memoir, Call Me Russell. He won’t mock religion, having learned his lesson with a joke about the Toronto Maple Sikhs. And while you may see his accent onstage, offstage he refuses to play a character with an Indian accent. “It’s a stereotype that I avoid,” he told the interviewer.
If Peters fans want more after Notorious, they can also find Russell Peters vs. the World, an intimate four-part docu-series from the Notorious tour currently streaming on Netflix. It shows Peters walking around back-stage in his ever-present white V-neck T-shirt, reminiscing about his late father, sweetly hugging his mother and then creepily scoping out attractive audience members with his older brother pre-show. All the Russell Peters you could want and more. Smart move, Netflix.