The Man Who Put Indian Comedy on the Map

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If the NBC comedy Outsourced—the show being billed as "the Indian Office"—is successful when it premieres in September, the cast will be only the latest collection of Indian-American comedians to achieve fame on U.S. screens and stages. Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, and Danny Pudi—all have in recent years become successes in Hollywood, in the process redefining—again—the idea of what a typical American comic looks like.

But these young comics aren't the first Indian-Americans to find pop culture success. Russell Peters came before them, as the first Indian comedian to make it big in the Western world. "Would it be arrogant if I consider myself the whitecap of the wave?" he asks. Peters has claim to the mantle. He has been at it the longest, having begun stand-up in 1989. Hailing from Ontario, Canada (like so many other comics), he is also the most successful Indian comedian in the U.S. Indeed, Peters is among the most successful comedians in the world. Without benefit of a sitcom or movie, Peters was among the 10 highest paid comedians in the world in 2008 and 2009, according to Forbes magazine, earning an estimated $10 million dollars. He ranks right behind Jeff Foxworthy on the list, but he doesn't have a talk show—or any other show, for that matter. Peters' revenue stream comes entirely from his stand-up shows, which routinely break records for ticket sales, and DVDs of his comedy specials. Clips of his act have been downloaded tens of millions of times, marking him as the one of the greatest comic phenomena of the Internet era.

Peters' specialty is the time-honored technique of affectionately observing cultural differences. What is unique is that his targeted cultures are rarely white or black. Though his most frequent targets are his fellow Indians, he aims at such overlooked nationalities and ethnicities as Guyanese, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, South Africans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Nigerians, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Arabs, Mayans, Chinese and Persians. There are millions of people who hail from these countries and regions but live in the West and do not see themselves represented on stage or in the media. It is Peters' genius to realize this vast untapped market exists. It helps that he is a master of accents: Indians imitating Jamaicans, Pakistanis vs. Indians, comparing Cantonese to Mandarin--watching him can feel like observing a UN session.

For all his success, however, Peters is not a household name in the United States. If someone who makes $10 million per year can be called a cult figure, Peters is one. He does not get the same respect for comedic trailblazing that, say, George Lopez has gotten for his path-clearing in the Hispanic community. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Peters remains off the American media radar because his cosmopolitanism and his focus on Indians and world accents make him unrecognizable. The uniqueness of Peters' comedy makes his among the biggest comics in the world, but it might prevent him from being familiar where he lives.

Or perhaps it's just a sign that until a comic has a Hollywood movie or television show, he's ignored by the American media, no matter how big a crowd he draws (Chris Rock calls Peters "the most famous person nobody's ever heard of"). It's a sign of the strength and size of the Indian diaspora—and of its underrepresentation in public life—that it has turned Peters into a star. Indians living in western countries are not the only Peters fans, of course, but they have been key ingredients in his success. When theatres begin showing the 2011 sci-fi flick Source Code, in which he plays a comedian alongside Jake Gyllenhaal hits theatres, Peters may finally get the American media attention he wants.

Presented by

Jordan Smith

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, Foreign Policy and The New Republic.

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