The Man Who Put Indian Comedy on the Map



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.

As the first Indian-American to make it big, Peters has fully embraced the role. "I'm all about drawing attention to the obvious," he says. "I'm Indian, I'm Canadian, it doesn't bother me to be identified that way." In 2007, he became the first North American comic to tour India, where he was greeted like a favorite son—he sold out shows in Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi, and appeared on a talk show where the host introduced him to "the one or two of you who don't know who he is" before proceeding to complain to the comic about his high ticket prices. Indeed, For the Indian diaspora in the West, he is something of a God, the first individual to give them visibility as Westernized, unexotic people. He has sold out Madison Square Garden, as well as stadiums in China, South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Jamaica, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. But he is bitter at the lack of recognition he's gotten for his precedent-setting. "It really wasn't until the late '90s that other [Indian] comics came on the scene," he says. "I don't mind, but I want to be recognized as the first."

Others have indeed joined him. Penn is probably most recognizable for his role in the Harold and Kumar films, Ansari, Kaling and Pudi for their hit shows Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Community, respectively. Kaling, a writer as well as a comic and actor, has skillfully played with American perceptions of Indian-Americans on The Office, where she plays the lovably shallow Kelly Kapoor. In the Diwali episode, which she wrote, clueless boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) asks Kelly's parents—Kaling's real-life parents—if the mother has to kill herself when her husband dies, a reference to the practice of Sati, outlawed in India in 1829. Kelly, meanwhile, is so Americanized as to be cringe-worthy, obsessed with celebrity gossip, men, and fashion. She knows less about Dawali's origins than the office's resident geek, Dwight Schrute. "Diwali is awesome," she says, when forced to speak about the holiday. "There's food, and there's going to be dancing. And I got the raddest outfit." And the roots? "Um, I don't know. It's really old, I think." The episode educates Americans about Hindu tradition, illustrates the way second-generation immigrations are alienated from their parents' religiosity, and, most of all, pokes fun at Americans' misunderstandings about Indians. As in much of the South Asian comedic wave, the joke is on the Americans—it is they who are ignorant, provincial and narrow-minded. The Indians just seem, well, normal.

And this is where the Indian-American comics who've followed Peters differ from their predecessor: While Peters' comedy focuses on ethnic differences, Ansari, Kaling, et al are just like another comics, except they're Indian—a sign, perhaps, that they have fully arrived. Rather than become Yakov Smirnoff types obsessing about the backward customs of their ancestral countries, their ethnicity is mostly besides the point. Ansari, for instance, has become well-known for his character "Randy," a mock comic who is obnoxious, hyper and vulgar.

Now that Peters et al have moved to the forefront of American comedy, they are beyond being typecast as Indian #1 in films and television shows. They are known to audiences—whites as well as everyone else—as just other performers. As Peters says: "I guess it's like art in that everyone interprets it differently. Everyone has their own experiences based on their backgrounds."