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The famous comedian most Americans don't know

By Alicia W. Stewart, CNN
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Wed October 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Comedian Russell Peters' releases the first original Netflix comedy special, "Notorious"
  • He's not a household name in the United States, but has a worldwide fan base
  • Fans love his take on cultural stereotypes, but he has critics, too
  • Peters: "My intention is to make you laugh, that's all I want to do"

(CNN) -- Comedian Russell Peters has been a stand-up comic for 24 years, has a worldwide following and is one of the highest-earning comedians in the world, among Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock.

He was the first comic to play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and has appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and Comedy Central.

But in the United States, he is not a household name.

"I know how it goes," he said before accepting an award at the South Asians in Media, Marketing and Entertainment Summit last month. "First (Hollywood) calls Aziz (Ansari), then Aasif (Mandvi), then me."

Peters may not have been on a mainstream network or cable American television show like Ansari of "Parks and Recreation" or Mandvi of "The Daily Show." But it hasn't stopped the comedian from filling arenas and setting his sights on more.

His millions of fans around the world know that Peters' comedy is based on making the kind of cultural observations few can get away with in a politically correct culture.

"Who I am on stage is just an amped up version of who I am in real life, " he said.

The Anglo-Indian Canadian -- he was born outside Toronto to Indian parents -- has an insider-outsider act that manages to both unite and offend fans and critics.

Case in point: His monologue about the Portuguese language, which he said sounds like badly pronounced Spanish spoken by a deaf person. The act did not endear him to Portuguese speakers.

Then there's his take on stereotypes about Arabs: "I don't do any Arab jokes in my act. It's not that I don't think (they're) funny, I just, you know, I don't wanna die."

His personal observations of his own family have drawn in a lot of fans, too. His act about his father -- a character created from stories about his own father and a friend's -- considered how different families approach discipline for their kids.

Peters told audiences that before his father hit him, his dad would say "Somebody gonna get hurt real bad!" Peters jokes that he hated the line about "somebody."

"You knew it was you, but it gave you this hope," he said.

The video of the act went viral and catapulted the comic beyond Canada to an international audience. Soon, his impersonations of Indian and Cantonese accents became his comedic signature -- earning laughs and criticism.

Now, with the release of a four-part documentary and Netflix's first comedy special, "Notorious," Peters' continues to "go there," and bring viewers along for the ride.

Russell Peters' good impression
Russell Peters punked by King of Jordan

"My intention is to make you laugh, that's all I want to do. My intention is never to hurt anybody's feelings," he said.

CNN spoke to Peters in New York when he was being awarded a 2013 Trailblazer Award by the South Asians in Media, Marketing and Entertainment Association.

In this edited conversation, he shares what he learned while doing stand-up, and how understanding his bullies prepared him for a career in comedy.

CNN: How would you describe your voice in comedy?

Peters: Frank, blunt, unapologetic and my intent is to make you laugh, not to do anything else. I'm not really trying to make you think too hard, but sometimes I say things just to see if you're paying attention. And that's how I gauge how up or down the intellectual scale I'm going to go.

CNN: Take me back to growing up in Toronto. You've talked about being bullied, taking up boxing and being immersed in hip-hop culture to deal with that time in your life. Tell me how these forces shaped you and shaped, eventually, your comedy.

Peters: When you're at a young age being reminded that you're not like everyone else, and you were called 'Paki' or whatever they did, or they'd spit on you or kick you ... I didn't understand. I couldn't figure it out, because obviously racism, prejudice is a learned behavior. It's not a natural instinct, you know.

So the boxing gave me the confidence that I needed , and the hip-hop gave me the identity that I needed.

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CNN: What would you tell the younger Russell who was being bullied at that time?

Peters: Here's the thing, I was never like, down...

For me, I think it just goes to who you are inside. My goal was always to try and figure out what they hated about me. I was never like: "I hate you, too." It was more like, "Well I don't really like what you're doing to me, but I would like to get into your brain to figure out why you're doing this to me."

So whenever I meet and go to different countries or meet different cultures I automatically try and think the way they think so I can approach them the way they need to be approached.

CNN: That must have been really helpful in comedy.

Peters: Well that's why we're here today, because that somehow has bled into my comedy and that's the way I approach it. I don't feel like excluding people. I want to include everybody. And the more people in on the joke the better it is, you know?

CNN: What would you like your fans to know about you, that they don't know from your comedy?

Peters: I think a lot of people mistake my confidence on stage for cockiness in real life, and that's actually farthest from the truth. When I'm on stage I'm that confident and that cocky, because I have a microphone in my hand, and there's a few thousand people staring at me. And I know they're there to laugh.

But you take that all away from me, and I'm back to Regular Joe status, where I may have a little bit of confidence, but I'm not just gonna roll up on some chick because, you know, I think I'm somebody else.

No matter where you are, the root of you is designed from a young age. So if my confidence was taken as a child, you can gain back a lot of the confidence, but that root of the cavity will still be there.

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