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Why Russell Peters Is Notoriously Unknown

Why Russell Peters Is Notoriously Unknown

Feb 14 2014, 10:22am CST | by

In Hollywood, they say fame and fortune go hand in hand. That’s not the case for comedian Russell Peters. The 43-year-old pulled in an estimated $21 million last year, but chances are you’ve never...

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22 weeks ago

Why Russell Peters Is Notoriously Unknown

Feb 14 2014, 10:22am CST | by

In Hollywood, they say fame and fortune go hand in hand. That’s not the case for comedian Russell Peters. The 43-year-old pulled in an estimated $21 million last year, but chances are you’ve never even heard of him.

Having just completed his last tour, the comedian is now playing at the smaller, more intimate clubs — a common method for comedians to experiment with new material as they prepare for new acts. But Peters has been setting global sales records for years, selling-out arenas from Radio City Music Hall to the Sydney Opera House. In 2009, he broke the U.K. attendance record for a one-off comedy show when he performed in front of 16,000 fans in London’s O2 Arena. In Australia, he pocketed $2 million after headlining two shows. In Singapore, an effortless $1 million in two just nights.

Add to that last year’s tour, “Notorious,” which kicked off early 2012 and quickly became the most-attended comedy show in the history of Lebanon, Singapore, Indonesia, South Africa and Malaysia. In Dubai, tickets became the fastest-selling in the history of the Emirate, even outselling Madonna . The tour was the world’s third most popular comedy act of 2012 (Jeff Dunham  was No. 1).

The bulk of Peters’ earnings come from the multi-million dollar touring enterprise he’s created. In 2013, he grossed $19 million from 64 shows, which wasn’t too far from Jerry Seinfeld ’s $23 million.

But fame hasn’t followed. In the States, Peters’ lack of recognition even has some of his famous friends puzzled. Chris Rock calls him the “most famous person nobody’s ever heard of.” Lisa Lampanelli said, “It’s like he has no real recognition here, yet the guy has 10 Bentleys.”

Peters is not completely unknown. The majority of his fanbase may exist primarily within the Desi diaspora, but he still managed to become the first comic to perform at Brooklyn’s recently built Barclays Center in front of a sold out crowd of 20,000. That fact makes Geof Willis, President of Live Nation Comedy, very happy.

“He’s one of the reasons why I love my business,” says Wills. “The business has gotten more sophisticated and more competitive, but the fact that a guy can go out there and make millions in a year and sell out arenas is spectacular.”

A master of cultural lampoons, Peters pokes fun at just about everyone — including himself. His comedic style stems from his Anglo-Indian upbringing in Canada and appeals to a diverse  audience. “I don’t make the stereotypes,” he often says at his shows. “I just see them.” His fans enjoy him because he has the ability to expose barriers and then break them down, suggesting a comforting thought, that in comedy, cultures can merge.

Peters exploded in 2004 after video clips from his third special went viral on the Internet. In just a few months, he had amassed a large following of  loyal fans.

Video: Russell Peters, Notoriously Unknown

When asked about America’s dismissal of his success, Peters is reluctant to express any sign of defeat. He categorizes himself as the nerd who possesses all the qualities of an entertainment juggernaut  but, for whatever reason, the in-crowd just doesn’t want to bother. “I’d love to have a television show or do a bunch of movies, but this town is like high school,” he says. “If you’re not in with the cool kids, then it doesn’t matter how funny you are. You’re just not in.”

His brother and manager Clayton Peters says that Hollywood isn’t thrilled when you come from outside of the Hollywood bubble. “It’s unfortunate that in order to be successful in comedy, you have to be endorsed by a tastemaker,” he says, referring to the Judd Appatows of the world. “But you have to understand that when discussing development deals or projects, you’re talking to some of the most over-privileged people in the world.”

The two have been through endless wrestling matches with television networks and well-known media players without any progress. As a lesson learned, Peters and his brother are now more involved with producers and partners outside of what they call the “established system.”

One of those partnerships,  Netflix, agreed to exclusively stream Peters’ latest comedy special in addition to a four-part behind-the-scenes documentary following his life on the road. “Russell Peters Vs. The World” comes from a deal that is a first in the category of comedy specials, and it arrived just as the company is riding high on new content like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black.

Will the Netflix deal finally bring Peters into the Hollywood fold? The comedian says he isn’t too worried about that. “I guess the problem is that I’m an alpha male and I’ve got a leader-type mentality. I can’t really follow. In my head, I’m always like, ‘Eh, let’s just do me,’” he says.

“I’d love to be a part of something. But for now, I guess I’ll have to wait,” says Peters with a sigh. “I can’t stop touring. It’s my only income. I can’t become a slumlord, but I still gotta pay the mortgage.”

Video: Russell Peters, Notoriously Unknown
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Also on Forbes:

The Top-Earning Comedians of 2013

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