Russell Peters on Russell Peters

Autobiography takes us behind comedian’s stage persona

When it comes to writing books comedians have a critical track record somewhat akin to that of supermodels in movies often drawing the barbs they’re more used to dishing out. Reviewing British duo Ant and Dec’s Ooh! What a Lovely Pair last year in The Times Kate Muir described it as “stream-of-consciousness writing much of which is barely conscious and so mundane that you want to open a vein by page three.”

Call Me Russell Canadian comedian Russell Peters’s recently released memoir might also be described as stream-of-consciousness. But whatever else critics may have to say about it Peters doesn’t seem too concerned. The only laudatory blurb on the cover from rocker Gene Simmons makes no reference to Peters’s talents as a writer or as a comedian but says he’s “an attractive man” whom he predicts will be “very popular in prison.”

Anyone expecting a similarly irreverent tone throughout the book though will be disappointed. Peters’ story from being raised by Anglo-Indian immigrant parents in Brampton Ont. to selling out Madison Square Garden certainly contains some humorous anecdotes but he’s not aiming to have readers in stitches from cover to cover.

“I knew from the start I wasn’t writing a joke book” says Peters in Calgary as part of his cross-country promotional tour. “There were going to be some funny moments and some sad moments and some poignant moments. It’s just life you know. If they’re expecting it to be funny they’re missing the point of an autobiography.”

The book Peters readily acknowledges wasn’t his idea (he says publisher Random House “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse”) nor his project alone. Building on a framework laid out by Toronto screenwriter Dannis Koromilas Peters and his older brother Clayton recalled their past during long drives while playing music that functioned a bit like Proust’s madeleine. The resulting remembrances which Clayton compiled for the book range from the mundane (what snacks he prepared for Russell after school) to more titillating details — though less explicit ones than in the first draft. Credit for this bowdlerization goes to Russell’s wife Monica Diaz who wasn’t too thrilled to read about his past flings.

“That’s the only big change I proactively made” he says of the revised version. “Our theory was to take you to the bedroom door but not into the bedroom.”

Peters’s mother Maureen also got a sneak peek at the book but like Diaz she wasn’t entirely happy with it. In this case however he managed to soothe the hurt feelings without changing the book.

“She was shocked to find out I didn’t like her much when I was younger” he says. “I said ‘No mom that’s not the case. I just liked dad more.’”

Peters had an understandable reason for this. Often subjected to racist taunts as a child he found he could identify more easily with his father Eric who had a darker complexion than his mother. But Peters also revered him for his strong work ethic and willingness to question authority which he’s sure would have extended to critiquing his son’s book.

“I bet you my dad would’ve helped me pen it if he was alive ’cause he was a phenomenal writer” he says of his father who dreamed of being a journalist. “I’m sure he would have had his criticisms of structure and grammar. He would’ve been very technical with it but in a good way.”

It’s a revealing admission. If comedians have received a critical drubbing for their tomes it may be because of their often grandiose claims. But unlike say Ant and Dec whose book is supposedly full of “vivid observations colourful reminiscence and charming digressions” Call Me Russell more modestly seeks to be “deeply inspirational” and “heartfelt.”

“I just want people to read it and enjoy it” says Peters. “It’s basically just a sneak peek into what my life is really like."