It’s been a whirlwind few years for Internet sensation Nice Peter. At the age of 30, after trying semi-successfully for a decade to be a standup comic and/or songwriter (and occasionally a singing standup), the man known in his Grade 3 Irish-dance class as Peter Shukoff was practically homeless. No apartment, no job.
"I didn’t give up and then, sure enough it eventually cracked open,” the 34-year-old tells the Straight from a movie set on a beach in Los Angeles.
Now he spends a good chunk of the year researching, writing, and performing Epic Rap Battles of History, which routinely hit eight-digit views on YouTube. They’re sometimes crude, always hilarious, and usually quite informative. High in production value, the battles have pitted Albert Einstein against Stephen Hawking, Adam against Eve, and Rasputin against Stalin (a bit that also included Lenin, Gorbachev, and Putin). He and his partner, Lloyd Ahlquist (EpicLLOYD), have done 40 in total and the series, ending its third season in July, shows no signs of slowing down, thanks to a limitless supply of characters, both real and fictional, historical and modern.
The project is the perfect fusion of his interests: music, comedy, and history. “The learning part is really fun,” Shukoff says. “I was going to be a history teacher. I went to school to major in education and history. It didn’t work out, but it’s fun to be able to learn about people. And I feel like we’re tricking kids into learning about Russian history without them knowing it.”
When he and EpicLLOYD decided on the premise, they left the particulars up to the audience. Nice Peter asked via vlog who the first combatants should be.
“They came back with John Lennon versus Bill O’Reilly and that kind of set the tone,” he says. “It was like, ‘Okay, it can be anybody. For any reason.’ ” Fans have made all the matchups, from Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison to Frank Sinatra vs. Freddie Mercury to Mr. T vs. Mr. Rogers.
Each episode, which runs two or three minutes, takes between two weeks and a month of focus, and another month of research and reading and talking. “We’re usually working right up to the last minute, right up to when we upload them,” he says.
It’s hard to pick favourites, but Shukoff lists Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare and Beethoven vs. Justin Bieber as being a lot of fun. And he was particularly proud of the Russian battle. “We really went through 20th-century Russian history,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to be able to put that into a 2.5-minute viral video.” That particular battle currently has over 41 million views. The series itself has over two billion views and 10 million subscribers.
Not bad for a guy hired by a tiny startup company, Maker Studios, to write 10 songs for a hundred bucks a pop. Maker was recently sold to Disney for half a billion dollars. One of Nice Peter’s early efforts, “Superman Socks”, hit the front page of YouTube and got a million views within days. “I remember definitely, like, ‘Oh wow, this is a million people! You know how to do this now. If you did it this time, you can do it again.’ And then I took that kind of energy and focus and started putting it into the Rap Battles.”
Now Nice Peter wants to give back to the fans. He’s taking his talents on the road, just like he did in his early days touring the Midwestern states and the U.K. EpicLLOYD won’t be with him, but his guitar will, along with a drummer and an opening band, the Jackpot Golden Boys from England. He says the live show, coming to the Rickshaw Theatre, will be half songs he’s written, a quarter improvised songs, and a quarter rap battles. How will he accomplish that with his YouTube accomplice absent?
“We get an audience volunteer. They choose what battle they want to do and they play one character and I play the other,” he says. “Usually, they know the words better than I do.”
Despite having worked almost solely online for years, he’s not afraid to get back up there in front of a live audience, thanks in large part to his formative training.
“I was an Irish dancer,” he says with a laugh. “I was eight years old, dancing in a kilt at my elementary school, prancing around in a skirt in front of a bunch of third-graders. You don’t really have any stage fright anymore. I think that was a big asset for me.”
Nice Peter plays the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday (June 6).