The world's biggest comic discusses racial stereotypes and poop gags
Is Russell Peters Dubai’s favourite comedian? We think so. Last time the Indo-Canadian comic appeared on these shores, in 2007, tickets sold out so quickly that the Time Out Tickets website crashed. Stubs for the 41-year-old’s return next week are even more sought after; all 5,000 tickets for the World Trade Centre gig on Tuesday March 20 sold out in 50 minutes, making it the fastest-selling show ever in the UAE. When a second date (on Monday 19) was announced, the first 2,000 tickets went in just eight minutes, before the entire show sold out two hours later.
So who is this guy? Born in Canada in 1970 to Indian parents, Peters began gigging in Toronto during his late teens, his first gig a ‘terrible’ open mic at the ominously-named Yuk Yuk. ‘I didn’t have any material, but I got a couple of giggles from the five people in the audience and I was hooked,’ says Peters.
Later he wrote some material – most notoriously, jokes that systematically poked fun at racial stereotypes across the globe. All this wit and vitriol was distilled into a special he filmed for Canadian TV series Comedy Now!, which caught the public’s imagination in 2004 off the back of YouTube’s sudden popularity. His notorious Indian accent pastiche went viral. ‘The stars aligned in my favour,’ remembers Peters. ‘I never uploaded it – I’m not that smart, and at first I was freaking out – but then I started getting all these new enquiries for shows and I made my peace with it.’
Since then, Peters has been established as a big player. Dubai isn’t the only place where he has smashed comedy box office records: everywhere from London to Sydney has also fallen under Peters’ spell. 2010 marked the release of his autobiography, Call me Russell, and a recent shift into acting saw him star in movie blockbuster New Year’s Eve at the tail end of 2011; he’s also just wrapped filming for forthcoming Eva Mendes movie Girl in Progress. All these endeavours have cemented his position as Forbes magazine’s seventh richest comedian in the world. So, best to start our exclusive interview pretending we don’t know who he is, then…
We’re aliens from outer space who have never heard of you. So who is Russell Peters? Well, if you’re an alien from outer space, finding out who Russell Peters is shouldn’t be your priority. We should be trying to find out who you are… Russell Peters is this guy who goes around the world telling stories about his family and his heritage; he also talks about other races, cultures and stereotypes. Some people think he’s pretty funny, some people can’t stand him. Sometimes he does some acting. Sometimes the movies are good, sometimes they suck. He’s done pretty well for himself, and he loves what he does for a living.
Your last few shows in Dubai were a sellout – you crashed our ticketing system by selling one ticket every two seconds. What do you think keeps the audience here coming back for more? Sheesh! I wish I knew. I’m pleasantly surprised. You’d think they’d be bored of me by now. After all, there’s no shortage of Indians in Dubai.
What are the Dubai crowds like? The fans have been great. It’s a good mix of locals, Indians, Filipinos and [Western] expats. Dubai is more multicultural than people in North America would expect. For me, the more mix in an audience, the better.
Does exploiting racial stereotypes ever get old? I talk about what I see and, yeah, I talk about race and culture. It affects everyone, whether they realise it or not, and I say things people are thinking but can’t say. I think that’s what people like about my act. I’m the guy who says what they wish they could say every day.
What is it really like being an Indian comedian? Did your parents hope it was a phase and you’d change your mind and become a doctor? I’ve never been another race, so I can’t compare it to anything. Maybe if I was a black comic and then became an Indian comic, I’d have something to compare it to. I just see myself as a ‘comedian’, not an ‘Indian comedian’. What does that even mean? I was born in Toronto and my parents are Anglo-Indian, so even from the jump-off, I’m not considered that ‘Indian’. We were very working-class, so my parents never expected me to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant… They just wanted me to get a job that had security. I hate that Indian parents make their kids do things that the kids don’t want to do.
Was it tough getting into comedy? It’s a tough business. It’s just a man and a mic. There’s no band, no back-up singers. You stand there and talk in front of a room full of strangers, then hope they like what you say and that they think you’re funny. It took me 10 years before I was even just okay. It takes a long time to find your voice. It’s not a race, there’s no finish line. I do stand-up because it’s my calling. I have to do it.
Tell us about the night you bombed. Just one night? I’ve bombed many, many times. It sucks while it’s happening, but it makes you better. You have to bomb, it’s good for you. It’s like boxing; you may be the champ, but all it takes is one punch to knock you down, or even knock you out. When you get that unexpected punch it snaps you into paying attention and focusing. I’ve seen guys bomb who just couldn’t deal with it. That’s part of the game.
You recently became a father. Can we expect poop jokes now? Fatherhood has been great. I think I’m a pretty good dad and I really miss my daughter when I’m on the road. I obviously don’t mind a good poop joke, but I do talk a bit about what’s happening in my life right now.
You’ve been doing this a long time. Do you honestly still enjoy every night on stage? I absolutely love every time I’m on stage. Sometimes I like it more, sometimes I like it less, but yes, I still love being on stage. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it.
It must be nice to reap the rewards after so many years in the business. How do you like to enjoy your money? I do like cars, but I also have ADD, which means that I’ll get a car I love, then a year later I’ll want to get rid of the car I loved for a new car that I’ll also love, until the next one comes along.
The one thing you’re most looking forward to about visiting Dubai is… I just finished a weekend in Denver and it was freezing, so I’m just looking forward to the heat! These will be my first international shows since I performed in London in September 2010. It’ll be good to get back out there in the world, and the fans in Dubai are great.
Was there a moment when you knew you were going to be a comedian? After my first time performing at an open mic night at Yuk Yuk's in Toronto. I was terrible and didn't have any material, but I got a couple of giggles from the five people in the audience and I was hooked.’
How would you describe your personality? I'm generally pretty easy-going. I do find that as I get older, I can be a little bit cranky, but generally I'm pretty easy-going. I can be pretty critical of movies, TV shows, music – but I'm also really critical of myself and my work.
So come on, 'fess up, what's the secret of your success? There's no secret, the stars aligned in my favour. My Comedy Now! special aired in February 2004 and that was right at the beginning of YouTube and Google Video and that was the special that got uploaded onto the web. That was the special that really launched my career. It just happened to come out at the same time that everything was changing on the web and I was lucky enough to benefit from it. I never uploaded it – I'm not that smart, and at first I was freaking out – but then I started getting all of these new enquiries for shows and I made my peace with it. My dad passed in March 2004 and I really, honestly feel that he's been pulling strings from the other side, so also a big part of my success if you ask me.
Why is this the 'Notorious' tour? Some people have heard of me, some people haven't and some people like my material, some don't. In a way I'm kind of notorious for what I do and it's also in honour of the Notorious B.I.G. who is my favourite rapper of all time.
Surely now the crowds are so enthusiastic there's no risk? Isn't that buzz part of the fun? There's always a risk. I'm only as good as my audience. If the audience is tired or unenthusiastic, then it makes for a not so great show. And the other thing is that sometimes people's expectations are so great, that there's no way I could satisfy them.
Where do you see your career in 10 years? Hmmm. That's a tough one. I never saw myself where I am now. Hopefully there are still some people who'll want to come and see me do stand-up. I could just be “that guy who was kind of a big comedian for a while". You never know.
You’re in the same earning bracket as Jerry Seinfeld – are you the King of Comedy right now? If not, who is? I’m definitely not the King of Comedy. There are lots of guys who are better than I am and more successful than I am. I’m just happy that people still want to come out and see me after all these years. You can’t take it for granted.
If you hadn't found a flair for humour, what do you think you'd be doing with your life now? I'd probably be the funniest guy driving a forklift or the funniest guy working in a shoe store. Russell Peters plays Dubai World Trade Centre on March 19-20. Tickets are now sold out.