Tapping into the ethnic makeup of his audiences, Russell Peters is getting used to selling out stadiums on almost every continent
Russell Peters has reached many a milestone in his career. He was the first comedian to sell out the Air Canada Centre in Toronto twice and the first South Asian to fill Harlem's Apollo Theater to capacity. He set the record for largest comedy attendance for a single standup performance in U.K. history, and has sold a quarter of a million DVDs, among other achievements.
And now, to cap it off, he's added cover boy for the Georgia Straight to his impressive list of credits. He can now retire.
“It doesn't get any better than that,” he tells the Straight by phone from Washington, D.C., where he's putting the spit and polish on the act he'll be bringing to GM Place for two nights on Tuesday and Wednesday (June 16 and 17). “It's a big deal, that thing.”
The worldwide phenomenon that is Peters is the embodiment of big deal. The 38-year-old Brampton, Ontario, native has reached heights no other Canadian comic has come close to, and that only a few international comics have neared. Even without a large American media presence, Peters routinely sells out everywhere. The lone continent he hasn't performed in is South America. Well, that and Antarctica.
While Dane Cook (who played GM Place on June 4) is without question the biggest American comedy star, Yuk Yuk's CEO and founder Mark Breslin believes Peters, who worked for him for about 15 years, is bigger.
“What's interesting to me,” he says on the phone from his home in Toronto, “is there are other really, really funny people, but right now I believe Russell Peters is the biggest comedy star in the world. And by that I mean there aren't a lot of comics who could sell out stadiums in places as far away as Jakarta and Cape Town and Mumbai.”
But Breslin differentiates between popular and good, while at the same time stressing that Peters is “really, really, really, really funny”.
“You never want to start thinking about stardom because stardom isn't really about being a good comic, necessarily. It's about a lot of zeitgeist issues,” he says. “There have been tremendous comics that have just become workaday—working, everyday comics. And then there have been those who, frankly, you know, weren't even that great, but they were saying something that was really important at the time and had a certain style at the time that was in vogue, so they became very, very popular.”
Even Peters, who can project an air of overconfidence on stage, wouldn't disagree. Known in the industry as one of the most loyal people around, he appears to appreciate the role luck has played in his career and how fragile it can be.
“There are certain guys that are incredible that just aren't doing the same business that guys like me and Cook are doing,” he says. “I'm not saying I'm the funniest guy. There's guys way funnier than me and way more talented, but they're just not getting the same opportunities as I am.”
Still, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Russell's formative years spent travelling to every comedy outpost across the country gave him the chops to handle crowds and develop an act. But that's just the technical aspect of his success. As Breslin mentions, other factors are at play.
“I think that the American media machine, which exports comedy, traditionally has been kind of a tripartite experience where you're black, you're white, or you're Hispanic. And all over the world, this is the stuff that's been exported for decades, if not longer,” Breslin says. “But the majority of the world may not be any of those things, so there's an enormous market void. So Russell is speaking to that market void. For the first time ever, people who are neither black, white, nor Hispanic have a voice. And a very powerful voice. And you can see that in his concerts. Of course there are people from all over of every colour and every ethnic persuasion, but huge, huge, huge numbers of people who look like him. And he's their voice now. And I think that's a very powerful thing that's starting to happen.”
After his 2003 Comedy Now! special went viral on the Internet, Peters began streamlining his act, gearing it more toward the ethnic makeup of his audience. Any and every culture is a target for his barbs. In his Red, White and Brown DVD, Peters talks about the popularity of the video game Dance Dance Revolution in Singapore. “It's the only time in my life I've seen an Asian dude open his eyes really wide,” he says, to hoots from the Asians in the crowd. Later, after identifying the Arabs in the audience, he says “I don't do any Arab jokes in my act. It's not that I don't think you're funny, I just don't want to die.” They love it.
Still, Peters is careful not to venture into material on a particular group unless it's represented in the audience, lest his humour be taken for antagonism. So when he plays Halifax—a city made up of only 7.5 percent visible minorities, according to the 2006 census—to start his Canadian tour, he says, he's going to have to work extra hard and fall back on those comedic skills he learned years ago on the club circuit.
Asked if it's easier playing in Vancouver, the most ethnically diverse city in the country, Russell can't even get past the statistics.
“Really? I don't believe that,” he says. “Yeah, no, I don't believe that at all. You know what it is? I think they're basing it on ratio of nonwhite people to white people and then they consider that ethnically diverse. But to me, ethnically diverse means you have all kinds of different people. There's like, fucking, six black people in Vancouver. Because in Toronto, we have black people. When I go to Vancouver, it's like Indian, Asian, or white.”
When given the breakdown—Chinese, South Asian, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Japanese, Korean—he interrupts.
“Wait, wait. Guy, you have to understand, that's not ethnically diverse,” he says, laughing. “That's just broke-down Asia. Like Asia and not-Asia.” His shows attract others, he says. “I have white, black, Asian, Eastern European, people that don't speak English. That's diverse. But to break down one continent against another, that's not diverse.”
Point taken. But it's safe to say Peters won't have to abandon much, if any, of his act when he plays here. There was a time, not too long ago, when Peters was looking to back away altogether from the cultural comedy that made him a household name. When the Straight spoke to Peters in 2007, he said, “This tour here is my last round of cultural humour before I start writing in another direction for the next tour.”
His 2009 shows feature a brand-new 90 minutes, which he started writing six months ago and has been fine-tuning in American clubs—“intensive training”, as he calls it. When reminded of what he said two years ago, Russell admits that the new act isn't really a departure, theme-wise.
“The problem is that I went travelling again last year,” he says. “I was on tour. I was in the Philippines, I was in the Middle East, and I was in India, so I wrote more about my trips and stuff that happened. But, you know, I'm working on it, buddy, I'm working on it! Here's the thing. You can't just abandon what your fans like from you. I tried it. I went on stage a couple of times and just did what I felt like doing and the fans laughed, and they liked it, but they were like, ”˜We like that other stuff.' Fair enough. You gotta kind of wean them off the teat of cultural humour, if anything, you know?”
If he ever did fully dump the racial routine, he might finally experience the backlash that so often accompanies crazy fame. There will always be detractors, but to date, Russell's career has been remarkably stain-free. Still, he's wise enough to realize a fan revolt might not be far off.
“I'm sure it's around the corner,” he says. “I need to get just a little bit bigger, then the backlash will happen.”
He understands the human condition. In fact, on occasion, he's guilty of contrarianism himself.
“I'll give you an example,” he says. “I was a big Eminem fan long before people knew who Eminem was. And then the bigger he got, the less I liked him. It's like Beyoncé. Everybody liked Beyoncé, but now aren't you sick of her? I'm fucking bored of her.”
Meanwhile, Peters will continue to give the people what they want. And as long as they keep coming out in record numbers, who's to argue?
Peters still loves performing, even though he continues to try to get into TV or movies (he says he has a film project in the works with Billy Crystal). Although the subject matter may be the same, the act is fresh and new, keeping him fully engaged with each performance rather than phoning it in.
And while he may be hugely popular around the globe, there's still something special about appearing at home. Elsewhere, he's a relatively new act. In Canada, we know better.
“They've only known about me for maybe five years,” he says of the rest of the world, “whereas the fans in Canada have watched me grow for most of my career and they've been there since the beginning, so when they see me, it's not a question of them being fans. They're fans, yes, but also they sort of have this pride about it, like, ”˜Look what we did.' That's what makes it different for me when I go home. That's why I go into such hard-core training for this: because I want to make sure that I don't let them down.”
Seriously, though, what are the chances of that happening? The guy can do no wrong. Especially if he keeps giving his followers the cultural humour they crave. As Mark Breslin says, “If multiculturalism is the theory, Russell Peters is the practice.”