Big-name international comedians parade through Vancouver on a regular basis, but it's fair to say that none is bigger than a Canadian kid who a mere five years ago was playing the local clubs.
Russell Peters made a decent living touring this country beginning in late 1994, five years after he first took the stage as an amateur. His comedy odyssey brought him to virtually every hick town on the map, with occasional forays into England and South Africa.
"I've always equated comedy to boxing," says the former amateur pugilist on the phone from his native Toronto, where he's preparing for two nights at the Air Canada Centre next week, prior to four packed shows in three nights at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday and next Thursday and Saturday (June 20, 21, and 23). "All those little towns are just little fighters that you're fighting along the way to the title."
Thirteen years into his career, he found himself playing Yuk Yuk's at the Century Plaza Hotel on Halloween weekend.
"I remember that Thursday was October 31st that year," he said. "The club wasn't full because it was Halloween. And I go, 'I'm losing frickin' people to Halloween? How does that work?'"
Nowadays, the man sells out concert halls and arenas all over the world, thanks to the anonymous fan who posted video clips of Peters's 2004 Comedy Now! TV special on the Internet, creating an unparalleled global buzz.
"I really don't know how it happened," says the 37-year-old comic. "I know the Internet did it, but there's lots of guys on the Internet. I don't know what made it pop for me."
It certainly wasn't self-promotion: "I'm still a jackass," he admits. "I still only know how to check my e-mail."
When the Indo-Canadian announced a concert this year in Dubai, there were near riots at the ticket outlets. The onslaught of ticket requests crashed computers. Peters had no idea who his fan base was there, but he added three extra shows.
"I was expecting maybe they're expats; maybe they're all Indians," he says. "I walk out on-stage and about 80 percent of the audience is Arab. And it's not like they were just there like, 'Let's see what this guy's all about.' They were fans. They were into it."
Peters, who has become known for his ethnic humour, had virtually every other race covered. "I kept getting e-mails from Arab kids going, 'Hey, why did you forget about the Arabs?' It's funny because people are complaining to me, asking me why I didn't pick on them."
Now, of course, he has a number of Arab-based routines. And while his act consists largely of playing on stereotypes, he somehow never offends. If anyone does get put off by his material, he explains, "they're really missing the point of what I'm doing. Because my intention is never to get that [kind of] reaction; my intention is to make you laugh."
And he's been doing just that for close to 20 years. Starting out at the age of 19 while working in shipping and receiving at the Toronto Star newspaper, Peters got up the nerve to give comedy a try. By his estimation, he bombed, not even making his friends laugh. But that didn't deter him. He heard a few chuckles, which was enough to get him back on-stage a couple of months later.
"I always knew that I wanted to make it," he says. "I just didn't know that I would. I mean, I always told people I would, but I honestly didn't believe it."
By the late 1980s, standup comedy had effectively died because television was oversaturated. "When I came in, all these older comics were telling me about how I missed the heyday: 'Ah, you should have been here in the early '80s. We'd have limos and bitches and coke and weed.' I'm like, 'Oh well.' I honestly think to myself I couldn't have come in at a better time, because I didn't have any pressure of trying to get on A&E. There was nothing for us to do."
Now, of course, there's little he hasn't done in standup. He even played India recently, and while he admits to being more nervous than usual, it didn't stop him from being himself. He still calls Mumbai "Bombay" (and claims the crowds cheered when he did). And he admits to disliking Bollywood movies.
"I said it in India with Bollywood actors in the audience. I pointed to them and said, 'Your acting in your movies is shit,'" he recalls with a laugh. "And the audience went nuts." He says it's not even a matter of opinion: "I don't know how anybody could fucking like them. It just seems ridiculous. Like, who goes, 'That was a good movie. When they fucking danced around that tree, what a great time!'”¦It's not that I'm not a fan; it's just that if you gave me the option between cutting off my testicles or making me watch one of those films, I'll be like, 'Get those knives sharpened up, would you?'"