Russell Peters: Funnyman on the money

By Scott Kara

Stand-up star Russell Peters mines his Canadian-Indian heritage for comedy gold, writes Scott Kara.

Canadian-Indian comedian Russell Peters says he mixes up 'regular' jokes with those specific to him. Photo / Supplied
Canadian-Indian comedian Russell Peters says he mixes up 'regular' jokes with those specific to him. Photo / Supplied

Russell Peters loves that he's playing the same-sized venues as his favourite rock band Kiss these days. Which is not bad for a Canadian-Indian stand-up comedian.

"My guiltiest pleasure in life is that I still love Kiss," he says excitedly on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, ahead of his tour to New Zealand and Australia next month.

"They're on tour in your part of the world [Kiss are not playing here, only Australia] while I'm out there as well. We're playing the same venues. We have the same agent so I'm gonna call him and say, 'Look, goddammit, can you get me into one of their shows?"'

Still, it's not like he couldn't afford to buy a front-row ticket - Peters is one of the highest-paid comedians in the world, after all. The Forbes Rich List estimated his earnings at about US$15 million a few years ago.

But then that's what happens when you start packing out arenas around the world - he plays Vector on March 13 - by telling jokes about everything from the fact "immigrant parents beat their kids" to his late father's annoying, but very funny, Indian habits.

"Most comedians would be lucky to play these arenas once in their life; I'm fortunate enough to get to play them twice."

As you can tell, Peters is totally at ease with his superstar comedy status - you could even say he loves the fame. But don't get him wrong, he's not an arrogant rich tosser. He works hard, tours relentlessly and he is open about his desire to be even more popular than he is now. "To star in movies and become a household name would be really nice. But if it never happens it never happens, and I've done more than I should have done in the first place," he says of his humble upbringing in Toronto.

"At this point I'm just looking forward to the gravy part of this meal. Actually, I'm already living in the gravy, I'm just looking for some dessert," he laughs.

How do you come up with new and fresh material, because you are famous for not regurgitating old gags?

I tell ya, it doesn't get any easier that's for sure, it only gets harder. But we're not in this game for the ease of it, we're in it because it's what we love to do.

You get much of your material from touring the world. Any jokes inspired by your trips to New Zealand?

No, because it's a pretty normal place and I really focus more on what seems a little odd - and everything seems to be on track over there in New Zealand. You know, it reminds me of Canada, a country that makes a pretty good contribution to the world but is over-shadowed by the big bully next door.

You're playing arenas these days. But what are your memories of your formative days when you first started performing in your late teens?

There were nights when there were two people in the audience, but you still have to do the show. So I basically sit at their table and tell them my act.

Has your comedy changed dramatically since then?

Oh yeah, because I haven't always done the cross-cultural, world traveller material because I was not cross-cultural or world-travelling. My base [in comedy] was just, you know, pretty horrible observation. And I think I was fortunate because I came into the comedy scene when the boom had just ended, so nobody was really paying attention to comedy, so I could get away with trying anything I wanted at that point. And it was to my advantage because I went through many years of nobody paying attention so I could make as many mistakes as I liked.

When did you hit upon your true style as a comedian?

I don't think you ever get to that level because comedy is one of those things where you're forever challenging yourself and trying to figure out new ways of doing and saying things. Because almost everything has already been said in comedy so it's your job to give your view on it in your voice.

Your parents are very much a part of your comedy routine. Why is that?

It was one of those things... I wasn't aware that they did funny things, it was more because my friends made fun of me about it. And when you are in a situation that doesn't strike you as weird or odd... when you do gain some perspective you think, "Oh yeah, that is a little odd". So I just basically took all the things that people would make fun of me about and put them in the things that I'm celebrating about them [my parents].

I see from your TV special that you're quite a good roller-skater.

I started roller-skating in about 1979. I've been roller-skating since I was a kid. And breakdancing. And boxing. Those were the things that got me through childhood, and now, as a 42-year-old man I still love all of them.

Your Indian heritage and skin colour does give you certain liberties - yet you don't really take too much advantage of it, do you?

Well, exactly. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world and speaking about the world that way. And obviously there are jokes in there that are regular comedian jokes, and there are some that are very specific to me, and that's how I mix it up. Because you don't want to come and sit through one boring monologue about blah, blah, blah - you make it dirty, you make it clean, and you switch it up.

Who: Russell Peters
What: Stand-up comedian on the Notorious World Tour
Where & when: Vector Arena, March 13

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