Comedian Russell Peters returns to Hong Kong

Hard-working comedian Russell Peters is on a roll and now he has Hollywood in his sights, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 7:23pm

Russell Peters is a big deal, a stand-up comedian more accustomed to filling arenas than comedy clubs.

People, it seems, can't get enough of him and Peters is happy to give them what they want. His tour schedule is relentless and he performs at a pace that would leave The Rolling Stones gasping for air. His current Notorious World Tour has broken attendance records in New York, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Canada, but the boxing enthusiast and proud father of a two-year-old daughter shows no signs of slowing down. As he says: "As long as they're paying money to see it, I'll keep doing it."

The tour kicked off in March last year and won't stop until autumn this year. When it was announced the show would be coming to Hong Kong's AsiaWorld-Expo on Friday, tickets sold out so quickly a second concert was added for the following day.

Peters was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1970. The ethnic Indian faced bullying in school because of his race. Instead of making him angry, Peters says the experience made him stronger. "I always took any negative energy thrown at me and flipped it to make me more powerful … It never made me bitter though and that's a good thing."

The bullying led to his passions for boxing and comedy.

Peters' success didn't come easy. He worked, for the most part, in obscurity until an unauthorised clip of his act went viral on YouTube. The clip showed Peters doing what he does best, what he learned as a bullied child, and what he does on stage to this day: imitating, joking about and making fun of every ethnic group he can think of.

So how does he get away with it? At a time when racial humour is more out of fashion than ever, Peters has taken a topic that most comics are afraid to touch and used it to achieve admiration and an ever-growing legion of fans. For Peters, his ability to talk about race comes down to two important things: he is good at what he does and, above all, he is a professional.

I just try not to talk about religion because I'm not a religion dude at all...I leave it alone

Peters, himself an obsessive fan of comedy, says he learned from watching the best: "Don Rickles, George Carlin, Cheech and Chong, Eddie Murphy. If you look at all of them and then you watch my act, you'll see little bits and pieces of all of them. It's the silliness of Cheech and Chong, the racial stuff of Don Rickles, the storytelling of Eddie Murphy, wordplay like George Carlin."

The problems only really occur when people watch his show and think they can do what he does, he says. "You know how if you're good at something you make it seem easy? And then somebody else tries it and they fail - and maybe it's not that easy is it? It's like watching Floyd Mayweather box."

And he may make jokes about race, but they are not racist. There is nothing hostile in his act. He talks about every race in such a way the effect of his comedy is not divisive but unifying. He shows us that it is our differences that bind us together.

Still, there are some lines that even he won't cross: "I just try not to talk about religion because I'm not a religion dude at all. None of the religions make any sense to me, so I leave it alone."

While he sees potential comedy in people "willing to die for something that I feel is made up", he says "there's also a lot of unnecessary controversy and the payoff is not worth it".

"I'm not a very confrontational kind of guy at all," he says.

And that, it could be argued, goes a long way towards explaining his incredible popularity. Peters insists his humour has barely evolved in the 24 years he's been working: his audiences have certain expectations that he doesn't want to disappoint.

Still, he has been able to add some material about his personal life: "Stuff about being a father and getting older and becoming a cranky old man."

The fatherhood bit probably comes as a surprise to many of his fans. Peters has often expressed ambivalence towards kids on stage, but now with a young daughter he says he likes being a dad.

So what's next? He has already conquered the world of comedy but, having recently moved to Los Angeles, he admits he has his eye on doing more television and film work - many will already have seen him as the comedian on the train in the 2011 sci-fi thriller Source Code. Still, even with his reputation, breaking into Hollywood is no easy task.

Peters tries to stay philosophical about the industry in Los Angeles, a task no doubt made easier by his success in stand-up. "That world's not up to me. The only thing I can control in this game is my stand-up, so I'll just focus on that."

Not that he's complaining. From where Peters is sitting, the future looks bright and he has time. "I've only been in the game for 24 years so I'm still new," he says.

The last time Peters was in Hong Kong was 10 years ago and he is excited about returning to haunts such as Stanley and Chungking Mansions. His first stay in Hong Kong led to one of his more popular routines, about trying to take the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui. Let's see what he gets from this visit.


Russell Peters Notorious World Tour, Fri-Sat, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, HK$488-HK$1,088 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 5329 9014