Russell Peters: Hong Kong is ‘the perfect storm’ for his kind of comedy

Canadian comic with a flair for capturing ethnic quirks is looking forward to world tour stopover later this month, in a lucrative career that’s always gone against the conventional wisdom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 6:00am

“I love Hong Kong,” says comedian Russell Peters. “The energy of the city is off the hook. The people there have such a huge sense of the world. They’re smart, educated and there are people from all over the world living there. It’s a perfect storm for what I do.”

You can see his point. The wildly popular Canadian funnyman, who has visited our shores several times before and performs in Macau for the first time at Studio City on February 26 as part of his “Almost Famous World Tour”, is famous for humorously highlighting the idiosyncrasies of various cultural groups, making our hyper-diverse community ideal grist to his mill.

Although some critics have been quick to condemn his use of culturally specific quirks as the mainspring of his act, Peters’ largely inoffensive, often affectionate characterisations of particular communities’ behaviour has mostly been well received by the ethnic groups he talks about. Indeed, he attracts perhaps the most diverse audience of any comedian in terms of both age and race, and most seem to particularly enjoy having their own ethnicity lampooned.

SEE ALSO: Our profile from his 2013 visit to Hong Kong

“I think that there’s something universal about what I talk about – family, race, culture, even sex,” says Peters. “I also try to make sure that I have some first-hand knowledge of the place where I’m performing. A lot of what my fans are responding to is the fact that I’ve taken the time to get to know their individual cultures and idiosyncrasies.

“People will complain if I don’t make fun of their community. Sometimes it’s from a really small group, like, ‘I was disappointed that you didn’t talk about eastern Latvians in your act tonight’.”

The danger for a comedian famous for pointing out stereotypes, of course, is that he ends up getting stereotyped himself, as the guy who talks about races and cultures. Like every comedian, people want him to do his greatest hits.

“Sometimes I do feel that way, but when I go too far away from race and culture my fans get upset,” he says. “At the same time, critics have been fairly critical of my focus on race and culture. At the end of the day, I’d rather make my fans happy rather than do-nothing critics.”

Critical approval might sometimes be elusive, but that hasn’t stopped Peters becoming one of the biggest stand-ups on the planet, and the first popular stand-up of Indian extraction anywhere. Forbes magazine has ranked him the third highest-paid stand-up in the world, estimating his earnings as high as US$21 million a year, and he’s performed everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Sydney Opera House, breaking comedy gig attendance records in Canada, the UK and Australia. Smaller shows, though, can still be just as rewarding, he says.

“An audience doesn’t have to be big to give you good energy. In October I performed for 65 people in a club in Minneapolis. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever had. At the same time, I’ve played for 16,000 people in Toronto, and the energy at those shows was unbelievable.”

Peters certainly had plenty of time to get accustomed to small shows, only making it big in the mid-2000s after starting his stand-up career in 1989. Born to Anglo-Indian parents in Toronto, he grew up in a multicultural environment that shaped his act. He learned to box after he was bullied at school for his ethnicity; he credits his childhood friendships with black children for his lifelong love of hip-hop.

He lived with his parents till he was 30, doing day jobs in shops and restaurants, and supplementing his income working as a hip-hop DJ. The pivotal moment came when a performance on Canadian TV programme Comedy Now! was uploaded to the newly launched YouTube, broken down into sections addressing particular communities, and went viral. For a comedian used to putting together long routines that flow for an hour or more, it was an unexpected pathway to success.

“When that first happened in 2004-5, I was completely freaked out,” he says. “I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t upload the Comedy Now! special onto the web. In fact I still don’t know how to upload anything.”

And despite his immense popularity, he’s still never quite broken through into the mainstream in the way that many similarly or less popular comedians have – hence the name of his current tour. Crucially, despite repeated rumours of his own sitcom, Hollywood has never come calling with a starring role. (Part of the issue might be his reluctance to hold back criticism of other celebrities he perceives to be rude or disrespectful; those in his sights have included comedian-actors Aziz Ansari and Russell Brand, and Bollywood legend Aamir Khan.)

“I can’t get mad at Hollywood,” he says. “I’ve done some really interesting things and I’ve got some great projects coming out this year, including a stoner buddy movie called Ripped with my friend [actor and comedian] Faizon Love, as well as a couple of different TV projects and my new special.”

Previous film appearances include everything from 2011 Jake Gyllenhaal sci-fi thriller Source Code to successful 2014 comedy drama Chef, but he says that the experience of working in film is tough for someone who’s used to having a live audience to feed off.

“I like making movies and I hate making movies. I hate getting up early and I hate waiting around, which is what a lot of making a movie is: hurry up and wait. I also miss the audience feedback. You’re constantly second-guessing yourself when you say something on camera that’s supposed to be funny, because there’s no one there who can or will laugh at it.”

He also appears on film, of course, in the wildly successful DVDs of his various tours – which, since 2007, he’s been financing himself. Like most of Peters’ career, it was a move that flew in the face of received wisdom, and one that has paid off spectacularly.

“A lot more comics are doing that now, but at the time no one was self-financing and when I said I was going to do it, everyone in Hollywood tried to talk me out of it,” he says. “Now it’s quite normal. I’ve been working outside the system my whole career and continue to do so.”

Feb 26, 8.15pm, Studio City Event Centre, Cotai Strip, Macau, HK$680-1,150, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2629 6218