He fills arenas around the world. He frequently appears on Forbes’ annual list of highest-paid comedians. His Deported World Tour will hit more than three dozen countries beginning next month. But right now, onstage at Hermosa Beach’s 250-capacity Comedy & Magic Club, Russell Peters struggles to recall a chunk of new material.
“There’s something I’m trying to remember right now about my act, but it’s not coming to me,” Peters admits to the crowd. “I haven’t been onstage in two weeks, and I’m stalling because I’m thinking, ‘Where is that bit?’ I know I’m going to start another bit, then ‘Aha!’ and … I don’t know why I’m telling you my process right now!”
His sold-out audience, running the gamut of ages and ethnicities, eats up the self-effacement. Peters plows ahead, offering lighting-fast crowd work along with recounting the perils of taking his seven-year-old daughter into a public restroom and learning new facets of LGBT culture from a gay friend. It’s progressive, unifying stuff; as a globe-trotting Indian performer from Toronto, he understands that commonalities hold more sway than differences.
“We don’t know what’s going to kill us anymore, do we? We thought it was going to be ISIS, and then, uh,” he says during the act. The attendees hoot, anticipating where he might be heading, and sure enough: “And then Trump got in, and it was like, [as Trump] ‘Don’t worry about ISIS! Hold on, watch this: Hey, Kim Jong Un! You’re short, and you’re fat!’ Even ISIS is like, [Middle Eastern accent] ‘Vhut are you doing?!’”
They usually go for the Indians that have more ethnic-sounding names nowadays.
Peters glances around, raising his hands as a panicked ISIS member. “‘Your boy vill get us all keeled! He’s nuts! At least ve have an imaginary friend up there; dees guy’s doing ut for nobudy!’”
Nearing 90 minutes, his eyes light up. He describes being recently administered propofol–the anesthesia Michael Jackson was taking when he died–before an endoscopic procedure. Afterward, the nurse cautioned that Peters might feel some throat irritation.
“Two hours go by, I start panicking because I don’t have a sore throat. Because I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got the throat of a gay man!’” Peters lands a few more tags and confesses, “Now, see, that was the bit I was supposed to do right before I led into the gay-friend part! Thank you, guys! Good night!”
“The whole set was out of whack tonight because I haven’t performed in two weeks,” Peters sighs to me in the club afterward. He sits beneath a glass case displaying Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters jumpsuit, pulling up pictures of his trip to Chile’s desert-mountaintop telescopes. There were lasers. Neil Armstrong’s son was hanging out as well. Peters just arrived home to Calabasas yesterday.
“Some of it, I forgot to do, and some is still a work in progress,” he assesses. Not that he’s worried. “I’ve got until the 31st to figure this shit out, tighten it up and make it really cohesive.”
In the meantime, Peters’ new comedy-drama series The Indian Detective premieres Tuesday, December 19, on Netflix. Though he’s got a few acting gigs dotting his resume, the four-part scripted project marks his most prominent role to date.
“They usually go for the Indians that have more ethnic-sounding names nowadays,” Peters shrugs of casting agents. He nods to Comedy & Magic emcee Omid Singh, fiddling on his phone one table over. “So you’re next, Omid! It seems to be the ‘in’ thing for the industry.”
Executive produced by Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle, The X-Files), Detective filmed in Toronto, Mumbai and Cape Town. “South Africa doesn’t have the same labor laws we have, so we would literally do 14 hours a day, six days a week,” Peters shudders. “It was bad enough for me; the crew are the ones really getting fucked over.”
His castmates include fellow Canadian William Shatner as a wealthy developer. Peters, 47, marvels that the 86-year-old T.J. Hooker and Star Trek actor could pass for a hard-drinking 62. “If you grew up on earth, you know who he is from one of many incarnations on screen, so the first time we’re doing a scene, instead of acting, I’m watching him. He says his lines, and I’m like, ‘Sooo cool!’ He looks at me, like, 'Uh, I think you have a line…?’“
Film-wise, Peters has upcoming parts in Ed Helms and Tracy Morgan’s The Clapper, John Malkovich’s Supercon and Judy Greer’s Adventures in Public School. Yet after 28 years, live comedy remains his top priority—especially these days.
Peters sees the internet as a double-edged sword. One side is fraught with trolls, not to mention stealth filmers who necessitate the lock-bagging of cell phones at Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock shows. The other side, however, is the one providing the power to unite.
Following YouTube’s 2005 debut, Peters was one of, if not the site’s first stand-up sensations, clips of his performance from Canada’s Comedy Now! earning fans around the world. His career wouldn’t be where it is without file-sharing, and stand-up as a whole wouldn’t be enjoying its current boom without international demand. Independent of geography, Peters insists laughter promotes the sharing of joy and diminishing of fear–fear of the unknown, fear of “Other"—well beyond simply North America or England.
“I don’t want to just play to American expats in another country,” Peters emphasizes. “I try to play to the people. When I’m going to Saudi Arabia, I’m playing to Saudi Arabians. When I go to Hong Kong, I’m playing to the Chinese.”
He’s never faced any major moments of travel terror. In fact, the scariest thing that ever happened on tour was a giant rat beelining for him onstage at a theater in Boston.
Then again, there was the time Jordan’s King Abdullah II gave Peters a memorable exit from the country, having armed guards interrogate him in a Royal Jordanian Airlines basement. When tripmate Gabriel Iglesias finally entered the room, he handed Peters a cell phone. “Never be the first to leave one of my parties again,” Abdullah chuckled on the other end. “You just got punked, bitch!”
Few comics can both party with and get pranked by royalty. For Peters, comedy defies international borders. And laughter, whatever size the audience, unites those sharing it.
“They try to tell us that America’s divided,” he put it earlier for the crowd beyond his spotlight. “I’m here to tell you it’s not divided, this room especially. If this is what divided looks like, we’re in good shape.”