Why comedian Russell Peters isn't joking about Covid: 'Nobody wants to hear about that'

The stand-up comedian returns to Abu Dhabi after eight years with a show at Etihad Arena on Yas Island on Friday

Comedian Russell Peters returns to Yas Island's du Arena in October. AFP
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Age might have given him fresh perspectives and new material, but best-selling comedian Russell Peters says his close-to-the-bone style of comedy is not changing. Ever.

“It hasn’t affected my comedy. I am writing more from the perspective of being an older guy now – I’ll be 51 in a couple of weeks – but all the cultural stuff that people like, it’s still there,” he tells The National ahead of his show at Abu Dhabi's Etihad Arena on Yas Island on Friday.

Peters has been performing regularly in the UAE since 1999, but his last appearance in the capital was eight years ago. Tickets for Friday’s An Evening with Russell Peters sold out earlier this week.

“Usually when I have a new act, I workshop it around the world before I bring it here. This time I workshopped it across America and I’m killing it. But Americans aren’t very bright, so hopefully it still works over here,” he says with a laugh.

And, don't worry, there won’t be any jokes about the coronavirus, he says. “Nobody wants to hear about that anymore. I know I’m sick of it."

Known for his edgy observations about race and cultural stereotypes, Peters first began performing at the age of 19 in Canada. In 2004, a clip of him performing on Canadian TV show Comedy Now! was uploaded on YouTube, turning him into one of the biggest comedians in the world overnight.

Born to Indian immigrants, Peters gained a global following thanks to his politically incorrect humour. He is among the first comedian of South Asian descent to become internationally famous in the field, and was the first comic to sell out Toronto's Air Canada Centre, as well as enjoying a record-breaking ticket sales at a London O2 Arena gig in the early 2000s.

I am looking forward to being the first comedian to perform at the Etihad Arena this year
Russell Peters

He’s also the first comedian to get a Netflix special, with 2013’s Notorious, a format which would become a template for many comedians and streaming services.

While he admits his material has become more social commentary in keeping with “what the times are now”, Peters says he still faces flak, but he’s also become less tolerant of detractors.

“I am hitting cancel culture right in the face. I don’t apologise for nothing,” he says. “I’m not going to be a victim for these guys. They’re the ones victimising people.

“The people that are cancel culture-ish were never people that were going to buy tickets to come and see me. So if I were to change my act to appease them, I would lose my core audience who come to see me do what I do.

“That’s what they want you to do. They want you to bow to them and then they don’t bow back. I’m not playing that game.”

DUBAI ,  UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JUNE 06 – 2019 :- Russell Peters , stand-up comedian and actor performing at the new Coca Cola Arena, City Walk in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News/Online/Instagram

Although he’s appeared in a number of films, stand-up comedy is what he’s focusing on for now.

“After 32 years of stand-up, if a movie or TV show comes along, I’ll do it. Otherwise I’m not really bothered. Stand-up is what pays the bills. That’s what makes me happy and the audience happy,” he says.

He still builds his material as he goes along, just like he did at the start of his career.

“I don’t sit down and write. That’s never been my style. I go up on stage with zero material and then that’s how it all comes together. That’s how I wrote this entire act,” he explains.

“What you’re seeing is a culmination of literally coming out of nowhere to where we’re at now.”

He might not be using the pandemic as source material for his gig, but the past two years have taught him important lessons, especially about money, Peters says.

“When you’re making a lot of money, you forget a lot of things. You start thinking, ‘Oh man I can buy whatever I want any time I want’. Then the pandemic kicks in and I don’t earn anything for two years and I start realising I was burning through my savings. So you’ve got to make all those adjustments in your life.”

Walking around Yas Mall on Thursday, a day before his show, Peters said he was amazed by how much Yas Island has changed since his last visit.

“It’s completely different from eight years ago and I’m impressed,” he says. “I am looking forward to being the first comedian to perform at the Etihad Arena this year. You know I like to be the first.”

Tickets for An Evening with Russell Peters are sold out. Doors open at 7pm. For entry details and Covid-19 regulations, go to etihadarena.ae

Updated: September 17, 2021, 7:36 AM