With Dubai's Coca-Cola Arena set to hold its first performance on Thursday, one person looking forward to getting it up and running is the opening act himself. For Canadian-Indian comedian Russell Peters, 48, being chosen as the first to perform in the City Walk venue is something of a personal milestone.
Speaking to The National from a car in Delhi, in the midst of the Indian leg of his Deported world tour, Peters says he sees a certain serendipity to his situation. "My family left India a long time ago only for me to end up back here again," he says, with a laugh. "And now I will also return to Dubai to play in this new venue. It also makes me think of the time I first came [to Dubai] about 21 years ago. The city was still developing. All I remember was this big road and I think the only thing there was a Hyatt."
That first Dubai gig
There was also the Crowne Plaza. Peters, who back then was slowly building a buzz in Canada, was booked to play in the hotel's underground venue. "The place was actually a nightclub," he says. "The way it worked was, I would do the show and then the place would become a club and the party would start."
You would think that performing in front of a ready-to-party crowd would be a smooth proposition for Peters. But, as he tells me, the gig wasn't so easy. In fact, Peters goes as far as chalking that experience up to being a very un-UAE one. "It was very expat heavy at that point and different to now where you get Emiratis coming to the shows," he says. "As far as I am concerned, if you haven't got the actual people from that country at your show, you can't really say you've performed in that place."
But having performed here is now something Peters can well and truly claim. His previous tours in the UAE over the past six years have run across several dates and sold out, including at Abu Dhabi's du Forum and Dubai's World Trade Centre. He has also performed a successful run of regional gigs, and as part of his current tour, he will play shows in Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.
As the region becomes more cosmopolitan, Peters says he is more comfortable everyone will get in on the jokes. "As a comic, the best audience you can really play to is one that has a good mix, and I always find that when I come to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other cities in the area," he says. "That's because you can make the jokes broader and the crowd will have more points of reference."
Comedy in sound
As for his own introduction to comedy, Peters says it came in the form of CDs. Born in Toronto to parents of Anglo-Indian decent, Peters grew up in the quiet suburb of Brampton. He was frequently bullied because of his ethnicity so he learnt to defend himself by taking up boxing.
But it was by listening to stand-up comedy that he said his imagination truly took flight. He would go to his local record store and pick up a collection of comedy albums – from the likes of Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin and George Carlin – and listen to them on repeat.
Peters credits that steady comedy diet for arming him with his vocal nuance, which has served him well throughout his career. "Unlike today, I didn't see the comedy. I would buy all these records and just listen to them over and over," he says. "For me, it was a purely sonic thing, and that's why so much of my material, like when you hear accents and stuff, that came about because of how I grew up listening to things that sounded good to me."
The hustle was real
Peters describes the first 15 years of his career, starting from his inaugural gig in Toronto in 1988, as an endless grind of small and steady shows. While the material, a mixture of anecdotes, spot-on accents and social commentary, was well received, the desperation he felt was real.
He recalls having no Plan B and his parents reacting to his career choice in a way best described as simply shrugging it off. "It wasn't like I was trying to do anything outrageous as far as I was concerned," he says. "But because I didn't have a very bright future in front of me, I think my parents were like, 'Let him try this and see what happens.'"
Peters, who now resides in Los Angeles, puts his previous lack of ambition down to where he was living. "Growing up in Canada, you really didn't have a chance to do anything with life. You kind of felt like, all right, well, I'm just going to be like everybody else. Just try to pay my bills and not stress too much," he says.
"The Canadian mentality is we just want what we need. The American mentality is give me everything and I'll decide what I don't want. I was very much enamoured with the whole, give me everything and let me whittle it down from there."
The first online comedy star
A turning point in Peters' career finally came in 2004, when his performance as part of Canadian TV programme Comedy Now! landed on YouTube.
With the video streaming service still in relative infancy at the time, the 45-minute set showcasing the comedian's growing mastery of observational humour was a viral sensation before the term was used regularly.
He acknowledges this as the moment "when everything changed": Peters' career sky-rocketed, and through his characteristic hard work, he is now an international arena act.
With two Netflix comedies released (2013's Notorious and 2016's Almost Famous) in addition to 2017's Canadian crime comedy series The Indian Detective, which is also available on Netflix, Peters in understandably stretching his talents to see how far he can go. But he says it will never come at the expense of the stage, even if comedians are presently living in a fraught period where their work is susceptible to outrage.
“I never feel like anything I talk about is not un-talk-about-worthy,” he says. “Also, you never meet outraged people in person. You only see them online, so do they really exist?”
Russell Peters performs at the Coca-Cola Arena in City Walk, Dubai, June 6. Doors open at 7pm, tickets from Dh350 are available at www.ticketmaster.ae