It's been a good few years for comedy in the UAE with huge acts such as Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Bridges and Trevor Noah taking to the stage in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Well now you can add one more superstar to that list, as back in the UAE to perform his latest show Deported, is Canadian comedian Russell Peters. He is no stranger to these shores having first performed in the UAE more than two decades ago and with thirty years in the business, he’s a big deal when it comes to stand-up comedy.
Over the past three decades the comic has performed to huge crowds at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and London’s O2 Arena. He was also the first comic to film a straight-to-Netlfix comedy special before getting his own comedy-drama series, The Indian Detective, alongside William Shatner.
We catch up with the charming comic to talk about a life in comedy, what the UAE was like back in the day and why he doesn’t connect with social media.
Thirty years in comedy – who’d have thought?
When I started out all those years ago I never thought I would still be here thirty years later. I was a 19-year-old kid who didn’t have much else going on in life, and here we are. I kind of did it just to feel that I was doing something with my life. As much as I loved it and still love it, it wasn’t the most promising of careers [to get in to]. Now that I’m three decades in, I can totally see myself still doing the same thing thirty more years down the road.
How much has the comedy scene changed since you started in 1989?
It’s completely different. Back in the day, in order to make it in comedy you had to be on the road and learn that way of life if you weren’t from a big city like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. You had to get out there and hustle on the road. Now there are so many shortcuts you can take, you can make a funny clip on YouTube or Instagram and all of a sudden people want to book you. You might only have five minutes of material, but they’re throwing money at you and, of course, you’re going to take it.
Do young comedians have it easier now?
Absolutely. Comedy clubs and all the newer comedy fans go to see new comedians and think: “Oh, you were funny in that clip, but, here we are, I’ve paid 40 dollars and this guy is terrible after five minutes.” I’m really lucky. I had no delusions of grandeur when I started in this business and I’m very fortunate to still have a very solid career even to this day.
You’re back in the UAE to perform but you’re no stranger to this country are you?
I’ve been coming to the UAE for 21 years to perform and that was long before I was a big deal. There used to be a gig inside the vault in one of the Hyatt hotels, there wasn’t a huge number of venues like that open back then. Dubai was kind of a desert with not much going on, but here we are 21 years later and it’s one of the most sought-after places in the world. I remember when I first went there I also did a gig in Sharjah and you had to drive through desert. I performed in the basement of the Crowne Plaza to a crowd of expats. Now I’m performing for Emiratis, Indians, other Arabic people that live in the UAE, and all the other expats. It’s completely changed.
What were those first shows in the UAE like?
The pay was terrible but it was a free trip to Dubai. It was my first foray into the Middle East at that point, there was so much I didn’t know and I had only been doing comedy around nine years. I was still green and wet behind the ears. I was excited to be there, I didn’t care how much they paid or even if they paid at all because I just wanted to be able to say that I’d performed there. Now I’m looking back on it and I’m still excited because I performed here before anyone else even considered it.
Your tour sees you play a few dates in the region – is it a challenge to bring your material to this part of the world?
I’m always up for a challenge, I’m not in the region to upset people I just want to give the people some laughter and levity in their lives. If I shake up the place it’s more incidental that intentional. I always come at it with the same approach that I would when performing back home. Obviously you are mindful of your surroundings and you don’t want to be disrespectful of people’s culture and religion. You’ve got to keep yourself in check as far as that goes.
How do you feel about social media and people using smart phones all the time?
I’m probably the worst with social media. I’m always too busy living real life. To be honest, I do find it to be a huge pain. I seems so unnatural to me to want to take a picture or film something when you’re trying to watch it happening in front of you. I just want to be in the moment and catch everything and that’s how I live my life – being in the moment. It’s frustrating to see people going for their phones all the time. Just enjoy the moment, let’s not worry about getting the shot, this isn’t a movie this is real life.
Is it right that you were one of the first comedians to ban phones at your shows?
I’ve not allowed mobile phones at my shows for the past ten years. That’s why I have security guys with me. They’re not there to keep me safe, they’re there to make sure that no one is recording. That’s their sole job. It’s to make sure you stay in the moment, enjoy yourself and have the best time possible. I don’t want to know if people liked it after they got home I want to know that they enjoyed it while they were there.
So what can we expect from your latest show?
Every comic will say this and I’ve probably said this in interviews about other tours I’ve done in the past, but this act that I’m doing right now has been the best received act I’ve done on tour in the past 15 years. This is the one that people seem to have really enjoyed. It’s always difficult for me to say something nice about myself but I can honestly tell people that this is the one you want to see.
If you liked me before you’ll love me now and if you’ve never liked me before you may have a chance to like me now [laughs].
From Dhs200. Coca-Cola Arena, City Walk, Dubai. 7pm onwards, Thu Jun 6. www.ticketmaster.ae.