“It’s a comedy show, so expect a lot of pain and anger and sorrow. Laughter is the last thing on my mind.”
So says Russell Peters, the acerbic Indian-Canadian comedian who will be appearing Friday at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore.
Mr. Peters, 45, who has entertained audiences for decades with his smiling look back at his upbringing — and his catchphrase “Somebody’s gonna get a-hurt!” delivered in an Indian accent — says that as he has gotten older, his act and his take on life as a comedian have evolved.
“It’s basically whatever mindset I’m at at that phase of my life. Here’s what I feel like talking about right now,” he said. “Maybe today I feel like talking about something I didn’t yesterday. It’s a forever-changing thing.”
One of Mr. Peters’ ongoing tricks is to pick on people in the audience, spontaneously turning his comedy show into an interactive affair with his patrons. Asked if it is difficult to keep so many names and faces in his head on any given evening, Mr. Peters demurs: “I think the easy part for that is that this person with that name is not going to be leaving that seat. It’s just more a memory game you play in your head.”
Mr. Peters, who describes himself as having an ADD brain that “goes all over the place,” says that seeing audience members from his stage perch triggers spontaneous opportunities for comedy.
“It keeps it fresh for me, and it keeps it fresh for the audience, I think,” he said. “That way you’re not just seeing some guy up there doing a performance and then saying goodnight.”
Mr. Peters is known for his riffing on racial and ethnic stereotypes — including skewering his own Indian heritage. He says he tends to avoid hot-button topics like religion, of which he is no fan.
“Too many people have too much religion in their lives,” Mr. Peters, an avowed atheist, said. “You live your life, and I’ll live mine, and we’ll meet on the comedy grounds of culture and just being people.”
Mr. Peters recalls how, when he was first starting out in Toronto’s comedy scene, there was no mentoring, “no Indian guy before me,” which required him to figure out the often-grueling and painful world of climbing the stand-up comedy ladder on his own.
“I had no life experience, and all my peers were much older than me,” Mr. Peters said of hitting the yuk-yuk circuit at 19. “There was nobody around me that age that I could relate to. So there was just a lot of me meandering through and trying not to step on anybody’s toes — just figuring it out.”
Mr. Peters, who counts George Carlin, Don Rickles and Steve Martin among his idols, speaks fondly of kibbitzing with his contemporaries off-stage, when they will share laughs that are far too unsafe for the stage.
“Comedians are so dark … we can share all these horribly dark jokes … and laugh hysterically at other people’s misfortunes.”
For all of his success packing auditoriums and appearing in films and on TV, Mr. Peters nevertheless seemed vexed by that self-doubting curse endemic to comedians.
“I definitely don’t admire myself,” he declared bluntly.
When he was first starting out, he said that if your act stood out, you got attention and could climb up to bigger and better-paying gigs. Today, he laments, comedy has become uber-specialized.
“Now they have alternative comedy, improv comedy, sketch comedy, black comedy, white comedy, nerd comedy. We’re just supposed to do comedy and that’s it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. Just get out there and make people laugh.”
When asked if people ever approach him to talk about a time Mr. Peters roasted them from behind his mic stand, he says it occurs fairly regularly. However, he says that, “90 percent of the time,” he doesn’t recall the related episodes.
“Once I walk offstage, I kind of wipe my memory clear,” he said.