Russell Peters on how to read an audience—and keep their attention

“You should be nervous. It’s respect for the audience.”

 
Comedian Russell Peters performing onstage against a black backdrop
(Denise Truscello/WireImage/Getty)

Get the shakes before a big presentation? Try telling jokes in front of 20,000 people a night. Fresh from roles on NBC’s Last Comic Standing and the critically acclaimed film Chef, Russell Peters kicked off his Almost Famous World Tour last month in Saskatoon. Here’s his advice on winning over a cold audience.


What advice do you have for dealing with nerves in front of a big audience?

My advice is you should be nervous. If you’re not, you’re not paying enough respect to what you’re doing. I’m 25 years in, and I still get nervous. It’s respect for the audience. Confidence will kick in after a while: You just have to keep doing it and doing it and doing it. I still genuinely love what I do. I never have that moment where I think, “Ugh, stupid job.”

So you’ve never phoned in a performance?

It does not happen very often. I have, and then I feel like a bag of shit afterwards.

What about times when you can just feel the crowd isn’t with you?

It’s about being honest. If it’s not going well, you address it: “Hey, this is kind of sucking, isn’t it guys?” The minute you get real with your audience, they will start to trust you. You have to ask, “What am I doing wrong here? Let’s figure this out.”

What’s the difference between trying to win over a crowd and pandering?

I’m not a big fan of pandering. Sometimes you have to do it, but you have to do it in a clever way. It’s more like endearing yourself. If you’re in a smaller town, the audience sometimes gets the idea that you don’t want to be there. Like, “Oh, he could be in a bigger city doing something good.” And you’re actually happy to be there, so you want to let them know that you’re happy to be there without kissing their ass.

Is being funny something you can teach people?

I mean you can give people the parameters of funny—the rules—but I don’t know if you can teach funny. It’s a timing thing. You’re either born with it or you’re not.

What are the rules?

Music goes in four beats, whereas comedy goes in beats of three, always three. So it’s like, three guys walk into a bar…

A rabbi, a lawyer and a farmer.

Exactly. Three is always the right number, and that’s something you can easily learn.

Your friend Keenen Ivory Wayans has said that if a comedian isn’t stirring up controversy, then they aren’t doing their job. Do you you think that’s true?

There is a certain amount of thought provoking that you need to be aiming for. A comedian’s job is to say the things that other people think but are scared to say. My new act doesn’t actually go as far into racial humour. It’s more about me getting older and trying to fit in in the modern world, with all the technology.

So you’re not a tech dude.

I love technology. It excites me and I buy it, but then I end up giving it away because I don’t know what to do with anything. I got a pair of Google glasses recently because I thought they were really cool, but I have no idea how they work.

Do you see a downside to all these technological advances?

In my new act I talk about how I’m from the last generation of people who know how to talk to each other. We live in a time where people will text you and put LOL in a conversation, but in person nobody laughs. Instead they’ll say, “That’s funny.” If it’s so funny, would it kill you to LOL in person?

To what extent is the stereotype of the tortured comic accurate?

Comedians definitely do things to sabotage our private lives in order to get those sad or darker feelings that we need. Right now I’m really happy, and it shows in my work. It’s not as much about being tortured as it is about being relatable. It’s much easier to be funny when you’re the underdog.

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I guess your job has gotten harder, then, over the past 10 years.

Yeah, it’s become harder, but it’s also become way more worthwhile. If this is “difficult,” I’ll take it.

You have had several TV show development deals over the years, but we still haven’t seen you with your own show.

I consider development deals like goldfish. You get one, it dies, you get another one.

And then one day you get a goldfish that lives for 10 years and grows to be as big as your hand.

Who knows? Maybe that will never happen. You can’t sit around and worry about what you don’t have when what you do have is so incredible.

You joke about how your dad was tight with money growing up. How does that affect your relationship with money? Not to be indelicate, but you sure have a lot of it.

Lately I really notice how I’m becoming my dad. I get mad when my friends leave the lights on. I’m kind of a contradiction in terms of my own money attitudes. I’ll go and spend $80,000 on a watch, but I’ll get mad when the phone bill is too expensive. Like, cable costs how much?!

Your daughter Crystianna will grow up in different financial circumstances. Do you ever wish she could grow up middle class in Brampton, Ont., like you did?

More like working class, but, yeah—being working class makes you hustle a little harder. I want her to understand and respect struggle, which is harder when you have so much.

Warren Buffett has said he doesn’t plan to hand his fortune to his kids. What are your thoughts on that?

I agree. You can give them money to live on, but they need to be motivated. There’s nothing worse than someone who’s not motivated.

If your daughter came to you in 15 years and said, “Dad, I want to do standup,” what would you say?

I’d say go do it—just don’t suck. She’s three and a half, and already has crazy good timing. I was dropping her off at her mom’s place the other night. She wanted to go into the house, and I was waiting for my ex-wife to get home so she could open the door. My daughter said, “Daddy, I want to go in the house.” I said, “I know baby, but we’re waiting for Mommy, so we’re just going to sit here for a bit.” And then she said, “OK… but I want to go in the house.” It was a perfect comedic pause.

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