Comedian Russell Peters Image Credit: Supplied

‘White flight’ — this is a sociological process that Brampton, a Canadian city in southern Ontario, is going through as more and more immigrants keep swelling its population, forcing the long-standing white residents to seek homes elsewhere.

Brampton is a city made to order for immigrants. It’s currently suffering from an identity crisis, yet growing too fast for its own good.

This phenomenon is causing a migration from within: white people are leaving Brampton – some of whom have called it home for decades – as more and more multi-cultural immigrants, mainly South Asians, are moving in with their families, aided by greedy developers who are on a building blitz to house the new residents.

Brampton has been booming over the last two decades, boosting from 234,445 residents in 1991, to 521,315 in 2011. The city’s white population subsequently eroded from 192,400 in 2001 to 169,230 in 2011. That’s a decrease of 12 per cent in a decade when the city’s population curiously rose by 60 per cent. The immigrants settled down in huge numbers and were here to stay.

The life of an immigrant is serious business. There’s nothing funny about squeezing out a living working multiple shifts; living a life with people from different cultures and bringing up your kids in this unforgiving, cultural melting pot.

It was, however, definitely a background from which you could compile rich material for jokes which, one day, after being immortalised on youtube, sent Russell Dominic Peters, the son of Anglo-Indian immigrants, into orbit as the world’s third richest comedian (Jerry Seinfeld at No 1 and ventriloquist Terry Fator at No 2).

It was around 1989 when Peters started to address his ambition to be a stand-up comedian. He knows all about grinding out a living, having attended the school of hard knocks. Peters subscribes to the concept that fame comes at the right time and until then nothing that you do or say on stage can make your luck. You just keep working and struggling. It kept him humble towards his craft.

“It was fine to go gigging when no one recognised me,” Peters told tabloid!. “I’ve been doing stand-up for 24 years now. In some ways the lack of recognition is better; because people know me, they may laugh at what I say now, even if it’s not that funny. If you don’t know me, I have to work to get your laugh. The laughs can be more honest when people don’t really know you.”

Peters has constructed his material on the best and worst of the environment he grew up in. He has carried a bit of Brampton in him throughout his development as a comic, even while uprooting himself from his native Canada to live in Los Angeles in the US. He endorses this allegiance with the ubiquitous ‘B-Town represent’ slogan that he shouts out loud whenever he mentions the city his father Eric Peters settled down in, with a wife and two sons, after migrating from his native Mumbai.

Growing up in a multi-cultural background gave him opportunities to see the grave and lighter side of life in the day-to-day existence of different communities as they lived with each other in a foreign environment. Peter’s father and mother Maureen feature prominently in his material; the latter still attends his shows, as do Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Chinese and Filipinos, the core of Canada’s immigrants. He currently has a new victim he loves to rip apart: his ex-wife Monica Diaz. She features prominently on segments of his current Notorious World Tour when he talks about his marriage or the lack of it.

The couple may have had an amicable split, but Peters is making capital out of a personal setback by sharing his experiences with the audience. The only good thing, according to him, that came out of his union with Diaz was a daughter, Cristianna Marie Peters, who arrived two months early, thus forcing him to admit that the marriage may have been ‘expedited because of that’.

That’s about the only bit of stress that Peters has faced lately. He has banked earnings of around $21 million (Dh77.1 million) and he copes with the low points in his life by taking to the stage and treating his audience to a kaleidoscopic session on the merits and demerits of where people come from, their cultural quirks, their religious beliefs, their mannerisms, their dialects, their accents and their political leanings.

Making people laugh is therefore not stressful at all. “Being on-stage and performing is where I’m at my best. If there’s stress, it comes from wanting to do a good job and connect with the audience. I think most comics feel at their best on-stage. If they don’t, they’re in the wrong business,” he confessed.

There’s also no cause for drama when his jokes are looking seriously repetitive giving one the impression that, perhaps, he may be struggling to write new material. Peters believes that somewhere in the audience there will always be a collection of people who will always find him funny.

“It happens,” he admits. “I just have to switch it up if the audience isn’t responding to a certain part of my show. Every comic bombs now and then. You have to. It’s good for you. It makes you work harder.”

Peters admits that he was a nobody till someone from the audience, who was diligently recording one of his shows, went and posted it on youtube. It turned out to be a double edged sword, but first the video went viral. Suddenly, everybody was asking about this stand-up Canadian comic with Indian origins and endorsing his sense of humour.

The hits kept coming online and Peter’s reputation kept growing but, sadly, the exposure wasn’t making any difference to his bank balance until he leveraged his equity, went out for his first live show and received a hefty pay cheque.

A sense of self-worth soon emerged. When his team drilled it into his hitherto naive psyche that he was potentially sitting on top of a gold mine, members of the audience have since been banned from recording his shows for fear that he would no longer have any control over his material.

The material is a comedian’s bread and butter. It keeps him relevant and distinguishes him from others of his ilk. Which is why, Peters agrees that youtube made him, but conversely threatened to destroy him, with nothing more than a terse “yes.”

Since then his back-up team, who work zealously towards keeping him fresh and relevant, guard his content obsessively. He, however, admits that plagiarism is endemic in the world of comedians.

“If you’re talking about generic topics, and making general observations, then you’re guaranteed that another comic is talking about the same thing,” he said. “It’s not plagiarism; it’s just common thoughts. The thing that I tell younger comics is be honest and true to themselves. Find their voice. It takes seven or eight years. Talk about things that are specific to you. When you do that, it becomes harder for another comic to accuse you of plagiarism.

“My team, the security guys who travel with me are there to protect my copyright. To make sure that people aren’t recording the show. My material is all that I’ve got. If someone leaks it, and everyone sees it, then I’ve got nothing. Comedy is about the element of surprise. If you’ve seen the act or know what’s coming, the surprise is gone.

“Stand-up is very competitive,” he adds. “Comics are always comparing themselves to each other and breaking each other’s b***s if they think the other guy is slacking.

“I like it when I see really good stand-up comics. It makes me step up my game. Some guys tell their opening acts to go soft and take it easy. I tell my openers to really go for it. I want them to raise the bar and make me work harder in the process. It’s good for the audience and it’s good for my craft.”

Part of the Russell Peters trademark is to pick on the unsuspecting individual who has paid top dollar for the privilege of being seated in the front seat during one of his shows. The poor creature ends up becoming a victim of some no-holds barred ridicule. There is a reason why Peters singles them out for mockery. “They’re right there,” he explained. “It’s like you’re having a conversation with them. You can’t talk directly to the guy in the back row, so you talk to the person who’s closest to you. People expect that at my shows. That’s why we have video cameras on-stage so that the people in the last row can see who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about. Everyone’s in on the joke.”

So the Russell Peters bandwagon rolls on from one city in the world to another, reminding everyone that irrespective of their race, creed and colour they should not take themselves too seriously. He wants to see a happier collection of human beings, but not before he punches holes into their preconceived philosophies on specific issues, as they sit next to each other and cringe, or get hysterical, as part of his audience. It can be a humbling, and funny, experience, or a painful reality check.

Peters also proves the point that there’s a sadist in all of us. This explains why, despite the excruciating humiliation that he is capable of putting people through, his audiences keep coming back for more.

There’s only one way to deal with this. As he says in the punch line of one of his jokes, “Sir, I’m telling [in an Indian accent], final price, best price, take it and go.”

That’s exactly what everyone should do.