Former drama teacher, now one third of the We Are Klang troupe. And as a solo stand-up, he was nominated for best breakthrough act at the 2007 Chortle Awards and best compere in the 2008 awards.
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The GQ Comedy Extravaganza
He is a global comedy superstar, breaking ticket sales records across the world and earning and estimated £13million last year.
But last night, sharing a bill at the GQ Comedy Extravaganza with some of the biggest names in British comedy, Russell Peters tanked; his humour – so heavily dependent on playing with the various ethnic groups in the audiences – greeted with uncomfortable silence.He may have simply misjudged the crowd, as Brits are almost certainly more sensitive about comedians mocking minorities than Americans, but even when he knew he was losing them, he couldn’t recover.
Peters, a Canadian-Indian now living in the States, has made his name, and fortune, playing to various diaspora collected under one roof, joking about every creed there is.The Hammersmith Apollo was as racially mixed as any London comedy night – predominantly but far from exclusively white – and they didn’t go for him at all. ‘Thank you for staring at me,’ he said patronisingly. ‘Is it the first time you’ve seen an Indian?’
Other of his lines might earn him a booking at the next UKIP conference. ‘You did good getting a white girl,’ he told one Asian guy. ‘You’re a black guy,’ he said to one front-row punter. ‘You punch people’, before questioning how man ‘babymammas’ his children had. Maybe his own brown skin is seen as a free pass for such race-based material; but his impression of a ‘deaf guy’ speaking has no such excuse.
It was mildly uncomfortable all round, rather than offensive; lazy, too. That also went for the non-ethnic elements of his set. On transatlantic cultural differences he noticed that Americans say ‘zee’ when we say ‘zed’ with the only punchline being that the language is called English so maybe the English know best. He told us he couldn’t get to grips with Dropbox, which sounded like a mild gripe rather than a comedy routine. And glib cracks about the Malaysian air crash really were ‘too soon’, but mainly ‘not very good’.
And all this was interspersed with vacuous audience chit-chat, as, for example, he went along the front row talking about how many children everyone had, just so he could do his fatherhood bit. It excluded the rest of the 3,500 people in the audience, who needed something engaging after such a long – but until then, triumphant – night.
But it started quite strangely, too. Our tickets said 8pm start; but when we arrived at quarter-to, compere James Mullinger – GQ’s former picture editor, now comedy editor – was nearly finished with his opening set, so it’s hard to report on how it went. Mullinger organised the show, a benefit for women’s charity Eaves, and got the chance to play a mammoth venue with some of his comedy icons in the process. Nice work. ‘This is the best day of my life,’ he gushed at the end. His marriage and birth of his two children now relegated…
Anyone might think the confusion over the start time was engineered to provide fodder for opening act Jason Byrne, who had much fun with the ‘late’comers, feigning exasperation at their tardiness. He hardly did any material – not that you could notice, at least – but bounced off the audience with an enthusiastic mania that proved a perfectly infectious start to the night.
Still with the high energy, Russell Kane power-paced the stage as he shared his hyperactive thoughts. In this short set, he largely ditched the class stereotypes he usually peddles for a mix of topical comedy (the UKIP supported blaming the floods on gay marriage being a comedy gift that never stops giving) and domestic observational material about sleep patterns or the fact that Brits don’t really do sexy, all of which struck a chord.
Omid Djalili, who made an entrance like a superstar, was in full Mr Showbiz mode, dropping into song with no excuse. His set was a bit of a jumble, frankly, leaping around topics, randomly getting the room to make ten seconds noise for Nelson Mandela (possibly just a way to ease into his Madiba impression), and asking us to record crowd chants for his forthcoming World Cup Song England’s Going Out (To Do It Again). But all good natured and upbeat stuff to keep the mood up.
Chortle breakthrough act compere Katherine Ryan mixed up Sarah Silverman-like snide with an enthusiastic Beyonce routine that really drove home the point about her aggressive sexuality. ‘She just sells it on attitude,’ was Ryan’s verdict on the singer; though you could easy apply the same to her own set. Not all was quite so strong – a section about finding a sexy selfie on a phone was a a long-winded and punchline-free way to get to some more fruitful material about the euphemism of ‘glamour model’ – but a fine ten minutes.
Closing the first half was John Bishop, being the affable bloke he always is, despite jetlag from his recent return from Australia. He too tried an ill-judged Malaysian airlines gag, but had the good sense to distance himself from it very quickly when it was clear he shouldn’t have. Otherwise he shared stories of the tough Aussie lads on a remote sheep station as well as stories from closer to home, such as the correct reaction when your wife’s had her hair done.
Mullinger opened the second half with some ridiculous Trip Advisor reviews that would make an excellent Buzzfeed list, before welcoming the show-stealing Greg Davies; the biggest hit of the night, painting a horrifically descriptive picture of what its like to be a ‘fat old prick’ with a failing body. His brutal contempt for the hope-filled youth compared to the bleakness of middle age, an attitude possibly still festering from his days as a teacher, brings conviction to his lively material, which culminated in that most timeless of comedy topics – farting – but described with such poetry and spirit to make it more than just a botty-burp gag. He had to cut down his list of favourite noises as he ran out of time, which is a travesty once we knew how the flown-in headliner was to have gone.
Next up Carly Smallman, who couldn’t believe her luck to be playing such a stage, given her inexperience compared to the rest of the line-up… even if her profile could rise with the forthcoming ITV2 show Viral Tap. Her jaunty songs with rude lyrics are not groundbreaking, but a musical diversion was a change of pace – and two tracks was probably just enough. But there’s also a flick of something more interesting with a couple of throwaway lines about sleeping with several unsuitable middle-aged comedians (she’s 27) that suggests there is more substance to be had if she opens up her own psyche, even if that’s not easy.
A big gear change for the quietly ridiculous Milton Jones, with the arsenal of brilliantly off-kilter one-liners we’ve come to expect, even starting off with a back-reference to the last song Smallman sang, which was a nice touch from a perennial class act. He’s a comic who can get laughs from pauses, too – an ability he exploited wonderfully thanks to a particularly distinctive laugher in the audience tonight.
By this point the marathon show looked likely to be finishing sometime next week so when Sara Pascoe announced that ‘they always give the best comedian the third-from-last spot’ the audience were reassured they were on the home straight. For as it happened, neither Russell Howard or Jennifer Saunders, who had been billed, made an appearance. Pascoe is a charmingly quirky act, and while her smart, underplayed material might seem better suited to an arts centre-sized space, she kept the large Apollo audience entertained with vivid descriptions of Lewisham, where she lives, and the discrepancy between the male and female sexual peaks.
More upbeat, and a lot cheekier, was Lee Mack, blatant about the fact he was running in material for his forthcoming tour, which should be a good one based on this short sample of relentless piss-taking on everything from Irish names to bringing up your children. He even found an original joke to be had in the Oscar Pistorius trial, which is no small feat given the competition.
The night could have ended there; and given the car-crash that ended proceedings it surely would have been wise to. As the tens of millions in the bank comfort Peters as he nurses his wounds, there’s a sobering lesson that even the most successful comic cannot take an audience for granted.