Ain't Life Sweet
Comedian Sugar Sammy on his rise to international fame, his Canadian tour and returning to the East Coast
By Jennifer Wood
Life can't get much sweeter for multilingual comedian Samir Khullar. Best known as “Sugar Sammy,” the 43-year-old observational and improvisational stand-up comic has travelled the world studying people, specifically their culture, their politics, their nuances and even their language. In doing so, he has created a smart, cringe-in-your-seat brand of comedy that treads the line between laughter and outrage for his growing audiences. His Canadian tour, kicking off this fall, will see him on the East Coast to perform shows in Halifax and Moncton and then across the country.
Khullar’s parents immigrated to Canada from India and chose Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges, one of the city's most culturally diverse neighbourhoods, to call home. Quebec's polarizing Bill 101, which aimed to promote the survival of the French language, made education in French mandatory for Khullar, which, he admits, played a huge role in his success. He later earned a degree in multicultural studies at McGill University, working as a party promoter to pay his way. He became known as “Sugar Sammy” for his savvy business practice of waiving the entry fee for females. But comedy was always his passion and what he worked tirelessly at when not studying or promoting the next epic party.
In one of Sugar Sammy's most notorious shows, You're Gonna Rire, he presented a revolutionary and brazen bilingual show that poked fun at the political, language and cultural divide of the coexisting French- and English-speaking people of Quebec. He later added an all-French version — En francais svp! — to his show list, and the two garnered 421 sold-out performances with 372,000 tickets across the province. His final show attracted a record-breaking crowd of 115,000 at the Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival.
He has attracted the attention of major U.S. publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, where his story of success has been spread across coveted real estate in the print world. He was also voted one of the 10 comics to watch by The Hollywood Reporter in 2009.
In 2016, at the height of his comedy career, Khullar packed up and moved to France to test his comedy on their people. His audiences there couldn't get enough of him, with GQ France noting, “The funniest man in France is a Québécois!” His fan base extended to other francophone areas of Europe, including Belgium and Switzerland, and he recently wrapped an almost-three-year residency at Paris's Alhambra theatre. Perhaps most notably, he became a member of entertainment royalty when he was asked to join the judging panel on La France a un incroyable talent (the French version of America’s Got Talent), one of the country's most watched TV shows, attracting as many as 3.5 million viewers per episode.
His Canadian tour, which kicked off September 6,, will see the comic deliver new, polished material coupled with off-the-cuff improvisational comedy as he banters back-and-forth with his (hopefully) willing audience members.
[EDIT]'s senior editor, Jennifer Wood, reached the comedy mogul at his home in Paris to discuss his formative years in Montreal and how a contentious law helped shape his unique brand of comedy, his role as a judge of France's hit show, how he turns it off, and what he is looking forward to most about returning to Atlantic Canada.
[EDIT]: Were your parents frustrated by Bill 101, which forced them to send you to a French-language school? How did Bill 101 serve you as a person and in your career?
SUGAR SAMMY: I think not having the choice bothered them at the time, but it turned out to be a good thing: my brain developed in a different way. It made me multilingual and able to embrace different cultures. All of the immigrant kids were forced into the same situation: we had to learn the language together. The reality was we were all learning our third language, after our mother tongue and English. I don't think I would have the ability or the skill set to adapt so quickly to so many cultures, to so many languages and situations had I not had this early experience. I know that every opportunity I have had to learn more about people has helped me get to where I am — not just in terms of my career but artistically as well. I create in the way that I do because of this exposure. I have never made these choices actively in terms of “Oh, this will make me a better artist” or “It will better my career.” It has just worked out.
[EDIT]: How did you go from being a party promoter to a comedian?
SUGAR SAMMY: I have always considered myself a comedian, even when I was promoting. Promoting was a way for me to earn a living while I was in university. It was a full-time gig for me for a while, and this experience was invaluable because eventually I was able to transfer so much of what I learned into promoting myself as a comedian. In the beginning, I was a full-time promoter, part-time comedian, but as I began to feel more comfortable with my abilities, I was able to leave promoting behind and focus on comedy full-time.
[EDIT]: Did you experience tough, slog-it-out years in comedy? It doesn't appear that you struggled.
SUGAR SAMMY: Oh, for sure I struggled! But I think what helped me through that was that while I was struggling as a comedian I was thriving as a promoter and making a great living. Once I decided to leave promoting behind and focus on comedy, I struggled financially for a few years, but again this was a good thing. It made me focus and approach comedy as a business.
[EDIT]: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your wildly successful shows, You're Gonna Rire and En français svp!
SUGAR SAMMY: I started thinking about a bilingual show early in my career. Any time I pitched it, I got a ton of pushback. To put it mildly, It wasn't a popular idea in the industry! People couldn't get their head around the concept and would ask, “Are you going to do one word in English then one word in French? Are you going to do one sentence in French then the other in English? Are you translating the whole show?” They couldn't understand the organic flow of the content I envisioned. I knew it was going to work when it was just a concept and then again during testing when people were laughing. Then when the naysayers saw it, they said, “Of course this works — we knew it would!” Audience members often said that it flowed so well they didn't notice the transition from one language to the other. It was that seamless.
Humour is about being able to build a bridge with the people in the audience and make them feel involved, engaged, and that the show is about them. The best comedy shows are when you think that you are sitting with a buddy — that the comedian is talking directly to you. The secret to that show wasn't that it was bilingual — it was the bicultural component to it. It was a show about two solitudes that exist in Quebec and having them meet in one performance delivered in both languages.
[EDIT]: Congratulations on being asked to serve as a judge on La France a un incroyable talent! Is it difficult to break people's hearts?
SUGAR SAMMY: The show is so much fun, really. My role on the show is to be the strict one. Being a judge is about speaking logically with the contestants. I make jokes, give them a few jabs: it's not so hard. I have been judging the French for free over here anyway so I may as well get paid for it!
[EDIT]: How do you set your work aside and turn it off, or can you?
SUGAR SAMMY: I don't turn it off, and I rarely wish that I could! I think my best material comes when I don't even try. Things come to me actively and sometimes passively. Like other comics, I will take a mental note of possible material, write it down, and it will turn into a ”bit,” and all these bits turn into a show. When I was getting ready for this interview, I thought of something I could use in a performance. I told my girlfriend about it and asked her to write it down. She thought it was hilarious, so it will probably make it into a show at some point. She's a great sounding board.
[EDIT]: You are known for your improvisational skills. The sharpness looks so effortless.
SUGAR SAMMY: Let's just say that my ADD did not serve me well in school — I'm glad it's working for me now! I have put more than two decades into this. My experience has taught me how to massage the crowd, test their boundaries and get out of a situation or get the audience back on track if I feel it's going sideways.
[EDIT]: We are thrilled you are returning to Halifax and Moncton. What are you looking forward to most about your return to the East Coast?
SUGAR SAMMY: I'm so excited! I am really looking forward to returning to the Maritimes and performing for my audiences there. I have been touring extensively throughout massive, noisy cities in Europe and the U.S., so I am very excited for clean air, a slower pace, and hitting up some great seafood restaurants.
[EDIT]: Finally, what is the makeup of a perfect night for you? You make people laugh as you talk about touchy subjects that can rub people the wrong way. Is there a feeling of perfect balance in your comedy?
SUGAR SAMMY: For me, I have done what I set out to do when the audience gets a little uncomfortable and they walk out laughing. I like it when they feel danger lurking. I'm at my best when I'm on the edge of this danger and making people laugh at the same time. I had a couple come up to me at the end of a show once, and he said, “I loved your show, but my wife has a bone to pick with you!” And his wife said, “You made me mad for this, this and this reason!” And I was like, “But I made you laugh, right?” And she responded, “OK, fine. Yes, you did, and I absolutely loved it!”
Sugar Sammy will be on tour throughout Canada from September 6 to October 12 with performances at Halifax's Spatz Theatre on September 20 and at Moncton's Capitol Theatre on September 21.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here