Sugar Sammy's back with a vengeance. Francos, anglos, allos — take cover

par Bill Brownstein

His new show, You’re Gonna Rire 2, is already the hottest ticket in town, and he’s just getting started.

He seems so chill surveying the city atop Mount Royal. He loves the view, all the more so since one can’t really discern detour signs, orange cones or construction chaos from this vantage point. 

So does Sugar Sammy in mellow mode suggest his new show, You’re Gonna Rire 2, will be a softer, gentler version of the first? 

Yeah, right! 

 “I’m just looking at the city as I get ready to invade it,” Sugar Sammy chimes, that ever-mischievous twinkle in his eyes.  

While again bringing the two solitudes together with much mirth on one level, Sugar Sammy will get sparks flying once more in the new show as he takes off the gloves to mimic anglos and francos equally mercilessly, as well as allos and members of all other linguistic groups who show up.

Equal opportunity insulting: That and an ever-endearing smile is how Sugar Sammy gets away with it. And that’s why he is among the most successful and popular wits ever to have surfaced from these sometimes so-sensitive parts. 

But this time Sugar Sammy will be carrying out his comedy invasion past city borders into perhaps less safe 450 territory and well beyond. The bilingual sequel, which was officially launched May 5 at Centre Pierre-Péladeau, will be hitting such franco enclaves as Quebec City, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières, Magog and Sherbrooke. Then the tour goes on to Moncton, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. 

Already, more than 75,000 tickets have been sold for the Quebec tour, which will now run until the end of November. It is already the hottest ticket in this town, with all 40 shows slated for Montreal sold out until the end of September and with at least a dozen more to come in October and November. Tickets for the shows in the rest of the country have yet to go on sale.

It’s been seven years since Sugar Sammy wrapped his groundbreaking first You’re Gonna Rire, in which he sold out 421 performances — which translated to 372,000 tickets. It became the bestselling debut one-man show in Quebec history. His last show on that run was gratis, an outdoor concert at the 2016 Just for Laughs fest in front of an estimated 115,000 people. 

If he’s feeling any pressure about living up to the last one, he’s not showing it. 

Apart from generating more convulsions from patrons, he has another mission. 

“Comedy has really been held hostage for the last 10 years,” a less mellow Sammy says, as our one-on-one interview moves from the mountain to one of his favourite city restos, the Tavern on the Square. “I see no point in comedians playing it safe. Audiences don’t want it, either. They just want to laugh. The key is to offend all equally. What are they going to do? Cancel me? Tell me I can’t do any soy-milk commercials or sitcoms here? Go ahead, cancel me.” 

The point is that although he loves to perform on home turf, he’s not limited to this market alone. In his 27 years in the chuckles trade, Sugar Sammy, 47, has performed over 2,000 shows in 32 countries in English and French as well as in Hindi and Punjabi. He’s also been making inroads in the U.S.  

Plus, he’s been spending considerable time over the last several years in France, where he’s taken his franco standup schtick, to the delight of critics and patrons whom he also relishes cutting to shreds. While he has won three Olivier awards in Quebec, including Comedian of the Year, he also nabbed the French daily newspaper Le Parisien’s Comedian of the Year award. As well, he has appeared in five seasons of the French version of America’s Got Talent as a celebrity judge.

“There are a lot of the same tensions in France as in Quebec, and there are a lot of similarities in the ways they use to weaponize them, be it racial tensions in France or language tensions here,” he points out.  

It’s been quite the wild ride for Sugar Sammy — né Samir Khullar — who has always labelled himself as a “child of Bill 101.” He grew up in Côte-des-Neiges and speaks flawless French as a result of his franco elementary and high school education. He credits his parents, sister and brother for giving him the gift to kibbitz in four languages. “Five, if you add Québécois French,” he cracks. 

“I’ve been surrounded by four great comedians my whole life. Seriously, they’re all funnier than me, except I’m the only one crazy enough to do it on stage.”

He also credits his girlfriend, Nastassia Markiewicz, of nearly 10 years for keeping him focused and funny: “She’s a nice Polish girl from Toronto. … OK, no one’s perfect.”

What? You expected a Valentine uttering? 

Sugar Sammy has always related well to that classic Groucho Marx line: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

“The point is that I’m an outsider wherever I go, and I like it that way,” he says, between nibbles on his halibut. “In Quebec, I’m the anglo Canadian outsider. In Canada, I’m seen as the Quebec outsider. In France, I’m seen as the Canadian outsider who came to roast them. In the entertainment industry, I’m always the outsider. Yet that all serves me really well for comedy. I feel the key to my success is having to adapt every minute of my life.” 

No surprise that one of Sugar Sammy’s favourite comics is Mike Ward, who also delivers stellar performances in both official languages and who never plays it safe, either.

“I feel the best comedians are the ones — like Mike, a legend to me — who look at the world from the margins, who are not in it just for the mass acceptance, to get on the right shows, to be in the cool gang. And I don’t want that kind of audience who wants that. I want an audience that wants to be taken on an unconventional ride, an audience that doesn’t want me to be careful.” 

He loves the fact that in some circles staging a bilingual show is perceived as a sign of provocation. 

“We’ve done test shows in Quebec City and Trois-Rivières, and the franco audiences have taken to them as much as they do in Montreal. But that reflects today’s reality where a lot of people around Quebec are bilingual. That’s not a crime. English is the language of business around the world. That said, I also feel that anglos in Montreal have to make much more of an effort to learn French. 

“Actually, I feel the real linguistic minorities in this country are the francophones in anglophone provinces. That’s why it’s going to be so much fun doing those shows outside Quebec.” 

On the subject of business, Sugar Sammy is in another class as well. He is among the most savvy of artists on the entrepreneurial front, producing his shows, including the booking of theatres and covering the costs therein — and thus increasing his financial take considerably.   

And speaking of theatres, nice poetic touch on Sugar Sammy’s part in selecting Centre Pierre-Péladeau as the home for his Montreal shows. 

“That was a conscious decision,” he says, his face beaming. “I love the theatre and its location, but I thought to myself how ironic that would be. A nice tongue-in-cheek nod, though some may see that as almost desecrating the cathedral.”

Pierre Karl Péladeau “has yet to reach out to me for a ticket, but his people keep sending that Vidéotron bill every month.”

Since Sugar Sammy last did the first You’re Gonna Rire, there have been significant changes on the political and cultural landscape here. New provincial and municipal governments and new laws, Bills 21 and 96. All will provide great comic fodder, but as a child of immigrants, it also saddens him on a level.

“Great comedy doesn’t usually come out of great times. But there’s no systemic racism here, right?” Pause. “I leave you guys alone here for seven years and look what happens. 

“On the other hand, I’ll always be appreciative of Quebec for giving me the opportunity to pursue comedy. Where else could an outlier like me succeed?”