“I like playing with fire, and then look for the exits.” — Sugar Sammy It’s a grey Thursday night in early May in Paris, a few weeks after the fire at Notre-Dame and the day after the Fête du travail protest by the Gilets Jaunes. I’m at the Alhambra, a 600-seat theatre in the happening 10th arrondissement, and the room is filling up fast with a young crowd. The pre-show background tunes blaring in this chic theatre sound similar to the set played by DJ YO-C at the Olympia before You’re Gonna Rire, the now-famous bilingual standup spectacle written and performed by Montreal’s own Samir Khullar, a.k.a. Sugar Sammy, the bi-continental star of tonight’s show. After a warm-up set by Montreal comedian Stéphane Poirier, the audience is pumped — not quite as pumped as a Montreal crowd, but revved up nonetheless. Since April 4, Sugar Sammy has been performing Thursdays to Saturdays at the Alhambra, with most Thursday shows being full, and all Friday and Saturday shows sold out. Surrounded by some 600 fans — most seemingly local — I am about to see Sugar Sammy for the fourth time. (Question: does one see a Sugar Sammy show or participate in a Sugar Sammy show?) Though the venue is not as large as the Olympia and the audience not as rambunctious, he oozes confidence as he saunters onto the stage. From the moment he yells out “Comment ça va, Paris?” he captivates with humour, charm and his particular seductive swagger throughout his 70-minute set. The broad smile, the spot-on accents, the joke-punctuating smirks, the hearty laugh, the all-round outrageousness — for those of us familiar with his act, it’s signature Sugar Sammy. And yet he’s somehow funnier in this setting, more comfortable than ever in the spotlight. No doubt, the comedian is riding a fresh wave across the Atlantic. For the Paris show, all written by himself, he mixes some of his familiar material with plenty of new bits ragging on French customs, life, hang-ups, government bureaucracy and more. Not all that different, actually, than his cutting comments regarding la belle province. Then there’s the improv, arguably his most masterful skill. Tonight, it kills. And the French, a little slow out of the gates, are soon eating it up. Roars of laughter, baby. Roars. “Génial!” said Parisian Maxime Moyère after the show. “I didn’t think he would be that funny, but he exceeded my expectations. He’s not exactly politically correct, but it works.” His seatmate Eric Daoud concurred: “It’s the first show I’ve seen like this. He has a great capacity to improvise, and I like the way he has this smooth transition between improvising and the rest of his show.” “He’s very comfortable on stage. Relaxed. You laugh just watching him,” added Moyère. “Things are a bit sad in Paris right now, and he makes us feel good. The crowd really laughed, and we could all use that.”
Sugar Sammy at the Alhambra in Paris, where he has been drawing full houses for two months. Audiences in France “are way more demanding,” he says. “But that’s good, because that made me a better writer.”
You’d have to be living under a rock to be a Montrealer and not have witnessed Sugar Sammy’s swift rise. After a breakout performance at Juste pour rire in 2009, he became Quebec’s poster boy for political incorrectness, mocking the two solitudes while also managing to bring them together. His bilingual one-man show You’re Gonna Rire filled theatres to capacity for 4 1/2 years. Combined with the French-only version of his show, En français SVP!, his performances counted a staggering 421 sold-out shows in Quebec. His final You’re Gonna Rire performance, at the Just for Laughs festival’s outdoor site in 2016, was witnessed by a record-breaking audience of more than 115,000. What’s the draw? A no-holds-barred take on Quebec politics, language issues, world affairs, ethnicity, relationships and more. While nationalist Quebec columnists protest his humour with headlines like “Sugar Sammy: mépris et arrogance,” fans can’t get enough. And more is on the way: he is deep into the script of his next Quebec show, slated for 2021. Meanwhile, fans like yours truly have kept track of the 43-year-old comedian, who since 2016 has been slowly conquering one of the world’s toughest audiences: les français de France. I’d say it’s mission accomplished. Ticket sales in France, Belgium and Switzerland have topped 60,000. He was named best comedian in the 2018 edition of Le Parisien magazine’s annual Les Étoiles du Parisien show. And he has been appearing as one of four judges on the popular TV show La France a un incroyable talent (a French spinoff of the America’s/Britain’s Got Talent series). In the past year he has also performed in Malaysia and Singapore, launched DVDs and downloads of You’re Gonna Rire and En français SVP!, recorded a live show for Comedy Central Asia and toured the U.S. The Alhambra residency ends this weekend, but he’ll be back in France for a fall tour, and his next round of Parisian shows is planned for March 2020, at the 1,500-seat Casino de Paris theatre. And on top of that, he recently announced a Canadian tour for this fall. I met Quebec’s bilingual badass for a drink after the Alhambra show and his usual meet-and-greet with fans. We discussed his time in Paris, his take on French audiences, the benefits of being an outsider and his plans to come back better — and bolder — than ever. Related
Montreal Gazette: How is Parisian life treating you? Sugar Sammy: Good. I felt like a Parisian for the first time when someone asked me for directions and I gave them knowing exactly what I was talking about. That started happening last year. Just that: what métro to take, and I knew. MG: So could a permanent move be in the cards? SS: No, the taxes here are too high. (Laughs) MG: With the larger and — let’s be honest here — more lucrative American market, why France? SS: I thought, “Let me try France. If it doesn’t work out, I can go back to Quebec. I can push as far as I want, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter.” MG: So the French tryout was about testing limits? SS: My best work is when I write without giving a f—, so I never want to have too much invested in one market. When I did my Quebec show, my career was going well everywhere else, so I wrote in a way that if it didn’t go well in Quebec, it didn’t matter, because all of my eggs weren’t in one basket. And I did the same thing when I came here: “Let me try France and if it doesn’t work, I’ll go somewhere else.” And now I feel that with this success in France, I can go back home and be even ballsier because no matter what, I have these other markets. So I’ll go back and push as far as I want, and if it doesn’t work out, well, it doesn’t matter. MG: On tour, do you have to be a quick study to capture the local angle? SS: Depends on how much time I have. I try to immerse myself. Live like a local. Because once it’s a caricature, that’s when people get insulted. You have to know them precisely. It’s better to say nothing, because if you don’t get it right, then the experts who have lived there all their lives will know you’re wrong. It’s like going to a dentist convention and telling them you know about gingivitis, and they’re like, “No, you don’t,” because you read it on the back of a tube of toothpaste.
Sugar Sammy says he has been writing for his next Quebec show while working in France. “That space that I took over in Quebec culture? Nobody has occupied it since I left.”
MG: Do Parisians make for rich material? SS: I immerse myself in the culture, not the language. I’ve learned very quickly here that you don’t talk about money. They like talking about status, though, and education. Once I’m immersed, I don’t think about language anymore. I see this adapting to so many cultures as uniquely Canadian. MG: Any jokes fall flat here? SS: No, I test everything. It’s all trial and error, and it has evolved since the beginning. I think I’m more of a writer than anything else. And I love writing. I kind of live for it. I never get bored, because I’m always looking for the new instead of being on autopilot. And the improv keeps it fresh for me. In this market, I’m developing material, perfecting material and protecting it from comedy thieves. It takes months to develop five good minutes. MG: How do the audiences differ? SS: In many ways. There’s good and there’s bad. The bad is that they are way more demanding. But that’s good, because that made me a better writer. I had to bring my “A” game every night — I had to write “A” jokes, and all my “B” jokes had to be thrown out of the show. Corporate shows are easier than shows here in France, and corporate shows are known to be tough. It was difficult, but because I was able to capture them in the end, it made me a better comedian overall. I told someone it’s sort of like playing soccer with a 40-pound weight — when you go back to Canada you throw away the weight and it’s so easy. MG: And the other good parts? SS: The good is they are less sensitive. They are willing to take way more. They want it. They want you to abuse them and they like it. They don’t want you to pander. They want the truth — they want you to talk about what everyone talks about behind closed doors, whereas the Québécois audience is only willing to let you push so far. As a writer, it’s so enriching to write without filtering yourself. There are no taboos. MG: What’s the reaction to the improv? SS: The French don’t like being singled out, whereas Quebecers love talking, love participating. Americans, too. The French are reserved, which made me a better improviser here. Here, I have to work harder. MG: How is this show different from your previous ones? SS: It’s way edgier than my Québécois show, and I got in a lot of trouble for that show. There was a lot of controversy. If they were mad about that, wait until the next show. I’m writing it with the mindset I adopted here, not the filters I was writing with four years ago. For my next show in Quebec, I want to innovate, bring something new. My next shows, no filter. MG: Sounds intense. SS: Yes, I’m going to talk about Bill 21, the CAQ. I’m going to talk about how there were only white nominees in the Gala Artis. That first Quebec show was a warm-up for what’s coming. I’ve had the opportunity to practise my writing here a lot. I’m telling my team to get ready for it. MG: You’re working on it while you’re in Paris? SS: I’m writing here, but I’m testing it every time I come back to Montreal, where I do these secret appearances and shows — about 15 so far, with about 100 people each night. The response has been insane. People have been waiting for this. That space that I took over in Quebec culture? Nobody has occupied it since I left. And it’s fun, because I feel like there aren’t that many people who can pull that off.
Sugar Sammy finished the run of his spectacularly successful bilingual show You’re Gonna Rire with an outdoor blowout in front of 115,000 fans in 2016. “I got in a lot of trouble,” he says of You’re Gonna Rire. “There was a lot of controversy. If they were mad about that, wait until the next show.”
Vincenzo D’Alto /
MG: What are they afraid of? SS: Well, if they do it, they might not get invited to galas, they won’t be friends with everyone, they won’t be part of the clique. As a comedian, it’s more fun for me to be the outsider. And I’m like that everywhere. I’m the outsider here … when I go to England … when I tour the U.S. … In the rest of Canada, I’m the guy from Quebec and in Quebec, I’m the Canadien anglo. So I fit in nowhere. It’s a lonely place. I’m only friends with a small minority of comedians in Quebec. But I like that better. I feel like I won’t get filtered internally. People won’t ask me, “Why are you saying that on stage? That’s anti-Québécois.” MG: So it’s good being the outsider? SS: As a comedian, it’s the only place you want to be — on the outside looking in. It’s kind of our job. And now, being here, it gives me more of an objective perspective of what’s going on in Quebec. Every time I come home, I see it with fresh eyes and come away with fresh material. MG: Do you care about the pushback? The nationalist columnists in Quebec calling you a francophobe? Are any topics off limits? SS: I don’t. I want to push boundaries so much. Nothing is off limits. I’ve developed an appetite for going that far. MG: Do many Quebecers come to the French show? SS: The first wave of audience was Quebecers — about 20 per cent of the crowd at the first theatre I performed at, Le Point Virgule. But you don’t want to depend on the expats, because they run out. MG: What about your parents? SS: No, they don’t leave their perimeter. They have a perimeter in Montreal, which is: “This is us — we don’t pass Queen Mary, Côte-des-Neiges, Côte-St-Luc.” They’re my biggest fans, but they’re not coming to Paris. MG: Has the French TV show been a boon? SS: The viewership of La France a un incroyable talent is between 3.5 and 4.5 million viewers a week, so it has been filling up rooms. With that show, my notoriety went through the roof. But because of that show, I see families come in. People bring their kids and I say, “It’s not for them.” MG: What else is next? SS: I’d like to get to New York and London, too. New York has the best comedy audiences and they know their stuff, because there’s just so much comedy there. And the English love it when you take the piss. But even if I’m hardly ever there, Montreal is still my home. AT A GLANCE Sugar Sammy’s residency at Paris’s Alhambra theatre ends on Saturday, June 1. His Canadian tour includes 10 cities and runs from Sept. 6 to Oct. 12. For more information, including how to sign up for the chance to attend secret shows, see sugarsammy.com.