Sugar Sammy’s stand-up resume reads like a Rand McNally atlas. The 34-year-old comic arrives in Toronto for this week’s Just for Laughs festival on the heels of a gig in Saudi Arabia. Over the past few years he’s travelled constantly, performing in far-flung locales like Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ireland, Hong Kong, Thailand, the U.S. and India.
Sugar Sammy's comedic resume reads like a Rand McNally atlas - he's played everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Ireland to India to the U.S.
Thanks largely to his facility in four languages, Sammy – born Samir Khullar in Montreal’s ethnically diverse Côte-des-Neiges district – has crafted a career with massive market reach. He grew up speaking Punjabi with his family, and learned Hindi primarily from Bollywood films. English was the language he spoke with his friends and, despite his protestations, Sammy was sent to a French school. As a result, he learned how to connect with a wide range of audiences.
Chatting with him during a recent phone interview, it’s easy to see how he earned the nickname "Sugar Sammy" at McGill University – smooth and unfailingly polite, he doesn’t seem at all stressed out by his whirlwind schedule, or the inherent difficulties of tweaking material for assorted corners of the planet.
"I treat every market differently," he explains. "Different cultures have different reference points and sensibilities. For me, it always involves going to a country and figuring it out. Sitting there with the promoter or the kitchen staff or the concierge, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I’ll just say, ‘Look, I’m a foreigner, I just got here. What themes can I explore?’"
Sammy’s routines focus primarily on his dating life, observations about race and his family – his father’s ongoing struggle to understand the world wide web is rich comic fodder. Here’s a sample joke about English Canada: "There aren’t a lot of coloured people in Thunder Bay. You know you’re in a white town when the hotel cleaning staff is white."
In one of his early bits, Sammy lamented the lack of glamorous media archetypes for Indo-Canadians: "Every ethnicity’s got their role models on TV, right? Hispanic people got Antonio Banderas, who’s suave, debonaire. Chinese people have Jackie Chan, who can whip some ass… Black people got Denzel, who’s like the sex symbol. Who do we have, man? We got Apu from the goddamn Simpsons."
Sammy was influenced by black American stand-ups who also made race a big part of their acts: Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. "Eddie Murphy is probably my favourite of all time. I love how fresh and young and unafraid he was to tackle things. He just had a smoothness about him on stage. You wanted to be him. He was in control. I think he’s been a huge influence in terms of the way I deliver my material as well."
Although Sammy’s English-language material isn’t as controversial (or as laden with F-bombs) as Murphy’s, he takes a slightly more incendiary approach in French. He grew up in Montreal – and still lives with his parents on the rare occasions when he visits his home province – but initially focused on English gigs there. He’s only recently started to make a foray into Quebec’s French-speaking market. Last summer, Sammy caused a media ruckus at a French-language Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs gala in Montreal. The source of the controversy was this joke: "There are two kinds of Quebecers: Those who are educated, cultivated and well-raised – and those who voted Yes."
"It was very good," he recalls of his referendum gag. "It was taking on the separatists. And no one’s done it to their faces. Every other Anglo’s done it the other way around, going to an English audience and talking about Quebec separation. A lot of Montreal comics have done that. But to go in front of [a largely] separatist audience and say that was another challenge. And that’s what made news.
"It was just kind of me going in and shaking things up and being funny. It’s like poking fun at your friends." He delivered the infamous line with a smile, an indication that he wasn’t going for the jugular.
The risk paid off. The federalist Sammy recently did some shtick with Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois on Le Gala Les Olivier, an award show for Quebec comedians. Clearly, his French-language profile has risen.
"In English Canada, I talk about my family, my personal stuff. Whereas in Quebec, the first thing you’ve got to talk about is, ‘Well, what’s my place in this society? What comes to mind right away when I’m talking to these people?’ It has to go that way. If it doesn’t, then I feel like I’m cheating myself, and I’m not saying what I want to say."
Make no mistake, this business-savvy guy has a plan. Like most comedians who attain a certain level of success, Sammy is hoping to make the transition to TV and film work. And, of course, the globetrotting will continue.
For someone who’s done so well in the often brutal world of stand-up, Sammy seems exceptionally well-adjusted. His desire to tell jokes doesn’t appear to come from the dark recesses of a troubled soul: "I’m not looking for anything else when I’m out there. I love making people laugh – that’s the number one thing, that’s my passion."
His parents had no problem with his career choice, and are thrilled with his success. Now if only his father could figure out the internet. "He doesn’t know how it works," says Sammy. "I was looking at YouTube, just checking out some of my clips and the comments. He came in and saw me and said, ‘Oh wow, they’re playing you on the internet again? They’re playing you a lot!’"
Sugar Sammy performs at the Toronto Just for Laughs festival on July 9 and 10.
Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBC News.