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Exclusive: Sugar Sammy Talks Stand-Up, Touring Worldwide, And PC Culture
by Jon Barr
2017-05-15

Sugar Sammy is a Canadian comedian of Indian descent. He has sold out many shows in multiple countries, including two recent sold-out shows in France. Sugar Sammy talks to The Knockturnal about his experience touring internationally, how his style has evolved, and the role of political correctness in comedy.

THE KNOCKTURNAL: So you just got off doing a tour in France, how was that?

SUGAR SAMMY: It was great. I was doing a residency in Paris, and I toured the rest of the country a little bit, so it was good, it really went quick, it moved at a very quick speed. I started in September last year and we started in a 100-seat theater, and then it moved up to 350 seats, and now in the fall, I'm going back and starting in November 9th, we're going to a 700 seater — that's four times a week. Yeah, we did four times a week for the 115, then again for the 350 seaters, and now for the 700 seats. So it's good, it moved at a pretty outrageous speed for someone new, you know? So it was a pretty cool experience, it was fun traveling the rest of the country as well as getting to know the rest of the provinces out there, because every province is different, every city is different, and you know that with America too, New York doesn't look anything like Houston, TX, doesn't look anything like Seattle — every culture is different in every state, so you get that feeling everywhere you go, that every place has its own thing. It was a lot of fun. It was a great cultural experience, and it was great getting to know a different culture. And getting to know it, not on the outside, with the preconceived notions that we have of the French, but really getting to know them precisely. It's always fun.

How long have you been doing comedy, and specifically, how long have you been touring internationally?

Sammy: I've been doing comedy for twenty two years now. The first time it was tough, the first time is like, always tough, so just trying to get out of the open mic circuit. That's probably the toughest thing, is breaking out. Once I broke that, I started touring Canada pretty quick in 2004, 05, and 06. Then in 2006 I really started touring internationally. I started in England, then out of England I started getting these gigs all over the world, because England is a pretty big gateway to the rest of the world. Once you have an agent in England, and people see you in England, they're like, “oh, he would do well on this tour in Asia,” or in South Africa, or in the Middle East, and I'd go out and do all these gigs in England, then I started touring everywhere else. Probably 2006 was that big break, where I started going everywhere else. I had a special in Canada, and it aired in Canada — we put it on the Internet, and it just flew. So I started doing the Middle East, I started doing Australia, New Zealand. I started doing Asia, I did India a couple times. Yeah, so internationally I think since 2006, and now I did 29 countries. Or I did my 29th this year in Belgium, for the first time.

Congrats! Specifically to that, you were the first comedian chosen to do Comedy Central in India and tour around there. What was that experience like, and to have that honor?

Sammy: That was great! I mean, Comedy Central opened its Indian branch, I think, a couple years ago. They aired my special — they bought it from Canada, I had a special on HBO Canada, and Comedy Central I think bought the rights to it, and they aired it there, and it just took off. Then, there were requests coming in left and right for me to go down, and that was the first tour they did to promote their channel out there. It was Comedy Central, India Presents Sugar Sammy, and I toured India, and it was fun. It was good to go there and talk about the difference between the India that my parents left that they keep selling me and talking to me about and the India of today, the real India, and I think that the comedy happened in that cultural space, the difference, that clash between the two realities. My parents' reality, that utopia they have in their head and then the real India, so it was fun, it was great to do it. I think every time I go to a new place I learn something different, and I think it just fills up my comedy toolbox; you get to know more and more things and you're able to adapt to more cultures the more you go out there and perform in different countries, so it's been a blessing.

Have you noticed at all if your comedy changes depending on where you're performing, or does it mostly stay the same?

Sammy: I would say the style stays the same. The content evolves and changes and adapts depending on where I'm going. When I was in France, I still did standup, but I did standup where I wrote my material in a very unfiltered fashion. I didn't mind ruffling any feathers, but I wrote about them a lot. I had material that was adaptable, but I wanted to write more targeted material that spoke to them culturally. I stayed there for an year and did a lot of these one-nighters and open mics to really test out all this material I was writing everyday about them. It was my point of view from an outsider's point of view about them, and I knew I had to be specific and precise to have it come across. I couldn't just give them generalizations that everybody knows about the French and then hope that it would connect somehow. They probably be more insulted than anything else. I really wanted to experience France as a resident, so I stayed there for an year and I lived among the french and listened to them and paid attention to them, asked questions. Anyway, it's a lot of, almost, anthropological work when you go into a new culture and you want to write about them. You got to ask questions and you got to gather as much information as possible and then convey it on stage in a funny way. You convey facts, but you give your own specific point of view in that comedic fashion. That what makes, I think, a comedian successful if they go into a new arena, a new culture.

You're also a multilingual comedian. Do you notice any changes in your comedy depending on what language you're speaking? Does that affect it at all?

Sammy: It affects it in a technical sense, it won't affect it in terms of what the material is, but in a technical sense, it will. Because sometimes, like let's say the French language, has more, it takes more words to get to a certain place, like if you construct a joke in English and then translate it in French, sometimes it'll be a longer joke in French, it takes longer to get to the punch line, so you know you've got to figure out a faster way to get there or just get rid of the joke completely because it won't have as much of an impact. So, there are times where that technicality comes into play. Also phonetics too; sometimes a joke will be a good joke in both languages, but it won't be as good in one because phonetically it doesn't sound, it doesn't have the same components that it does to the ear, and doesn't resonate the same way, so you'll have to adjust. So that's a big cultural — you've got to do a lot of homework there, to make sure that your stuff works, and that's no matter where you go. Same thing in Indian Punjabi. Definitely the most difference between English and French. That's why I thought for myself in France I knew the right stuff that was specific to them, I think that's what made it work.

Have you noticed there being any specific region or specific country where it was harder to win the crowd over to get laughs or has it all been great everywhere?

Sammy: It depends. The thing is, you don't want to generalize sometimes you just think, because some places I've been to I've only done one show. I've been to Northern Ireland, and that was the toughest show I've ever had in my life. First of all I went there, and there were no seats. The audience had no seats and they were all standing, and they all had beers in their hand, and they were all smashed. It felt like it became a fight; they started heckling as soon as I got onstage, and it was long, man. I had to do 45 minutes, and I remember going up there and having people shout in the middle of premises, so you couldn't finish your jokes. I got off-stage, and I was like, “Holy s***, that was tough,” and the manager goes, “That's one of the best gigs we've ever had!” Because he's used to  — he's like, “You finished! At least you finished! A lot of these comedians don't even finish.” I mean, that might have been specific to that setting as well, that club, so I'm not going to Northern Ireland again just because of that gig, but that's my memory of Northern Ireland. Otherwise I've had a pretty good time going everywhere. If I miss one gig, one gig goes a little bit awry, I'll probably make up for it the next time and figure out what the adjustments are. I'm pretty quick to do that, I think. So far, as long as I have a good audience, I'm happy to be performing wherever.

You're doing your first US tour in 6 years. It is at all exciting or daunting to be returning after that much time?

Sammy: I think it's exciting, a little bit nerve wrecking for sure. It's a combination of both. It's exciting because I miss America, I miss coming to the States. I miss — this is the birthplace of standup, so you want to perform here. I'm nervous because I feel like America has changed in the last six years, and I'm worrying if comedy tastes have changed as well, and if I've evolved properly in the last six years to compete with what's going on in the comedic cultural landscape here. So I got to make sure I'm up to par with everybody who's out there, it's really the people — you see all these comedy fans people are used to — making sure I'm still relevant. You hope you're still relevant or you're like, “S***, did I get old,” you know? “Am I going to sound like the old uncle onstage, telling jokes that used to be funny six years ago?” Or “has my comedy evolved?” It's good, it's good to have that mindset. I haven't done my first gig yet, it'll be this weekend, but it's good to have that mindset, because it keeps you sharp, I think. You can't always be too overconfident.

One specific buzzword that gets thrown around a lot with comedy, here in the States specifically, is political correctness. How much do you think about that preparing for your set, or is it something you don't bother thinking about?

Sammy: I haven't thought about it extensively. I've noticed that in America a little bit — the P.C. Police is becoming aggressive, like people are watching comedy in a very active way, but in a way where they're looking for what's offensive, rather than just listening to it, watching it as a fan; as a spectator, as an audience member. They're not actively watching stuff or listening to interviews on TV or on the radio in clubs looking for the offensive part. “What can I be offended by,” and “how can I rally more people in social media to gather momentum for this cause now that this comedian has offended me a little bit. I think that's a little bit worrisome — at the same time, I think some of my favorite comedians, historically, have been comedians who offended a lot of people, who got into trouble. So I also think it could be an opportunity *laughs* to be like, yeah this is what I do, if you don't like it, just turn the channel. For me, I don't write in a filtered way, ever. Then onstage I let the jokes decide themselves. It's the crowd that decides for me if it's funny. If the crowd laughs I keep the bit, and if the audience doesn't, I get rid of it. You want to make sure the people have a great show, and I think you kind of listen to the crowd when you test out your stuff. But I'm not particularly worried about it. Like i said, my favorite guys have always been the guys and the girls who pushed a little bit. It's just funny, I think now I'm bits about the P.C. police as well. I think that's given me an opportunity to write about that, how far it's gotten, how crazy it's been where there are a few buzzwords that make everybody go *gasps* are we allowed to laugh at this. I don't know when it became like that, a big corporate gig. The comedy world became a big corporate gig. But we'll see, I haven't been to the States in a while. But everywhere else, I haven't had any trouble at all, it's been fine. In France, I pushed really far. Same thing when I did Canada, and I don't expect it to be any different here, but we'll see, because I feel like I've heard that it's been irregularly sensitive.

It goes back and forth. I think it was with Dave Chappelle's most recent special where there was one specific joke about transgendered people that specifically made people very agitated.

Sammy: Right. I was talking about this the other day, I was like, yeah, this transgender joke, and the people were like, “oh, we can't take transgender anymore,” and I'm like, what? Yeah, that's now offensive too. So, I have to keep up with these changes as well. I think they should invent an app for everything that's offensive, so we get up to date, we get alerts, so we know this word now, as of 1PM May 7th…

Just like CNN! “Breaking news!”

Sammy: “This word is no longer allowed in the cultural landscape!” So what is it, is transgender still okay? Or is it transsexual?

I do not know, I'm the wrong person to ask.

Sammy: I don't know either, so right there, you can't keep up to date with everything. Dave Chappelle, what, did he use the word “tranny” or something?

From what I understand, he was contrasting the transsexual experience with the black experience.

Sammy: I think sometimes, people don't even listen to the material. As soon as there's a buzzword that's spoken, they'll find a reason to get offended. You have to look at the context. You have to evaluate it, you have to give it time. You can't just start rallying people on social media in an impulsive way. There has to be all of that put into context, and a lot of it is intention. If you look at Chappelle, do you think that Chappelle had this intention of actively insulting the transgender community? My hunch is a no. My hunch is, he was writing material that was relevant to today and trying to make people laugh, and that's what happens with art. It's not a science; you've got to roll the dice. I think by having the comedy world write in such a filtered way, on the brakes, almost, I think is definitely going to hold comedians back a little bit, and comedy won't evolve. I think it'll evolve if Chappelle wrote a bit about that, and then someone else wrote a bit about how you can't say this, and then the comedy will correct itself.

Right.

Sammy: I think you'll have comedians — I think there's now probably, if there isn't one already, a transgender comedian who's going to say “nah you guys can't say this word or that word.” It'll even itself out, I think.