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A dose of Sugar Sammy to tide us over: we're gonna rire encore
by BILL BROWNSTEIN
2018-04-28

Now a smash hit in France, the comedian returns to Montreal to celebrate his triumphs with four shows and a pair of DVD/download releases.

Sugar Sammy is back from a self-imposed exile to Paris. But only for a short period, to do four bilingual shows — three of which are already sold out — at his favourite haunt, the Olympia, and to launch DVDs and digital downloads of his shows You’re Gonna Rire and En français svp!, culled from sold-out performances at the same theatre.

Since 2016, Sammy has been spending six months a year in Paris, touring and returning to Montreal the rest of the year. He isn’t on an eating binge or sharpening up on Molière in Paris: he’s been performing there constantly, as well as in the rest of France, Belgium and Switzerland, wowing crowds and critics.

 “Le new king of comedy,” Quotidien marvelled.

“The funniest man in France is Québécois,” GQ France gushed.

“How ironic is that? It took for me to go to France to finally get recognized as Québécois,” says Sammy, 42, holding court in Westmount’s Tavern on the Square. “When I did my show here, people said I was corrupting the French language. So I felt if I was really going to do that properly, I might as well go to the source.

“Really, it’s been great. The French do appreciate that outsider’s point of view. And I don’t hold back. It’s an honest and severe critique of France. I take plenty of shots, too. I recall a line from George Carlin where he said: ‘A comedian’s duty is to find where the line is and to cross it deliberately.’ ”

No mincing of words, either. Sammy’s first line when he hits the stage in France: “I love France. You guys are my favourite Arab country.”

“And right away, with that one joke, they get the spirit of the act,” he says.

Sammy is even more brutal when he lets loose in the French-speaking parts of Belgium and Switzerland.

“I tell them they’re like the French, but without the charisma. I say that they’re like the Walking Dead version of the French. They’re there, but they’re not really there.”

But as is the case in Quebec, Sammy leaves ’em laughing with his velvet-hammer approach to humour. He may hit hard in exposing the foibles of the place where he’s performing, but he does it with a smile.

It’s not by accident that Sammy took this province by storm with his bilingual You’re Gonna Rire show and its franco counterpart, En français svp! He gave 421 performances of his shows — including 172 of the bilingual spectacle — over 4 1/2 years, from 2012 to 2016, with a staggering box-office gross of $17.4 million.

What was supposed to be a one-week experiment mushroomed into an event no one in Quebec would have dreamed possible.

Sammy didn’t flinch when he was originally told that the bilingual comedy show would never fly in this province.

“Everybody thought it was just nuts to get anglophones and francophones in the same place at the same time to laugh at the same jokes. But I always believed it would work,” he reflects. “I always figured that we should celebrate our differences, shouldn’t we?”

The key to Sammy’s success seems simple enough: like so many other Montrealers, he sees the world through a multicultural lens. A child of immigrants from India, he attended French primary and secondary school here, and his mastery of the language is not questioned. He is equally comfortable performing in French and in English, not to mention Hindi and Punjabi. His outspoken views may rile some in nationalist circles, but have amused far more people. Funny still trumps divisive politics in this province.

Sammy wrapped up his You’re Gonna Rire run nearly two years ago with a free outdoor performance during Just for Laughs. That show drew a crowd of over 115,000.

Sammy also hosted two JFL galas last summer, as well as the JFL Comedy Tour in 12 Canadian cities (but not Montreal) last fall.

“Those You’re Gonna Rire and En français svp! shows were, without doubt, the highlight of my career. That’s why for me it was important to immortalize those shows by doing the DVD/download specials.

“A lot of people wanted to keep on seeing those shows, but I can’t just keep on doing the same show forever. There were also demands to appear all over the province for me to do the show, but I just couldn’t hit everywhere. Problem is solved now: people can own the shows on DVD or download, and I can retire the shows and focus on fresh ideas,” says the smiling Sammy, ever the entrepreneurial wit.

After his upcoming performances at the Olympia, Sammy doesn’t plan on returning here to perform in an official capacity until 2020. He has a new show up his sleeve for these parts, on which he has begun working.

“It will push even further and be gutsier than before,” he pledges. “That’s one of the reasons I went to France. It was good to distance myself and see Quebec from the outside. And you know what? It’s even funnier than ever to me now.”

Sammy concedes that he misses locking horns with audiences here over cultural and political differences.

“I really do miss that. It’s such a high. But I’ll be doing some secret shows in Montreal over the next couple of years to test out new material.

“Of course, there’s never a shortage of material in this province. But it still takes me about a year to write and prepare a new show.”

While Sammy is most known for his bilingual and franco shows here, he has also performed 1,600 shows in 31 countries in English, French, Hindi and Punjabi.

In 2014, Sammy and franco comic/director Simon-Olivier Fecteau launched their hit TV show Ces gars-là, which wrapped after its third season. 

“Simon is busy doing (Radio-Canada’s year-ending) Bye Bye shows, and I’m busy making euros,” Sammy cracks. “We both have our priorities.”

Sammy has always been something of a groundbreaker here. In 2013, he became the first non-francophone comedian to win the Olivier de l’année at Quebec’s Olivier awards for humour, and he repeated in the same category a year later. Plus, his Improv Moments bits have recorded more than 23 million online views.

So, what other comedy mountains are there to scale?

“I just want to keep building my career internationally,” he says. “Having worked so much in Quebec and France, it has opened up my eyes and my appetite as a comedian and a writer to go on to other markets. And to take shots as I go.”

Sammy is somewhat of a fish swimming upstream. At a time when so many franco wits — like Gad Elmaleh — are trying to make it on the anglo front, he is intent on further exploring diverse territories.

“I’ve never done anything in the same fashion as everyone else. I’ve always let the art dictate the business. I’ve never said: ‘Let’s go make money in America, and write a TV sitcom for that market.’

“No, for me, it’s always been about the material. When I went to France, I couldn’t believe all the material there was. It was a gold mine for me, and I couldn’t ignore it.”

Regardless, everywhere Sammy goes in Montreal, he is asked why he left Quebec for France.

“I tell them that the Liberals were in power provincially and federally, that I did my job. It was very liberating,” he jokes. “But I still get comments that I’m on the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ payroll to push the federalist agenda. ‘The Conservatives?’ I will shoot back. ‘Hey, what I do is comedy — not magic!’ ”

Some would argue that Sugar Sammy also possesses quite the magical touch.

AT A GLANCE

Sugar Sammy performs Tuesday May 1, Thursday May 3, Friday May 4 and Monday May 7 at 8 p.m. at the Olympia, 1004 Ste-Catherine St. E. At publication time, tickets only remained for the May 7 show, priced from $43 to $63, available via Admission (admission.com, 855-790-1245).

You’re Gonna Rire and En français svp! will be released separately on DVD and for download on Tuesday, May 1. The DVDs cost $18.99 each and will be sold exclusively at amazon.ca. The digital versions cost $14.99 each and will be available on iTunes and Google Play. For more information, see sugarsammy.com.

Sugar Sammy picks his five top career highlights

1. The launch of the You’re Gonna Rire and En français svp! shows.

2. “The grand finale of You’re Gonna Rire at the outdoor Just for Laughs concert that drew over 115,000 spectators at the Quartier des spectacles.”

3. “My first HBO special, Live in Concert in Montreal, that came out in 2010 at the end of my Canadian tour.”

4. “Hitting France and having such a blast doing it.”

5. Ces gars-là.