The phenomenally successful comedian sits down with Lesley Chesterman in Paris to talk about conquering France, why he's glad he doesn't fit in anywhere, and his plans to make his next Quebec show even edgier.
“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.”
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.